David Halberstam and Glenn Close at the event. Photo PatrickMcMullan.com.
On April 11, the stage at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was initially bare, save for an apostolic assortment of 12 chairs, 12 bottles of mineral water, and a dramatic flower arrangement. Behind me, a guy was concluding an intricate business deal on his cell as Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, came onto the stage to deliver her introductory remarks. The Academy raises money for a host of worthy programs, including National Poetry Month and the Poetry Audio Archive. Yet tonight’s event, dubbed “Poetry & The Creative Mind,” is arguably the jewel in the organization’s fund-raising crown: an annual conclave of celebrities and public figures reading their favorite specimens of American verse.
First up was Ethan Hawke. In a pale suit and T-shirt, and with the careless radiance of a film star, he launched directly into Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I admired him for this: no hushed, self-celebrating preamble. I admired him less when he stopped three or four blackbirds into the poem and announced he had forgotten to explain who the author was. Bad boy! Even badder: He defied the all-American theme of the evening and pulled out Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening.” This he read in increasingly declamatory tones, like a barfly at elocution school, ramping back only for the penultimate stanza: “O stand, stand at the window / As the tears scald and start; / You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” The crowd went nuts.
Glenn Close followed with two pieces by Elizabeth Bishop. Then came Bill Baker, the public-television spokesman with his bow tie and deep, pledge-extracting voice, doing one Emma Lazarus and one Charles Reznikoff. Generally, the actors and telegenic types were, well, dramatic. Dianne Wiest paused after each line in Eliot’s “East Coker” (which meant we could all hear the cell phone ringing in the mezzanine). With her gold hoop earrings glinting in the spotlights, Alfre Woodard enunciated every syllable of Langston Hughes’s “Freedom’s Plow,” as if the audience were slightly deaf. At a couple of points, she actually burst into song. (I was hoping fellow reader John Simon would do the same thing. No dice.)
Lauren Bacall, of course, is no mere actress. She’s an institution, an icon preserved in post-Hollywood amber, her voice still barrel-aged and strongly fermented. Her hair is white. While the mortals read, she toyed with a small shiny object, which turned out to be the case for her tinted glasses. Summoned to the podium at the very end, she announced she would read two poems by Dorothy Parker—“a prickly woman,” she allowed, “but fascinating.” Glamorous, wisecracking, dissolute, Parker’s boozy monologues fit Bacall’s persona. Perhaps that was why she wrapped up with Frost’s more wholesome “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
And what about the foot soldiers of the evening, the nonglamorous critics and prose writers? They turned out to be very decent entertainers themselves. John Simon followed Alfre Woodard (not an enviable task), and, in his sober gray suit, he resembled a cartoon of Organization Man. Yet, his hoarse, Mitteleuropean-accented voice proved to be a perfect vehicle for Tennessee Williams’s “Life Story.” Simon Schama, in typically ebullient form, promised to follow the rule of only American poetry and then promptly broke it by smuggling in Czeslaw Milosz’s great “Ars Poetica?” Jules Feiffer answered my prayers by reading something by Ogden Nash.
Then there was David Halberstam. Some of the other readers had disclaimed any special expertise in poetry. Halberstam took it a step further: He was glad to be participating precisely “because so many critics have pointed out the nonpoetic quality of my writing.” To prove his point, perhaps, he plowed through Marianne Moore’s baseball poem (“What Are Years?”) and a Philip Levine with what can only be called prosaic delight. No muss, no fuss, no melodrama: just one line after another, as if to demonstrate that the words would have to fend for themselves. The audience responded warmly. This plainspoken man, who died in a car crash less than two weeks after the Lincoln Center reading, will be missed.