“The poem kept pushing back at me, challenging me.” Thomas Sayers Ellis was speaking about “Money,” the poem that he had just read at Tuesday night’s celebration of the work of Philip Larkin at Cooper Union. And a celebration it was, the challenge of Larkin’s work giving rise to an interesting and memorable evening sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and The Cooper Union.
Larkin’s poems, read by PSA's Executive Director Alice Quinn and twenty invited poets, shared the stage with live musical performances by the Queens College Louis Armstrong Ensemble of Larkin’s favorite jazz. From the PSA director’s opening remarks about having shared “This Be The Verse” on a recent Sunday’s visit with her elderly father to the closing recording of Larkin reading “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” the evening was an intensely auditory experience. Familiar poems, read aloud, took on new and different traits for the audience and the readers.
Words grabbed the listeners’ attention in a manner different than Larkin read on the page, alone, or in classes past, perhaps because of the reader’s intonation or the poem’s context in the night’s line-up. There is an evening coming in/…That lights no lamps, Meena Alexander read near the outset, while Paul Simon’s reading of we should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time near the end seemed even more benedictory. At other times, as with Nick Laird’s reading of “Aubade” to a hall full of attentive listeners – Not to be here,/Not to be anywhere,/And soon: nothing more terrible, nothing more true. – the poem was experienced as much as it was heard.
At times, the cadence of the poem and the accents and intonations of the reader moved together in an engaging, syncopated fashion. Throughout the evening, the poets served and served up Larkin’s memorable poems, delivering, celebrating and standing alongside; the work itself was alive and shining. Especially was this the case with “Talking in Bed,” “High Windows,” and “Home is so Sad.”
Sometimes there was just plain fun, as with lines Archie Burnett (editor of the volume being celebrated, The Complete Poems. Philip Larkin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) read, After drinking Glenfiddich/I say good rubbance to bad riddich. Sometimes, clarity and immediacy, as Saskia Hamilton read …there lies/Hidden round them, waiting too,/Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
Tuesday’s event made a strong case for reading poetry aloud with others and for continuing to seek broader audiences, wider configurations of others. Staged, as PSA Program Director Darrel Holnes put it, in a multi-arts format, the evening of music and words provided an experience of Larkin’s work beyond and different from reading silently alone. The public venue for considering some of this poet’s private yet universal, dark content was particularly apt, and for the growing community of poetry readers and lovers, an evening such as this provided a new way in to talking about a poet and the work of a poet we cannot stop talking about.
Madge McKeithen has written about poems in several essays including those collected in her book, Blue Peninsula (FSG, 2006). She initiated the One Page Poetry Circle at the NYPL and at the Darien Library. Her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies and newspapers, The New York Times Book Review, and Best American Essays 2011. She teaches nonfiction in the Writing Program at the New School University.