introducing readers to writers since 1995

October 07, 2004

Great Readings Often Happen By Chancellors

by Ron Hogan

The chancellors of the Academy of American Poets should be "literary persons of the highest standing," according to the organization's mandate, and with at least four Pulitzers, four National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Guggenheim fellowship among them, the eight poets at last night's Chancellors Reading certainly fit the bill. (And, as executive director Tree Swenson pointed out, they fulfill the other mandate for geographic and stylistic diversity.) There were plenty of literary persons in the front rows of the Florence Gould Hall, too; at least the Significant Other and I assume there were, though we didn't actually recognize anybody besides Harold Bloom.

Frank Bidart led off the evening with his poem "Guilty of Dust" and two newer works. Susan Howe followed with the most avant-garde selection of the evening, an extract from her "Leisure of the Theory Class" that began with at least a dozen repetitions of the phrase "Praises to..." and remained highly fragmentary in tone from there. Next up: Galway Kinnell, acknowledging the long line of poems about Orpheus and Eurydice as an introduction to his, written from Orpheus' perspective (hope I got this right):

I've grown tired of wondering the earth
spouting the same tragedy night after night

Yusef Komunyakaa had one of the most impressive reading voices, reminiscent of Ossie Davis' baritone, and he applied it masterfully to "Anodyne," which the Significant Other and I both agreed was probably the top individual poem of the evening. Philip Levine's "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane" was a strong runner-up, though, as you can hear. His other poem, "The Two," turned out to employ a similarly self-conscious and slightly combative narrator, well suited to his voice. Nathaniel Mackey read "On Antiphon Island," modestly omitting that it was one of the best American poems of 2002, as well as an "Orphic fragment" from his cycle Song of the Andoumboulou.

I was especially thrilled to see the next poet, Gary Snyder, since he doesn't do many readings in New York these days. He read from his latest collection, Danger on Peaks (read a review--heck, read two), noting that the title referred to Mount St. Helens, "a lovely mountain which is apparently taking notice of my attention," he quipped. The four prose-and-verse pieces he read didn't actually refer to the volcano, but the S.O. agreed that they were among the most beautiful works of the evening, stunning in the exactitude of their imagery. The final poet to read, Rosanna Warren, was very engaging with the audience, noting that one poem was titled "'Runes,' not 'Ruins'" and joking that "Tempus Fugit" had "a deliberately pretentious Latin title." Neither of those poems appears to be online, but Web de Sol (another one of those NYTBR-recognized sites that deserve your attention) does have "Noon."

Afterwards, the S.O. and I made our way onstage to get Levine's autograph on his most recent collection, Breath, and then wait patiently behind Paul Auster as he chatted with Snyder and got some of his books signed, too. I asked Snyder about the Japanese poetic form he'd used in the pieces he read. "It's haibun," he said. "Bun is Japanese for prose and hai refers to haiku. Although my poems weren't really haiku. They aren't short enough." Well, we still can't recommend them highly enough.

If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.