Lexicon Valley

Poetry Served, but Music Shined at the Academy of American Poets’ Star-Studded Gala

Maria Popova reads at the Academy of American Poets’ annual gala at Lincoln Center.

Jennifer Trahan

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.

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They had come, surprisingly, for poetry. But they had also come for the special celebrity guests. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, “Poetry & The Creative Mind” is a yearly benefit held at Lincoln Center. It springs from a simple yet captivating idea: famous nonpoets reading poems that they love. It’s also a windfall for the nonprofit. Now in its 14th year, the benefit annually brings in $175,000 for the academy’s educational programming.

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The readers everyone had come to see were an impressive range of artists, but few were closely linked to poetry. Besides Eileen Huang, a national student poet, and academy chancellor Elizabeth Alexander, who served as master of ceremonies, the rest were from varied disciplines: food writer Ruth Reichl, artist Lesley Dill, blogger Maria Popova, composer Mohammed Fairouz, singer Regina Spektor, choreographer Bill T. Jones, actress Amy Ryan, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and singer Paul Simon.

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“We are here together because poetry matters and always has,” Alexander announced in her opening remarks. This statement is indelibly true, yet it’s also something that advocates of poetry are perpetually saying; it has the whiff of disbelief about it. Alexander went on to use an oft-exploited metaphor: that poetry is like song. “We are always aspiring to song when we write poems,” she said. “There is a song in you when you sing and when you read a poem.” Poetry indeed comes from the same classical roots as music, and they share many of the same characteristics. However, the equation ignores an evident fact about America today: Music sells, while poetry struggles to find an audience. Allying poetry with a more popular form, especially at a fundraiser, is a sound business proposition.

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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. Lesley Dill read Anne Waldman, Tom Sleigh, and Emily Dickinson, poets who have inspired her own art. Maria Popova 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.

A danger when many nonpoets (and especially actors) read poems is that they outperform the work: Rather than seeking out what is inherent in the material and placing that front and center, they put themselves in competition with the text, making it a platform for their own elocution. (The one actor in the evening’s program, Amy Ryan, overcame this hurdle with understated readings of poems by Ellen Bass and C.D. Wright.) On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who read a poem aloud as if it were a newspaper article or a Facebook post: all content, little to no form. In these cases the reader is expecting the poem to lift up listeners to a place of aesthetic attention (what academy director Jen Benka referred to as “a centering experience with language”) without giving the poem what it needs and deserves: space, silence to frame it and lace through it, and the true attention of the speaker’s mouth to the individual sounds of words.

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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.) Regina Spektor read vastly different poems, but brought the audience to her with a disarming and intimate delivery. 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, while Jeffrey McDaniel’s playful “Compulsively Allergic to the Truth” got an enthusiastic clap from the audience. Spektor smiled softly as the applause died down. “I didn’t write it,” she said conspiratorially.

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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. (Fairouz’s reading—of Seamus Heaney and his own translation of the Darwish poem—was arguably the best of the night.) Bill T. Jones 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 virtuosity. 

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And then there was Paul Simon. Dressed in an open black button-up and a light blue suit, Simon kept quiet and contracted throughout the 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. Then the evening culminated: Simon strapped on his guitar and played “American Tune.” Hearing a master perform a classic, the audience erupted in a standing ovation; Kunitz’s piece—a modest vision of accepting one’s fate—was almost entirely forgotten. It was a song, not a poem, that brought the house down.

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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 their date. “You’re deeper than I am.” Fortunately, there was a VIP reception to follow, where cocktails and access to the readers served as distractions. Matthew Weiner 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. (“I think I’ve read everything by him—prose, poetry, everything. I was obsessed.”) 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 shoes,” she said, smiled, and retreated.