100 Years of Poetry

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1. Signage! 2. Daniel Hoffman.

It was a packed house last night at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where a pantheon of U.S. poets laureate had been assembled by the Poetry Society of America as part of their centennial festivities. PSA was celebrating the anniversary of the organization’s very first meeting in October 1910 and the publication of The Poets Laureate Anthology, copies of which could be seen tucked under elbows and poking out of handbags. The crowd, for its part, was similarly centenary. Behind me, I could overhear one grandmother telling another about her various stints as a Stanford student, high school English teacher, world traveler, and renowned poet’s lover (the first three motivated by the last).

New York City cultural affairs Commissioner Kate Levin graced the stage early to proclaim (per Mayor Bloomberg degree) October 12, 2010 PSA day. No sooner had the event begun to feel like a benefit than Billy Collins appeared at the podium to roaring applause, as charming as his poetry and with a voice oddly and soothingly like Kevin Spacey’s. Listening to him read (including his own “Forgetfulness” and hilarious “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House”) was like movie-watching with someones who have already seen and loved the film; they’re leaning forward, silently mouthing, starting to laugh before the jokes are delivered.

1. Kay Ryan. 2. Eventgoers Brett and Luke

The laughter melted into ohh-ahhs and appreciative murmurs for Rita Dove and Daniel Hoffman, who stole the evening’s most tender moment by dedicating the reading of his love poem to his late wife Elizabeth McFarland. More laughter and more murmuring for Kay Ryan, whose reading of Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” saved it from its recent fate of butchered analysis on the subway (the Poetry in Motion program is run by PSA; the first time I saw Frost above the closing doors, the high schooler next to me said to his friend “Yo, ‘a day I rooed.’ I rude. Thas retarded.”). The guy next to me, who admitted the only name he knew on the docket was Collins’s, gushed “That’s Kay Ryan? I love her.” Charles Simic followed and should have been the closer, but Mark Strand appeared without introduction or explanation, to read a poem by Anthony Hecht and his own “My Name.”

The program carried on with performances by Natalie Merchant — formerly of 10,000 Maniacs fame — and Maria Tucci reading more (longer) Frost. Merchant’s voice was gorgeous, but the collective attention span had been taxed by the pleasure of so many adored poets reading so many adored poems.

1. Mark Strand, next to his attempted hiding spot.

Rowdy it wasn’t — the hottest point was Charles Simic enunciating the word “breast” or Natalie Merchant throwing off her black overcoat to reveal a cardigan and scarf — but as people filed out, their faces were all smiles, their eyes all clear, their expressions all revealing the same resolution to enjoy more poetry more often: a mark of success for the PSA.

I lingered, hoping to bother Mark Strand as one of his former college students. Given how many he’s had and how little I could say in class because his word tends to be the last on contemporary poetry in a room full of undergrads, I assumed he wouldn’t remember me, but he did and assured me that he never forgot a face. When I raised my camera though, he made a beeline for a shadowy column. “I prefer to remain anonymous,” he said.

– Kai Twanmoh is tickled to be making her dish! debut. She spends her days at a New York City non-profit and her nights elsewhere.

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