Friday, April 3, 2009


The Academy of American Poets throws a big party every year where famous people put on a show for poetry. There are arguments about why this is mis-guided: Why silence living poets? Why this myopic insistence on American poets only? Why is every chosen poem so tenaciously mainstream? Do famous people need another platform? But to rail heedlessly against the event is to miss what it accomplishes. It puts a different shine on a little corner of the enterprise. It encourages someone who kinda liked poems once upon a time to return to it, even for an hour, to sit and listen to a form they'd long-ago forsaken as it became buried by the exigencies of daily living. But more than that, it allows the audience a different entry point for particular poems. At this same event a few years ago, Mark Morris read several Frank O'Hara poems, all of which I'd read for years and loved deeply. But Morris gave me something new. He lived in the poems--giving them a body they hadn't had before, now a stance, now a gait, fresh attitudes at every turn that I'd not encountered in the poems before, but remain with me. O'Hara's poems had lived in the context of my life before, but now they lived on their own too. And that new relationship, like a marriage between two attached and independent forces, is infinitely richer.

This year's event featured a similarly standout performance. But it wasn't of the reading of any particular poem; it was of the listening. As Jorie Graham began to read poems by James Wright, I was prepared to shut down: I'd adored the poems in my late teens but had since become convinced that Wright's poetics was a dead drag and not of any further interest to me. I figured I'd used the poems up. But as Jorie read "Hook" and then "The Old WPA Swimming Pool," Wynton Marsalis became electrified. Simply sitting on his folding chair behind her on the stage, Marsalis was immediately part of the experience of the poem in that room. His face opened. His shoulders swayed. His eyes widened and narrowed. I began to hear a blues in Wright where in the last decade or so I'd begun to hear mere self-indulgence. Steve Reich, reading just before Jorie, gave us this explicitly when he read out WC Williams: "Well, shall we think or listen?" Williams, Reich, Wright, Marsalis showing thinky me what it means to listen--and revealing, too, that Williams' question isn't really a conflict between mutually exclusive ways of being. That "or" is an accelerant for a chemical reaction between thinking and listening. Can your mind engage its moment in such a way that is pure listening?

Years ago, in a master class at my college, Max Roach stopped our best horn player after a solo. "You're playing a lot of interesting notes," he told the guy, "but you need to listen. Don't cram everything in just because it's your solo. Sometimes the most eloquent solo has no notes in it." Playing is listening. Writing is reading. How many readings I've attended, and given, but how many have I listened to?

[photo of Marsalis playing with Joan Baez (c) Brian Palmer]

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