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The Bicycle Diaries

A reading of Poems

Richard Goodman

Shortly after September 11th, I began riding my bicycle down from my apartment on the Upper West Side to the World Trade Center disaster site–or as near as I could get to it. I rode down almost every day, in all weather, for about three months. When I came home, I wrote about what I saw.

Last night I rode my bicycle to Cooper Union to hear a poetry reading titled "In a Time of Crisis: A Reading of Poems." Some well-known poets would be reading. I arrived at around 7:15, and the line was already snaking from the entrance around to Third Avenue. It was a big turnout, and I began to have doubts that I'd get in all. The crowd was that great eclecticism that is artistic and intellectual New York. There were no policemen or firemen that I could tell. It wouldn’t be hard to pick them out even in civilian clothes, but this isn’t their kind of thing. There were two or three blacks among hundreds of people.

We moved slowly, and we finally got into Cooper Union itself. There we were told that the tickets were sold out and that only standing room was available. Then a young man came around with fliers saying that the event was completely sold out, not even standing room was available. These, he said, handing us fliers, were the poems that were going to be read.

"I know it's not even near the real thing," he said apologetically, "but at least it's something."

A lot of us didn't leave despite what he said. Maybe sixty of us lingered, just on the off chance. Or just because. No one was turning us away, and lo and behold I heard one of the ticket sellers say to a companion, "Well, don't talk to me when the fire marshals come." Then they made an announcement:

"Everybody will get into the reading! We will sell tickets to everyone! Just form a line and we will sell you tickets!" What luck! I handed over my $10 and went downstairs to the Great Hall, one of the most famous rooms in all of New York. Lincoln spoke here, among many others. It's a beautiful, low-slung room, with big fat white columns spaced throughout, and it slopes from rear to front. It’s sizeable, but not huge. It looks like a large college lecture room, only far more beautiful and serene and plush. The stage is fashioned of wood, with stairs leading up from each side. I mention these details, because just being in the room brought a peace to the mind and the heart.

We last ones in were luckier than we thought. The host was just finishing her introduction, and the first actual poet hadn't read yet. That was Billy Collins. What a great name, Billy Collins! It's a name fit more for a cowboy, or a folk singer, or even a baseball player. It's wonderful to know that a poet would choose to call himself that. Not just any poet, either, but our Poet Laureate. Or perhaps comprehending fully the bitingly competitive literary world, he did it to give himself an edge. He calmly walked up to the stage. He is a tall, balding man who looks to be around 50 years old. He looks robust and centered, a bit like Kevin Spacey, and as soon as he began talking I was glad I had come. Glad, because I was uncertain what real purpose this evening would serve. Would it serve to help just us? Or others? If so, how? We were such an elitist crowd.

Collins was dressed professorially (not poetically) in a coat and tie, but he looked tremendously at ease. I have to say I know nothing of his poetry, but now I feel I should. He began by saying that in a time like this people turn to poetry far more than ballet or painting, and he said the reasons would probably become evident at the end of the night's readings. He talked about Yeats, one of whose poems he would read first. He said that Yeats was one of the great writers about the barbarism of war and how that affects the individual. He said that Yeats had been asked to write a poem about World War I and had refused, and then he quoted from memory the poem Yeats had written, "On Being Asked to Write a War Poem." He said Yeats had written many poems about the Irish Civil War, and he quoted the famous lines from "Easter 1916,"–"a terrible beauty is born." Then he said something that made us realize the evening would not be entirely somber. He said that Sean O'Casey, "a sort of anti-Yeats, Catholic and working class," some years later took that line and wrote, "a terrible Borneo is born." Which, Collins pointed out, meant irony and sarcasm were still flourishing even in a time of war.

He read a poem by Yeats I had never heard of, "The Stare's Nest by My Window." He said 'stare" was an archaic word for starling, and that Yeats had used it "probably because there were more opportunities for rhyme than with starling." It was a short poem, a simple poem, about building a nest and about bees, which he likened to sweetness and productivity, and had a lyrical, lulling affect to it.

Then he brought Alastair Reid to the stage who read Pablo Neruda's "Callarse," "Keeping Quiet," in Spanish. Collins would read the English translation. Reid is an older man, and I had read some of his translations of Neruda's work before. I was glad Neruda would be here. I didn't want puzzles and tricks or prestigitations this evening. I wanted form, and grace, and heart, and passion, and Neruda and Yeats were that. Reid said that at the end of the poem Neruda calls for us to count to twelve. He told us when Neruda would do a reading, he would conclude with this poem. He would slowly begin to count to twelve himself, and, Reid said, "when he was finished, he was out of the building."

