When Whitman declares in “Native Moments,” “I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself / from my companions? / I come forthwith in your midst, I will be your poet, / I will be more to you than to any of the rest,” he defines, in one context, the innermost desire of all poets—to be a voice of and for the people. But poetry is hard on the ego, thus writing poetry is hard.
I had Whitman in mind as I entered New York University’s Skirball Center on Thursday, October 18th, for the Chancellors’ Reading that opened the Academy of American Poets’ sixth annual Poets Forum, a series of discussions and lectures on current issues in contemporary poetry, in addition to an awards ceremony and publication release party for American Poet magazine. I was anticipating the opportunity to engage my poets, eager for the voice that would claim the platform. As a visible arc of talent stretched across the auditorium stage, each poet read three to five poems from recent or forthcoming publications.
Victor Hernández Cruz (In the Shadow of Al-Andalus.Coffee House. 2011. ISBN 9781566892773. $16) cast the first rhythm as his body drew from his lines, composing words—had I only been closer to confirm—that were surely the color of his eyes. He confirmed the idea that “it isn’t the word, but the sound of the word that matters.” Following Cruz was an energetically serene Toi Derricotte (The Undertaker’s Daughter. Univ. of Pittsburgh. 2011. ISBN 9780822962007. $15.95), whose New Jersey poems seemed to park the imagination in a garage with the door open; where one stands to see kids playing games in the street, fancy free and sometimes cruel.
Reading from an uncooperative iPad, Mark Doty (Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. HarperCollins. 2008. ISBN 9780060752514. $15.99), presented several short and somewhat anecdotal poems correlated with paintings that used feeling (as this is feeling’s duty), but they needed more ignition—or, as he said himself, “c’mon, page!” Marilyn Hacker (Names. W.W. Norton. 2009. 9780393072181.$23.95) placed Eden among pots and storms on the terrace and surrendered to the poignant, “If you can, forget, you regress, don’t forget.” Lorca concurs!
Clearly, Lyn Hejinian’s poise is permanent. Reading from her new book, The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Omnidawn. 2012. ISBN 9781890650575.$24.95), she reminded the audience that “living demands sustained temptations” and illustrated the relationship between life and the antecedent, hardly a common connection. Edward Hirsch (The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems. Knopf. 2010. ISBN 9780375415227. $27) is large in stature; his poems live in a climate where melancholic adoration, if not sole devotion to tracking the movements of an elusive muse, remain the purpose. The ever eloquent and current Jane Hirshfield (Come,Thief. Knopf. 2011. ISBN 9780307595423. $25) dedicated a stunning poem to Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani wounded by the Taliban for her role in supporting the advancement of girls’ education, then followed with questions for Assad—if words could kill, Syria’s brutal oppressor would have seen his shame. Naomi Shihab Nye (Transfer. BOA Editions. 2011. ISBN 9781934414521. $16) possesses the rare gift of being wholly present and aware. She is a natural storyteller, and her poems are layers of simple speech, requiring from the reader nothing more than attention. Therein lies the reward of her poetry. Sharon Olds (Stag’s Leap. Knopf. 2012. ISBN 9780375712258. $16.95) appeared to read from an inspired trauma, her words heavy as “a dusted opal paper weight” and then fittingly lightened with a new ode, rendering a less sexually steeped version of her past “familiars.”
Ron Padgett (How Long. Coffee House. 2011. ISBN 9781566892568. $16) was composed, concise, and consistent. His word portraits of Berrigan and others (despite his “name dropping” disclaimer) informed the audience, in case they forgot, that he was in New York City in the Sixties when poetry was everything poetry will ever be, and lived to tell about it. Carl Phillips (Double Shadow. Farrar. 2011. ISBN 9780374141578. $23) delivered poems with an intensity that suggested complex relationships and a personality that insists on being heard, but one hopes that his words stand firmer on the page. Arthur Sze (The Gingko Light. Copper Canyon. 2009. ISBN 9781556592997. $15) relied strongly on the symbolic, giving a pretty and not surprising quality to his poems—observing an activity taking place “in the cross-hairs of a scope” is one example.
And, finally, Anne Waldman (The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment, Coffee House Press. 2011. ISBN 9781566892551. $40), whose theatrical performance revealed a stylized spontaneity propelled by a willful spirit, speaking for freedom-seeking subjects that, unfortunately, created an uncomfortable command over what may have been a fine poem if one was permitted a glimpse of its roots.
There were moments throughout the evening when a line impressed uncertainty upon my understanding and, in welcoming the discord, I heard something new. That said, Waldman’s reading shifted the tone in the right direction—poetry had left the quiet and safe academy and showed up strange and out of context, leaving with the people.