Almost Like Church

Looking for signs of life at readings in honor of June Jordan and W.S. Merwin.
In New York, Jeffrey McDaniel attends readings in honor of two very different poets, June Jordan and W.S. Merwin. He eavesdrops, checks out people's shoes, and asks the ushers what they thought.

The 400-seat auditorium at Hunter College is about 70 percent full. The crowd is two-thirds female, racially eclectic. Worn-in leather sandals appear to be the shoe of choice. Not a lot of hair spray. Lots of free-flowing locks, T-shirts slipping down one shoulder, revealing a bra strap.

Copper Canyon Press, one of the most respected publishers in the world of poetry, has just released a 600-page edition of June Jordan’s collected poems, and tonight is “A Tribute to the Work of June Jordan in Honor of Directed by Desire: Collected Poems.” Jordan died of breast cancer in 2002 in Berkeley, California.

Will this A-list publication launch Jordan, a small-press kind of writer in her lifetime, into the literary mainstream in a way that never happened when oxygen was still coursing through her lungs?

The stage at the Danny Kaye Theatre is elevated. The podium is set off to the side and halfway back from the lip of the stage, so as not to block a large white hanging screen. Eleven featured readers trickle into the venue and sprinkle themselves through the first few rows. I sink into my seat and wait for the lights to go down. Poetry readings can be stilted. But what makes a reading successful? Is it when people enter a venue as strangers, a collection of disparate individuals, and exit connected, unified by the experience, as if somehow the words, the breath behind the words, has woven them together?

The first people on stage are Jan Heller Levi and Sara Miles. They are the editors of the anthology. They introduce the event and make their pitch: “It’s $40, only the cost of four movies.” People in the audience laugh—it’s funny watching poets try to sell things. Levi and Miles make me thankful that the poetry world offers a clumsy escape from the world of efficient commerce. I am thankful we don’t have a bunch of glossy, air-brushed, glitzy clones coaxing us to recline in this brand-new issue of Fence magazine!

The night’s first reader, Adrienne Rich, is helped up the tiny stairs to the stage. It’s unusual for a multireader event like this to lead with the biggest name on the bill, but maybe the idea was to start with a bang. It’s true that if you don’t engage your audience early, you risk losing them, but it’s too bad Rich didn’t come later in the program, once the barrier between the audience and the speakers had been overcome. The first reader is always something of a battering ram, which is why so few poets at group readings volunteer to go first.

As Rich reads—this 78-year-old woman of great moral authority—people are still tiptoeing into the venue down the aisles; a cell phone goes off, followed by pocket rustling and the beep beep beep of more cell phones being extinguished. If Rich had read later, she would have been spared this electronic indignity. Still, the crowd gets riled up when Rich interjects between poems, “An army of lovers of June Jordan cannot fade!”

The audience wants to get fired up, wants to let out a collective roar, but they haven’t yet. This is still a traditional poetry reading—the barrier between listener and speaker hasn’t been broken.

Yusef Komunyakaa strolls to the stage. There’s such a quiet, alert dignity in Komunyakaa’s presence, and this seeps through his syllables. Jordan’s words in his distinctive throat take on a new hue, a rich syrupiness, as if the vowels have been steeped in Louisiana. When he reads, it’s as if he’s pouring her stanzas into us like bourbon. As I listen to his musical drawl, I become aware of something beautiful about this event: each reader, through the material they select, reveals a different aspect of Jordan’s poetry. Bob Holman accentuates her humorous side. Donna Masini shows her political fire, reading a Jordan diatribe on the first Gulf War.

Honor Moore steps to the podium. She tries to read well, loudly speaking the words Bop! Bang! for emphasis, but it’s not working. Moore, like many of our poets, suffers from the affliction known as “poetry voice.” Is there a clinic where we can send all these poets so they might be cured of this vocal cord malady?

The dilemma of how to effectively speak a poem brings up a question: is a poetry reading just a reading, or is it a theatrical event? After all, we are assembled in a theater. There is a person on stage, speaking scripted words in a nonconversational manner. There are lights. There are tickets. The audience is supposed to be silent and pay attention. But it’s still not a performance? Hmm.

(A dozen years ago I went to some Lannan Foundation-sponsored dinner before a Louise Glück reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The topic of poetry as performance came up. Glück said, emphatically, “The poem should remain on the page.” An hour later she was on stage, reading her work to a large audience, in a voice that was different—more breathless—than the voice she had been using at dinner. Perhaps Glück’s statement should have been: “Poetry should remain on the page unless you’re being handsomely rewarded for it.”)

