Poetry and the Creative Mind

Last week, because I was otherwise engaged, Mrs. Beatrice was kind enough to sit in on what is usually one of my favorite literary events of the year, and took copious notes:

A few minutes after I took my seat at the magnificent new Alice Tully Hall for the The Academy of American Poets’ 7th Annual Poetry and the Creative Mind program, Lucie Brock-Broido walked into the auditorium and sat down immediately in front of me. An auspicious beginning indeed. Perhaps even more auspicious was the line-up of people slated to read: Rose Styron; Joan Baez; Roy Blount, Jr. (I confess to having been a closet Roy Blount, Jr. groupie since around 1990, so I probably blushed a little when he walked onto the stage); Jorie Graham; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Chip Kidd; Wynton Marsalis; Steve Reich; Mark Strand; and Harold Varmus.

Although all the readers impressed in various ways, several points in the evening stood out. First was Jorie Graham’s interpretation of James Wright’s almost palpably taut poem “Hook.” “Hook” is a breathtaking work under any circumstances, but its qualities became even more evident after Graham’s moving reading, which caused a murmur of admiration to ripple through the audience.

The other standout was musician Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis noted that he was from New Orleans, and, like all New Orleans natives, talked as though he were singing, in minor thirds. And talk and sing he did, as he gave a gorgeous half-sung, half-spoken rendition of Sterling A. Brown’s “Riverbank Blues.” Marsalis brought slightly less melodic but no less musical qualities to the rest of his readings, especially to Hart Crane’s intricate “Carmen De Boheme.”

The music continued as Joan Baez, after reading two of her own poems—“Colleen” and “Low, Low Impact Class”—(“I’m breaking the rules, because I’m not dead yet” she quipped), sang “Joe Hill,” accompanied by Marsalis on trumpet. And yes, the performance was as good as you think it was.

Also lending a musical interlude to the evening was Chip Kidd, who sang Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Yes, that’s right, folks: Someone actually set an Emily Dickinson poem to “Yellow Rose of Texas” at a public reading. At Alice Tully Hall, no less. Well, you knew it had to happen sometime. At least now we can all relax. And if it had to be someone, probably best it was Chip Kidd, who at the very least brought the right amount of panache to the attempt, instead of, say… well, you can fill in the blank.

In her closing remarks, Academy chair Eunice J. Panetta reminded the audience of the many events for National Poetry Month—particularly Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 30. I’ll do my part for National Poetry Month and kick the festivities off early by revealing the two poems I carry with me in my wallet at all times: “One Heart” by Franz Wright and “Like Blood from a Deep Cut” by Joe Wenderoth. So, what will yours be?

Patrick McMullan had a photographer at the reading, and the reception afterwards, and the pictures are now online.

11 April 2009 | poetry |