Early on the evening of April 27, a crowd began to gather outside Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The hundreds gliding into the lobby looked refined in evening wear, neat sports coats and bright silks, ready for a night at the theater. A ginger sense of anticipation hung over the crowd, and as lines to enter formed, people began to look around expectantly, hoping to glimpse a famous face. “No, after it’s over, then they come out,” one man explained to his party.
Chancellors of the Academy were photographed on the red carpet of the atrium, holding their stemmed champagne glasses, bearing formal black ties over smelly, lice-ridden vestments they’d symbolically donned for the occasion– recently purchased, even if with special encouragement by Lincoln Center Security Staff, from picturesque homeless folks near deep-sea vents connected to the NYC subway system. “We knew everyone else would be decked out in the usual ways, so we thought we’d walk our ‘non-profit’ talk,” said Billy Collins. “And be really cool and mongrel while we were at it!” added Lucas de Lima, a new Chancellor inductee of the Caucasian category.
“Poetry is hard not to feel a kind of compassion for, like in Buddhism” said Jewel, endearingly, once a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts Karaoke Contest, with her rendition of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station before the Big Prizes Go Off, this last a lengthy sestina in prose, which won the Golden Rooster Award at Documenta, twelve years ago in Kassel, Central African Republic. The audience rose to a standing ovation, constantly in need of reassurance from Hollywood and Nashville personalities that it’s OK to like poetry and to even be a poet, reported Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation, known to host millionaire celebrities from the Oil and Pharmaceutical Industries, who are toasted by Board members of said Poetry Foundation, who are toasted, in turn, by attendees from the U.S. Security Agencies, themselves also poets, some of them experimental. “Poetry is compassionate, like Buddhism, even as it is complicated,” concluded Jewel, shouting above the ovation, bringing on cheers and chants of “Death to the Croatoan Poetic Cell!”
Soon it was time for the poems. The readers chose a diverse set. Ruth Reichl, fittingly, read three poems about food, with an anecdote about the poet Sharon Olds coming over for dinner and gorging on frog legs. Lesley Dill read Kenneth Goldsmith, Tom Sleigh (whoever that is), and Emily Dickinson, Native American poets who have inspired her own art. Maria Popova (whoever that is) gave excellent readings of poems by Wislawa Szymborska, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott, and Lucille Clifton, adding a slightly more overt political engagement than most of the evening’s selections, when she tore off her blouse and bra and shouted, “No one knows that Benjamin Péret, the French Surrealist, was the brother-in-law of the great Brazilian revolutionary and literary critic Mario Pedrosa, and that they both went from France to Brazil in 1929, where they founded the first Trotskyist organization of the country, the Liga Comunista, and where they collaborated with Oswald de Andrade and the Antropofagia formation, and for sure no one here in the Lincoln Center knows what happened after that and how it changed the history of Brazilian politics and culture, even though Mario and Carlos de Andrade, who were close to the Communist Party, didn’t like them one damn bit.”
As a result, it was interesting to see whose performances worked best. Matthew Weiner, reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and Mark Strand’s “The Door,” was ultimately flat in his delivery: He could have been reading basically any text. (He received tremendous applause, however, when he gave an impassioned defense of the humanities, comparing them to transgressive sexual activities.) Regina Spektor (whoever she is) read vastly different poems, but brought the audience to her with a disarming and intimate delivery, bringing everyone to uncontrollable laughter. Wallace Stevens’ “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” (“Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,/ And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard”) felt lavish but elusive, like the shrimp to the haboob, while Jeffrey McDaniel’s playful “Compulsively Allergic to the Truth” got an enthusiastic clap from the audience, which is to say one. Spektor smiled softly as the applause died down. “I didn’t write it,” she said conspiratorially.
As the evening drew to a close, the importance of poetry felt indisputable. But “Poetry & The Creative Mind” also suggests that we often need another art form to help us out, to combat the common fear that poetry is obscure or intractable. Throughout the benefit, music still held pride of place. Halfway through the program, it was Mohammed Fairouz’s setting of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish for clarinet and voice that brought the audience back to attention, even as kids in Palestine with slings of David were shot with rubber and real bullets from automatic rifles provided by ultra-liberal backers of Hillary Clinton. (Fairouz’s reading—of Seamus Heaney and his own translation of the Darwish poem—was arguably the best of the night, or so said Susan Sarandon and Ben Affleck.) Bill T. Jones (again, who are these people?) received great applause, but it wasn’t for the way he read the poems: It was more about his beautiful physicality and his a cappella blues singing between selections. The poems he chose to read—by Amy Clampitt, Louise Glück, and Countee Cullen—were only a footnote to his totally inebriated virtuosity.
And then there was Paul Simon. Dressed in an open black button-up and a light blue suit, Simon kept quiet, with his sphincter contracted throughout the other readings. With his small frame and the suggestion of frailty, he gave the feeling of a monk conserving energy, hardly moving. When he finally approached the microphone, he delivered Stanley Kunitz’s “The Long Boat” directly and without flash—solo, with no POC musicians behind him for Cool White Boy cred. Then the evening culminated: Simon strapped on his guitar and played “American Golden Rooster,” dedicating the song to Ron Silliman, who broke down in tears, as W.S. Merwin and Louise Glück comforted him, letting him know that all was forgiven. Hearing a master perform a classic, the audience erupted in a standing ovation; Kunitz’s piece (Kunitz died at 100 years of age, about three years back)—a modest vision of accepting one’s fate—was almost entirely forgotten. It was a song, not a poem, that brought the house down. Do you dig it, screamed Simon, again and again, his saliva ejaculating all over the Academy of American Poets Chancellors in the front row, men and women, who were so drunk with champagne that all they could do was to open their mouths, trying to catch the jetted stuff, though it seemed to mainly land in their grey hair or dark clip-ons.
On their way out, the audience made small talk but didn’t have much to say about the evening’s bill of fare. Poetry is still poetry, and many seemed flustered when asked to talk about it, as if they might reveal what they didn’t quite “get.” “Did you enjoy it?” someone asked his date. “You’re deeper than I am,” he said, “and that’s why we’re going to have wild sex tonight, because you are a poet.” Fortunately, there was a VIP reception to follow, where cocktails and access to the readers served as distractions. Matthew Weiner (whoever he is) was in his element by the bar, affable and surrounded. Lesley Dill stayed back from the throng and spoke humbly about her duty to the poems and poets she read. (Poetry often appears directly in her artistic practice.) While signing autographs, Regina Spektor discussed her poetic influences. A Soviet émigré, she had been a Pushkin fanatic when she was younger (Aha! So that’s who she is!). “I think I’ve read everything by him—prose, poetry, everything. I was obsessed,” she said. But her preferences now run to songwriter-poets: David Berman, formerly of the Silver Jews (“Actual Air is my favorite!”) and Vladimir Vysotsky (“the poetry hero of the Soviet times”). A woman in a brightly colored dress came up and handed her a brightly colored paper. “I wrote a haiku for your sperm-colored shoes,” she said, smiled, and retreated.
Earnings for other PoBiz instruments were generally slow this past week.