Actress Meryl Streep and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy led an A-list lineup Tuesday night in a poetry reading that strayed frequently into the political.
The second annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, delivered to a full house at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, benefited the Academy of American Poets.
Eleven readers chose work by dead American poets in a celebratory (and sometimes self-congratulatory) evening dedicated to the late George Plimpton, founder of The Paris Review and “a great friend of poetry,” according to Tree Swenson, the academy’s executive director.
Setting the political tone, academy board member and benefit co-chair Rose Styron alluded to the war in Iraq and imperiled freedom of information in her opening remarks. She was followed by Kennedy, who read “The Gift Outright,” the poem that Robert Frost recited at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
He followed with Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body,” and “couldn’t resist” sneaking in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ “Meanwhile in Massachusetts,” given to her husband on their first wedding anniversary and inspired by Benet’s poem.
Samantha Power, author of “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” read Joseph Brodsky’s stark “Bosnia Tune” in a last-minute change to mark the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Power’s switch was one of several deviations from the program, including Streep’s decision, “in the spirit of civil disobedience,” to couple Randall Jarrell’s meditations on mortality and materialism, “Next Day,” with Delmore Schwartz’s more compatible “One in a Thousand of Years of the Nights,” instead of a T.S. Eliot poem.
Wynton Marsalis, however, stuck to his choices, doing a sermonlike reading of James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” and the anonymous poem “John Henry.” The jazz musician brought out his trumpet to set the mood and even got the staid crowd to clap rhythmically for a few stanzas as he sang the traditional poem.
“I can’t believe I have to follow that,” designer Cynthia Rowley quipped before reading two poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, whose work inspired Rowley to create a “We Real Cool” T-shirt for the academy.
After Rowley came actress Mary-Louise Parker with breathy renditions of Anne Sexton and W.H. Auden. She asked audience members to close their eyes during her reading.
Actor Kevin Kline, a first-time public reader of verse, was also the night’s best. His opening remark: “You may open your eyes. Please put your hands over your ears.” One of his selections was Marianne Moore’s witty “Poetry.”
“I was asked not to do the short version,” Kline said at the dinner party after the two-hour reading, referring to the two-line poem that Moore whittled “Poetry” down to after deciding that the rest was just “padding.”
“Then I looked at my watch,” Kline said with a smile, “and thought, hmmm, I could do it.”
Other readers included TV’s Diane Sawyer, artist Brice Marden and actress Vanessa Redgrave, who finished with an impassioned, disjointed tribute to American arts and democracy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and co-chair Jorie Graham concluded the reading with a call to future poets.
“Poetry continually cleanses the language,” Graham said. “For every lie we’re told by advertisers and politicians, we need one poem to balance it.”