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.”