Reid read simply and well, with a Spanish accent–that is, with a voice of someone who has lived in Spain–which he has–or learned Spanish in Spain. The Spanish words sounded like the ebbing and flowing of water. That "r' in Spanish is like a cold stream, as in callarse, or mar. It comes from somewhere obscure, between the throat and the diaphragm. Collins read the translation, and the poem had that grace and simplicity all of Neruda's poetry has. A contentment spread through the audience. We were to be in the company of masters–though none were earlier than the 19th century, and most were from the 20th.

When a reader finished, he or she left the stage, and the next reader simply got out of his or her seat and walked to the stage with no introduction. Usually, when they got to the lectern, they spoke their own name. It was all very simple, and direct.

Eleven readers followed. I say readers, because they were not all poets. Some were novelists, or playwrights. But most were, in fact, poets. The order was alphabetical, which for some reason, I didn't figure out until about midway through the reading. Michael Cunningham–a novelist–was next, and he read–or mumbled, really–two beautiful poems, one by Emily Dickinson, "After Great Pain," and the second by Elizabeth Bishop, "The Armadillo." As James Merrill said of her, "There is no other." I know the poem practically by heart. The phrase a writer's writer, or a poet's poet may be overworked, but in this case, about Bishop, it's apt. A lifetime in one book, and what a book! The poem is set in Brazil where Bishop lived for so many years:

This is the time of year

when almost every night

the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.

Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint

still honored in these parts,

the paper chambers flush and fill with light

that comes and goes, like hearts.


Fire and burning and random destruction is at the poem's core, but Cunningham did not read well, and that was a disappointment.

Two poets followed who I had never heard of–Eve Ensler and Jorie Graham. I only learned later that Ensler had written The Vagina Monologues. Both poets gave instructions, really, on what they perceived to be important, which got to be a bit tedious. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful thing to be in the Great Hall. I looked around me and everyone was rapt, everyone was being ministered to by the warmth of that room and by the poems. Then another poet I hadn't heard of–Yusef Komunyakaa–read.

Then Stanley Kunitz, a remarkable man who gave a remarkable reading. I had seen part of a documentary about Kunitz on TV a few days earlier. I know nothing of his poetry. He is an old man, 96, but in the documentary that hardly mattered. He was enthralled with life, you could tell. He said at one point that when he was younger he would make it a point to look into the dictionary and pick five or ten words that he didn't know but which looked interesting to him. He would read about them, and about their etymologies. He would learn the words, and then he would go outside into the woods and shout the words at the top of his lungs. Phantasmagoria–let's say. PHANTASMAGORIA! he would shout. To the world.

And here he was.

Kunitz got out of his seat near the front, and he walked to the stage. He is somewhat stooped, uses a cane, and looks old–how could he not at 96!–but he walks with no hesitation. He climbed the stairs, walked briskly across the stage and stopped before the lectern. Have you ever walked across an empty stage to a lectern? Everything about it encourages you to stumble or fall on your face. Kunitz got there, and, no-nonsense, took out his glasses and began to read about Anna Akhmatova. His voice is somewhat high-pitched but has great strength. The words came out with pulsing conviction and they carried the weight of a lifetime's dedication to poetry. Oh, he was wonderful!

He spoke of Akhmatova's misery, and while I listened I was reminded that people have suffered far greater than I, or that I can ever imagine. Kunitz told us how during Stalin's regime the head of his secret police would arrest and kill people indiscriminately; that Akhmatova's own son had been arrested and detained for seventeen months. Hour after hour she waited in line in the freezing cold to get word of his fate. She was a famous poet, but no one was allowed to read her poetry, or even speak of her. Kunitz then read the chilling words–which, if I remember, he had translated–at the beginning of Akhmatova's poem, "Requiem":

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

"Can you describe this?"

And I said: "I can.

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

Kunitz ended with great spirit. His whole reading was from the depth of his heart. He was shouting his conviction to the trees in the forest, and that was us.

He was followed by Robert Pinsky who, with a droll look on his face, seemed to say, "What do you want me to do now? How can I follow that man?" He read a poem by Marianne Moore and an eerie poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson about a deserted house that left me, and I suspect others, rattled.