The ninth reader of the evening is Cornelius Eady. He leans his long frame over the lectern; he seems closer to the audience than any of the previous readers. He says, “Sometimes people confuse June’s anger with hatred.” A few hmm’s emerge from the audience, some chin nodding. If we are going to levitate, we need to do it now.

Eady launches into a Jordan poem that uses anaphora, which is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a clause or verse. In Jordan’s poem, the recurring phrase is “Then they said I was ...” Everyone in the audience is laughing, even the usher standing by the rear door. She’s wearing the usher uniform of black sneakers, black pants, and a button-up white shirt. She is completely immersed in Eady’s voice. I can see, even through her thick eyeglasses, that she is hypnotized.

The next reader is Joy Harjo. Harjo’s smile is so big; she must be one of the five happiest people in the whole city at this second. Why is she so happy? I can’t concentrate on Jordan’s words—Harjo’s smile is too bright. At the end of her reading she breaks out a saxophone and rips into what must be some sort of eulogy. Harjo wails the audience into vivacious approval.

The final reader is Junichi Semitsu, a guy I’ve never heard of. The bio in the program says he’s a law school professor, and that he was once the director of Jordan’s Poetry for the People program. Several times throughout the night, readers have hinted at paradoxes in Jordan’s psyche, but none have given specifics. Semitsu goes into detail, describing a conversation with Jordan in which she transitioned seamlessly from a discussion of the racial politics around the Wen Ho Lee espionage case to a passionate celebration of Tom Cruise’s awesome performance in the first 20 minutes of Mission Impossible.

Semitsu is an excellent reader; he projects, enunciates, possesses exquisite comic timing. He seems to sense the ebb and flow of the audience’s attention, and he adjusts his pauses accordingly. He ends his set with a poem that Jordan apparently wrote on her deathbed. Was it an I’m-gonna-miss-the-birds soliloquy, or a somber I-have-breast-cancer meditation? No, it’s a rap poem addressed to white rapper Eminem, set to the beat of his song “My Name Is.” She replaces his Slim Shady persona, which shows up in the refrain, with her own “Slim Lady.”

Semitsu does a wonderful job rapping the poem. The audience is going berserk. That Jordan had such humor and zest in the face of her imminent departure from the planet is remarkable. This is no longer a traditional poetry reading-it’s a riot waiting to happen, it’s a highbrow comedy club, it’s church. The usher howls at the line “I’m the fag hag here to drag you out of the closet.” It’s the perfect moment to end on, the climax of the night.

On the way out, I ask the usher, “Did you know her poetry before?”

“No,” she says, “but obviously you don’t find people like her too much.”

* * *

Ten days later, I attend a tribute to W. S. Merwin at the 92nd Street Y, and it strikes me that we don’t celebrate the living with the same passion that we celebrate the dead.

A ticket to the Merwin reading costs $17. What exactly does your money get you? A tuxedoed man in the bathroom offering you hankies with handwritten haikus in the corner? Seats with lumbar support that massage your back muscles? Not quite, but almost. The theater at the 92nd Street Y is beautiful: wood-paneled walls, an adjacent art gallery with a live TV feed of the event. Everything about this place whispers “dignified.” This is the place to read for poetry A-listers, those lucky bards rotating on the Mount Olympus jukebox.

The crowd is a mix of young grad students from local MFA programs, white people in their 50s, and some really, really old white people, who probably live nearby and are 92nd street Y subscribers. Someone behind me whispers, “That’s Richard Howard.” In the row in front of me a young James Tate look-alike, sideburns and all, engages in some interning-at-the-school-lit-mag banter, dropping phrases like “the maybe pile.”

The 900-seat theater is more than two-thirds full. One of the really, really old people zooms down the aisle in an electric wheelchair; she must be doing close to 20 mph. Across the aisle from me a woman pushing 90 is chilling in fresh, blue suede Pumas with bright yellow laces. Does she have any idea how hip she is? The guy next to her is wearing headphones. Jamming out to tunes on an iPod? No. It’s actually an audio device to help make the event more accessible for those who are losing their hearing. A screen on stage shows a black-and-white photo of Merwin, two-thirds of a smile on his lips, kneeling beside a dog in a woodsy setting. The real Merwin enters. A gaggle of people rush over. He looks surprisingly spry for 78.

