Stars Celebrate Poetry Month at “Poetry & the Creative Mind”


Published: April 9, 2009

On the occasion of their 25th anniversary, the Academy of American Poets presented a starry tribute to the art of poetry. The brand new Alice Tully Hall was home to the Seventh Annual “Poetry and the Creative Mind,” which brought together an eclectic group of 10 readers to celebrate American poets who are no longer living.

This April 1 event, co-chaired by Meryl Streep and Rose Styron, kicked off National Poetry Month, which was created by the Academy in 1996 and has been observed every year since. The month’s celebrations will conclude with National Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day on April 30 in which people around the country are encouraged to carry around poems and share them with others.

The readers represented nearly every facet of the “creative mind” including, among others, jazz (Wynton Marsalis), film (Maggie Gyllenhaal), graphic art (Chip Kidd), satiric writing (Roy Blount Jr.), folk music (Joan Baez) and even science (Harold Varmus).

The night was flavored with the personal experiences that connected the performers with the poems they chose to read. Gyllenhaal chose to read W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” because, as someone who had been in therapy, she felt that “this is the poem they would make you recite upon a graduation from psychotherapy.” Legendary folk singer Joan Baez bent the rules of the evening, reading her own poems although, as she said, “I’m in no way a poet, and I’m not dead.”  One was written for a friend’s 70th birthday and was deeply melancholic; the other, “Low, Low Impact Class,” humorously described a group of senior citizens suffering through an early morning gym class.

Graphic artist Chip Kidd was by far the most entertaining and zaniest performer of the evening, going from Dr. Seuss to Emily Dickinson in the span of his short presentation.  He began by reading from a copy of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical “If I Ran the Zoo,” which he said he sent to President Obama the day after the election. Kidd, who is from Schillington, Pa., continued with three poems from the recently deceased John Updike, another son of Schillington, who often used the town for inspiration, much to Kidd’s bewilderment.

“That’s like being a [visual] artist and saying ‘my muse is… beige!’” he quipped.  Kidd concluded by telling the audience that nearly every poem by Emily Dickinson had the exact same meter as the “Yellow Rose of Texas”—he demonstrated this by, much to the audience’s delight, warbling “Because I could not stop for Death” to the chirpy Southern tune.

Perhaps the most rhythmic performance was given by jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, who chose poems for their sound and cadence, savoring the sounds of the poems as he read them aloud and even humming the blues between verses of Charles Bukowski’s “Riverbank Blues.”

Although the performers chose poems that seemed to travel through a wide range of experiences, if one were to pick out one recurring theme for the night, it was our current political and economic situation. The proceedings began with benefit co-chair Rose Styron reading a poem about change in honor of our new commander-in-chief. Later in the program, poet Jorie Graham recited a James Wright poem about the Works Progress Administration and Anthony Hecht’s “The Hill,” which she said reflected the state of today’s market.  The evening ended with Joan Baez picking up her guitar and, accompanied by Wynton Marsalis on the trumpet, singing “Joe Hill,” a song based on a poem by Alfred Hayes about a labor activist who was hanged after being framed for a murder in 1915. This song, capping off a night that was sprinkled with political themes, includes pro-labor lyrics such as these which seem to offer a  poetic call to action:  “And standing there as big as life / and smiling with his eyes. / Says Joe, ‘What they can never kill / went on to organize.’”