Then came Sapphire, a black poet very well known in New York and a very political poet. She read strongly. She was followed by Vijay Seshardri who read long sections from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." What a great choice, I thought. Walt Whitman. This wild, original, courageous American who roamed America and saw everything, including the horrors of war, and who changed the face of American poetry forever. He liberated us, if any American artist ever has. Whitman lived and worked in Brooklyn–he wrote for a newspaper there–and he would come to and from Manhattan by ferry; there was no Brooklyn Bridge then. If you know New York, you know that the view from Brooklyn of the World Trade Center burning and falling was one of the most dramatic and terrifying. There is little but water between Brooklyn and Manhattan and the view of the two buildings. The poem is a lot of things, but the lines Seshadri beat on the most were these lines:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundreds of years hence, others will see them.

That's what we all hope, anyway.

Then Anna Deavere Smith came to the stage, an entire theatrical troop in a single body. She has performed many one-woman shows in New York which consist of her playing up to fifteen roles, all herself, from politicians to bums. I'd been hearing of her talent for years, but I had never seen her. Note to myself: do. She is a strong-looking black woman; she was loose, too, and confident, and original. I could sense she would have her own way of giving tonight, like a good cook presenting a wonderful dish only she could make. She has a broad, open face and I could feel the energy she gave off even where I was, at the very back of the hall.

She read first Yeats' "The Second Coming," and I tell you it had me on the edge of my seat, so to speak, since I was standing. She brought new shocking powers to the lines. She had me see Yeats as a prophet, someone we should have listened to. With the deepest insight, with an astonishing sense of drama and articulation, she made "The Second Coming" sound like it was being revealed for the first time in public. This was true not just of the most celebrated lines, "The best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of passionate intensity," but equally for the lesser-known lines. In the end, Smith had me feeling as if Yeats had written "The Second Coming" just a month or so before the disaster. If only we'd listened.

"Now," Smith said, smiling "what I'm going to read next isn't a poem. And it's not a story. It's…," she said, looking at the paper she held as if what was written on it defied any possible literary category, "words. They're part of an interview I did with Cornell West a year ago. I had heard he was talking a lot about despair, and so I went to find him with my tape recorder, to ask him why he was talking so much about despair. And this is what he said." Pause. "This is it, word for word, exactly as he said it."

If you've never heard Cornell West, a black professor now at Princeton, speak, then you might imagine Smith was doing some kind of jive-ass, pseudo-Al Sharpton take off. Because that's what it sounded like. But I have heard West speak–he’s an extremely public professor–and I what I heard then was Cornell West, in the flesh, right before my eyes. Smith bent and raised her body, and she arched her voice and did an Alvin Ailey ballet of logic and truth that were West's words. "You hope because things don't look good out there," she–West–said. She concluded by softly speaking West's words, her head shaking in that black preacher's way: "But I'm a prisoner of hope." Pause. "Yes, I am. I will forever be a prisoner of hope."

And Susan Sontag had to follow that.

So there she was, the patriarch. With that famous shock of white hair, like a flame, amidst a thick sweep of black hair. "I'm Susan Sontag," she said. She knew who she was. The audience applauded in that lifetime achievement award way, and Sontag mildly accepted it, knowing it was correct. Most of us knew she had said some things in The New Yorker almost immediately after the disaster that had bothered people. Things to the effect that the United States wasn't without fault.

"I've been feeling a lot of things since September 11th," she said. "A lot of different things. But the one feeling I've been having consistently is a sense of grief. Grief for the thousands who died at the south end of the island which has now become a mass grave." This surprised me. She went on to say that while no one could best her in her hatred for the Taliban regime, and would like to see them displaced, she also knew that an eight year-old girl had been killed by an American bomb the other day.

Sontag said, "I'm going to read a very famous poem." That poem was "September 1, 1939," by W.H. Auden. Many people had sent that poem around the Internet just after the disaster. Sontag explained a bit about the circumstances of the time in which the poem was written. Then she read the poem beautifully. She read it from her gut, not from her head. I know it did me a lot of good. I appreciated her doing this, as I appreciated all the others that evening. I left before the last reader, C.K. Williams. I'd had enough. I wanted to go. Did I understand what Billy Collins had said? That the reason we turn to poetry in times like these will probably become evident now that I'd heard the poems? I don't know if I can answer that in a larger sense.

I walked out into the night. I went to my bicycle, unlocked it, and took off west, toward the Hudson. I was looking forward to the long slow ride home beside the dark glassy river. I felt that I left the hall in a state of grace, and that poets had put me there.