The annual American Academy of Poets’ Poetry & The Creative Mind gala is always a glamorous event. Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall is elegant and the atmosphere is more “opening night” than “poetry reading.” But this is no ordinary poetry reading. The Academy never fails to line up an impressive roster of celebrities to share beloved poems with roughly 1,000 poetry lovers decked out in their spring finest. This year, the event’s 10th anniversary, Colum McCann, Claire Danes, John Wesley Harding, Terrence Howard, Brook Shields, Bill Keller, Dianne Reeves, Tom Brokaw and Meryl Streep each took turns at the microphone. As they took their seats on stage, Chip Kidd, who dazzles as Master of Ceremonies, proclaimed, “how proud their 8th grade teachers would be.” Indeed.
Novelist Colum McCann kicked off the evening with Wendell Berry’s “A Meeting,” which he dedicated to the late Frank McCourt (a writer who, by the way, loved poetry. If you’ve read McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, you know that reading Shakespeare was to him like “having jewels in [his] mouth.”) Colum McCann integrates poetry into his life, especially on his birthday, when he asks his children to memorize a poem for him. He read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Muriel Rukeyser’s “Then I Saw What the Calling Was” with lyrical power and force, thereby showing how poetry can cross genres and enter our hearts.
McCann was followed by actress Claire Danes; singer, songwriter and novelist, John Wesley Harding, (AKA Stace), and singer Diane Reeves, who delivered readings of poems by Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton, and Thomas Wyatt that emphasized poetry’s musicality and exuberance. Both Harding and Reeves sang all or parts of their selections. Typically the Academy works with the readers to arrive at a variety of poems for the evening. Actor Terence Howard and singer Diane Reeves both remarked at their pleasure in discovering work that was previously unknown to them (Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers” and “The Portrait”) One could feel their joy in having these poems become a part of their lives.
Actress Brooke Shields’ delivery of Billy Collins’, “Nostalgia” was delightful and funny as only a Collins’ poem can be (“Remember the 1340's? We were doing a dance called the Catapult”). Howard Nemerov’s “To David, About His Education,” gave Shields’ the opportunity win an appreciative round of applause: “I believe in Education," she said. "I got a degree and it got me a place to stand.”
“I'm a sucker for craft," said Keller as he took the podium to read Kay Ryan's Things Shouldn't Be So Hard. "Poets are my subway companions.” he said, matter-of-factly, and it made me smile to think of him reading Ryan during his morning commute.
“I like muscular poetry,” said Brokaw, though in general he claims not to be a “poetry lover.” Brokaw discussed his friendship with the late poet and writer James Welch and by way of introduction explained that he discovered Donald Hall’s “Her Garden,” in The New Yorker shortly after his mother had passed away. He was moved to write to Hall; to his surprise, Hall responded. It was this moment in the night that might have had the strongest affect on me, as it demonstrated the power of written communication. Brokaw shared a painful moment with the audience, but also one that was tender and intimate. Even in this electronic age, writing a letter, or sending an email to tell someone that their work spoke to you is an important part of our being present in today’s world. I loved that Brokaw shared this glimpse of his personal life.
To bring the evening to a close, Meryl Streep’s reading of of W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” with it’s brilliant rhyme and meter, felt like a gentle lull. Before sharing Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” Streep reflected on both her and Bishop’s time as undergraduates at Vassar. In a delightfully funny, charming and self-deprecating way, she revealed that during her days at Vassar she often wondered what Bishop had been thinking when she was on campus. “Well, she was probably on her way to the library and not the pub.”
Visit the Academy of American Poets site here for a complete listing of readers and poems.