LOVE THE WORDS
The Unterberg Poetry Center at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y in Manhattan is celebrating its 75th anniversary with an exhibition of posters, photographs and handwritten or typed notes and letters amassed over the years from their many literary events. Love the Words, the title of the show, is what Dylan Thomas asked his actors to do before the premiere performance of his verse play Under Milk Wood, which took place at the Y in 1953. Many of the letters are mundane—travel arrangements, payment requests, performance dates—but that’s part of what makes them interesting. Truman Capote bargaining hard over his fee, Dylan Thomas pleading poverty and hoping for more work, Philip Roth generously plugging a new author (Douglas Hobbie); literary icons have ordinary needs and desires. The exhibition looks at these men and women through the humanizing lens of their ephemera.
Acceptances, refusals, nerves
Some, though, go beyond the banal. T.S. Eliot, writing about anti-Semitism in Soviet Russia in 1953, said a public stand was not enough: “One ought, I think, to say a little more that that.” In another letter accepting an invitation to appear again at the Y, in a paroxysm of modesty, he writes, “My only hesitation is due to the fact that, as you know, my repertory is very small…. But I have always liked your audience, and if you think they want me again, I would be delighted to consider it.” Nerves over such appearances pop up in several of the letters on display. Don DeLillo was glad for it to be over, Elizabeth Bishop suffered chronic dysentery before readings and Samuel Beckett refused an invitation because, he said, “I am incapable of lecturing or reading from my own works.”
The Poetry Center apparently meant a lot to Joan Didion, who in 1983 also refused an invitation to talk until the novel she was working on (presumably Democracy, publiched in 1984) was finished. “It would be a great pleasure, sometime, to do it, particularly because the Poetry Center was such a magical place to me when I was living in New York and just beginning to write,” she wrote.
Poets—and others—on poets
Also, available for the first time online—and for many for the first time in any form—there’s 75 at 75: Writers on Recordings, where contemporary authors comment on a particular Poetry Center recording of an admired writer. One such is the Irish novelist, critic and poet Colm Tóibín on the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. The recording is from a reading Bishop gave on October 10, 1977, two years before her death. Her state of mind, her drink and cigarettes are audible as she reads several early poems—”The Map,” “Casabianca,” “Jeronimo’s House,” “The Bight” and “In the Waiting Room”—along with the then-unpublished “Santarém,” about her time in Brazil. “Bishop was never sure, and in the poetics of her uncertainty there was something hurt and solitary. And that, too, is in the voice when she reads her work,” says Tóibín. “Her reading style bears all the marks of a great withholding of emotion, the refusal to allow emotion to ‘exceed its cause,’ as she said in ‘The Map,’ the first poem she read.”
So far, besides Tóibín on Bishop. there are only a few in this series: Brian Boyd on Vladimir Nabokov, Rick Moody on W.G. Sebald and A.L. Kennedy on E.E. Cummings. In the works are Richard Ford on Eudora Welty, Cynthia Ozick on W.H. Auden, Donna Tartt on Carson McCullers, Maxine Hong Kingston on Grace Paley, Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens, Yiyun Li on William Trevor and Tom Stoppard on Harold Pinter.
A very good sound
But it all goes to show that the Unterberg Poetry Center has been and continues to be an important star in the literary universe. “Here we have the real thing,” says Kennedy in her commentary on E.E. Cummings’s 1949 session at the Center. “It’s a proper reading, with breaths in it ‘as big as a circus tent.’” What she likes most, though, is what can be heard outside the performance, “The laughter at the conclusion—the open and delighted laughter of E.E. Cummings being a writer who has just done a good hour’s work and is pleased. That’s a very good sound.”
Celebrating 75 Years
Unterberg Poetry Center
92nd Street Y
1395 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10128