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Poetry of the Hudson

An Introduction to the Exhibit

By Ronald D. Patkus, Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections

Storm King Mountain from Cold Spring from: Clift, William. A Hudson Landscape. Prose by Paul Kane. Santa Fe: William Clift Editions, [1993]

From Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Mountains emerges the waterway that we know as the Hudson River. Fed by dozens of tributaries along the way, the river runs through the beautiful Hudson Valley southward to the Atlantic. Due to the influence of the ocean, the river for much of its length is actually a tidal estuary where salt water and fresh water flow together. The movement of tides in the river impressed Native Americans, who referred to this body of water as “the river that runs two ways.”

In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano became the first European to enter upper New York Bay. But in the fall of 1609 - 400 years ago - Henry Hudson and a crew of English and Dutch sailors became the first Europeans to explore the river more fully to the north. Eventually the river took on the name of the English captain, who had sailed for the Dutch East India Company. In later centuries, as we know, the river would play an important role in the development of the economy and collective imagination of the United States. In 2009, a number of educational and cultural institutions in the Hudson River Valley will observe the quadricentennial of Hudson’s voyage with various events and activities.

Vassar College has planned a number of events to mark this historic occasion. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center hosts “Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New York Historical Society” from August through November. It explores the history of drawing and watercolor in New York State, with special reference to the Hudson River Valley. From September until December, a complementary exhibit is on view in the Vassar College Library, titled “Poetry of the Hudson.” Our exhibit highlights examples of verse inspired by the river between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries.

Both the Main Library and the Archives and Special Collections Library have extensive literary collections, and the exhibit draws on poetry holdings from both areas. In fact, all of the Vassar College libraries, including the Music and Art Libraries, maintain materials relating in some way to the Hudson River Valley and the river in particular. When combined with collections available from other institutions in the Hudson Valley, the river-related resources available to Vassar students and faculty are considerable. In recognition of their long relationship with the river, the writings of local Native American tribes are featured first in the “Poetry of the Hudson” exhibit. We then move on to examples of the poetry of key figures in American literary history, as well as a few lesser- known writers whose work was influenced by the river. Though not a poem, Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” is included because of its reference to the “lordly Hudson,” a poetic concept in itself, and one that has certainly influenced later poets. Reflecting a long history of river-related poetry, several of the poets included in the exhibit are contemporary writers who live and work in the Hudson Valley today. The exhibit concludes with examples of poetry written by students from the local area.

The array of volumes in this exhibit allows one to compare books produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with more recent publications. Visually they are quite different, each showing modes of book production that are common for their time. We see, for instance, handsomely bound and decorated titles from the early nineteenth century displayed beside paperbacks and books with dust jackets from the twentieth century. Despite variation in era and format, these pieces form a bridge across the years, making it clear that the Hudson River has been a source of inspiration for centuries. Even more than the physical items in the cases, however, these writers’ verses, and the images they evoke, are the real focus of the exhibit. We trust that poetry inspired by the Hudson will continue to be written, for us and for generations to come.