Tonight’s Best American Poetry Gala Launch Reading was a rare treat for those who appreciate both outstanding poetry and a tinge of pathetic fallacy. The blustery winds and cold gray skies outside did nothing to deter the numerous listeners who packed the New School’s Tishman Auditorium to hear John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Ciaran Berry, Laura Cronk, Richard Howard, D. Nurkse, Meghan O'Rourke, Lee Upton, and Best American Poetry’s series editor, David Lehman, who served as master of ceremonies. Lehman set the tone by noting the inclement weather as well as the economic storm America is weathering. In an aside, he mentioned the ill-fated bank whose name he shares, and then moved from black humor to gravitas by reading the beginning of Robert Hass’s remarkable poem about the world’s brutality and grace “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name Is Dmitri” (The Best American Poetry 2008) as well as sharing his own poem “On Humility,” an homage to departed mentors such as Kenneth Koch.
This redemptive mixture of passion, generosity, and illumination was a river through the evening as the featured poets read various combinations of their own poems from The Best American Poetry 2008, new work, and poems by their colleagues. It is impossible to dwell on each reader long enough to do them justice, so a highlights reel will have to suffice. Charles Bernstein racheted up the political dimension by calling for a Poetry Bailout to “save us from subprime poems” (no worries about that this evening!). Lee Upton garnered as many laughs (and as probably as many votes for her cause) by reading “Diserotica,” a new poem lamenting erotic writing that fails to achieve its stated goal. Ciaran Berry and D. Nurkse took us time-traveling to Coney Island in 1903 for Berry’s “Electrocuting an Elephant” and the Crusades with Nurkse’s “The Gate of Abraham.” Laura Cronk followed her sparse lovely “Entering” with W. S. Merwin’s “A Letter to Su Tung P’o,” a poem that reminds us how present the past remains since, as Merwin puts it, “Almost a thousand years later / I am asking the same questions / you did...” Richard Howard’s instruction in “The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Castor and Pollux” to “Look again, look closer” at the painting, performed a pas a deux with Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Window at Arles,” elegantly illustrating how often we misconstrue the story or fail to see the interior landscape of the painter. Perhaps the last word on the Gala Reading should be left to John Ashbery who, as is so often the case, says it best, though of course he was referencing another evening, “Tonight we have tension and oneness, / arcane, arousing.” (“Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees”). The night ended far too early.
-- Kate Angus