Naomi Shihab Nye steps to the lectern. Behind her, the photo on the screen changes to a Merwin baby picture, which leads me to wonder if the baby Merwin’s cry might somehow be more poignant than that of other infants. Nye is not the best choice for an icebreaker: there are few pauses in her delivery, so it’s unclear when she’s reading a poem and when she’s speaking between the poems. Her voice has little range. She barely inflects. Nye reads one of Merwin’s many great pieces, “The Unwritten.” The poem elicits a few hmm’s from the audience, but the hmm’s at the Jordan reading were more guttural, more emphatic. The Merwin hmm’s are more like what one might encounter at a wine tasting, after a connoisseur has taken a sip of an expensive vintage.

The three preliminary readers (Nye, Ed Hirsch, and Gerald Stern) tonight are in a tough spot—Merwin is such a good reader of his own work. His poems fit perfectly in his own throat; his voice is quiet without being weak, clear without being loud. His best work from the 1960s is so disembodied, or half-embodied, it is as if Merwin has one foot in the world of the living and another in the world of the dead.

Gerald Stern ambles to the lectern. The backdrop photo switches to a dashing Merwin in his mid-20s. Stern has an I’ve-been-around-a-long-time-and-I-don’t-care-what-you-think-about-me swagger. He tells several anecdotes about times he shared with Merwin when they lived in a sixth-floor walk-up on 227 Waverly Place in Manhattan. Stern jokes about how hard it was walking up those six flights of stairs and how there was a window in the stairwell facing a tall tree and how he told himself, “If the tree could do it, you could do it.” It’s genuinely moving: the idea of these two poets over 70, hanging out 40 years ago in the Village, lives dedicated to words, still in contact. When Merwin passes away, there will be a tribute filled with personal moments such as this.

A cell phone goes off, probably one of the grad students.

Merwin takes the stage—his shock of white hair pure on his skull, the twinkle in his blue eyes detectable from 30 feet. He introduces his wonderful poem “Fly”: “If any of the poems seem self-righteous,” he says, “then I hope this poem offsets it.” The poem’s youthful narrator has been cruel to a fat pigeon who refuses to fly, throwing it into the air over and over, telling it to fly, until the thing finally kaputs. The last line swerves out of the narrative; the scope of the poem expands rapidly and resonates far beyond the situation: “I who have always believed too much in words.”

A photo of a handsome, 49-year-old Merwin appears on the screen, his dark, wavy hair culminating in whispery ringlets. With the giant Merwin photo projected over the shoulder of the breathing Merwin, the audience is presented with a bit of a quandary—which Merwin do we focus on? The one standing in front of us, or the younger, handsomer version preserved in two dimensions?

Merwin reads for a long time. The event has gone well past the 80-minute mark. My toenails are numb. Instead of a communal connection with the audience, perhaps the point of this event is to make the listener commune with his or her deeper self.

Afterward I ask the ushers what they thought. One looks both ways, then whispers, “I don’t want to get in trouble, but I was almost falling asleep.” Another usher says, “I don’t know if he was a sad man, or he just wrote about sad things. It was kind of apocalyptic and philosophical. It made you think.” A third usher remarks, “The language is beautiful. I didn’t get it, but the language is beautiful.”

As I walk past the serpentine line of book-clutching admirers, fans waiting for Merwin to drip some holy ink on the page, I think that poetry readings are like church: they can be quiet, reserved, cold, cerebral, or they can be loud, tangy, interactive, physical.

I leave the building empty-handed and remember the first time I saw Merwin read, in 1992 at the University of Virginia. I was a grad student. I waited until the line of book buyers dissipated, then I approached, knelt before him, and kissed his worn leather shoes, a blush smearing across his cheeks.
Originally Published: February 13th, 2006

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

Related Content
  1. September 16, 2009
     Julie Ali

    I've never been to a poetry reading but this description was perfect enough to make me believe I was there.

    This guy really knows how to write. Not only can he write decent prose but his poetry is real, succinct and entirely edible.

    If you haven't read his poetry start with "The Archipelago of Kisses" or "The Quiet World." Then, keep reading.

  2. November 15, 2011

    Is it wrong that I wanted to attend Sarah Lawrence just to
    take his classes? His writing is calculated and pristine
    with honest, guilty undertones that are so hard to find
    anywhere else.