On Thursday November 7, 2013, New York City turned back time and the streets around Cooper Union assumed an early evening hectic buzz. The quarter-moon hung bright beige while a who’s who of elite poets descended the steps into the Great Hall on 3rd avenue and 7th street. Its architecture, a blend of old historic and new boldness, was the perfect setting for the presentation of Yet Do I Marvel: Black Iconic Poets of the 20th Century, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and The Cooper Union for The Advancement of Science and Art.
The PSA's Alice Quinn welcomed the eager audience and introduced the first poet of the evening, the eloquent Marilyn Nelson. From that moment forward, all were captivated by the mesmerizing journey of poetic words past and present. Nelson read works by Paul Laurence Dunbar, with a photograph of him as backdrop; the image changed as each poet stepped to the podium. Michael Dickman followed, reading poems by James Weldon Johnson. Major Jackson read works by Countee Cullen, including “Yet Do I Marvel” and before you could slow the pace of your heart, Yusef Komunyakaa poured his magnetic, majestic presence into his favorite poem of Langston Hughes.
The night continued like space without gravity and I’d wager that many felt like they were floating as poet after poet delivered the passion, power and relentless hold of their poetic gifts. Rowan Ricardo Philips continued the celebration with the works of Sterling Brown. And the surprise of the evening would unveil as Cornelius Eady, poet and co-founder of the Cave Canem organization, took the stage with his band Rough Magic. Eady provided velvet smooth, folk styled vocals while the harmonizing poet, Robin Messing, delivered Sterling Brown's poems set to music.
The audience responded with cheers and thunderous applause. Nikky Finney delivered Margaret Walker’s famed “For My People” flawlessly. Sharon Olds read classic favorites by Lucille Clifton including “Wishes for Sons” and “Homage to my Hips.” Gerald Stern gave classic renderings of Miss Lucille, and the super-poet Sapphire brought us to our feet by seeming to transform herself into Jayne Cortez performing “There it Is.”
If, as you are reading this, the hairs are rising on your neck, imagine being in that audience as Mark Doty read poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Ross Gay recited “Litany for Survival” by Audre Lourde, and Ken Chen read June Jordan. We witnessed the effervescence of Camille Rankine presenting “Paradise” by Reginald Shepard, and Paul Romero expertly performing an excerpt of the masterpiece “American Journal” by Robert Hayden. Finally, Eady and his band once again took the stage as to accompany Cave Canem co-founder Toi Derricote as she sang a Raymond Patterson's “Sundown Blues." This was an evening during which the celebration of iconic Black poets became a phenomenal night of literary history itself.
Ed Toney is a Brooklyn-based poet, member of AWP and a participant in the Cave Canem fall workshop in NYC. His work has recently been published in African Voices magazine and Young Mens Perspective. A member of the Hot Poets Collective writing group, Ed is the co-author of the chapbook "Of Fire, Of Iron" and is working on his first manuscript "In the Nicks of the Tongue."