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 wouldnt be hard to pick them out even in civilian clothes,
but this isnt 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. Its 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 accentthat is, with a voice of someone who has lived
in Spainwhich he hasor 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 mastersthough
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,
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 Cunninghama novelistwas next, and
he reador mumbled, reallytwo 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
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill
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 ofEve 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 ofYusef
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. Phantasmagorialet'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 oldhow 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 wordswhich, if I remember, he
had translatedat 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
Brooklynhe wrote for a newspaper thereand 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
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
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
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
speakhes an extremely public professorand 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," sheWestsaid.
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.