Creative Refraction // Alec Baldwin, Patti Smith & Dan Barber Read Me Their Favorite Poems


I saw all these people share the same stage last night.

Despite what you might think, the Poetry & the Creative Mind Benefit is not some gimmick or PR stunt, like celebrities writing cookbooks or making appearances at children’s hospitals. The night was what I'm gonna go ahead and coin, "creative refraction", art transformed by another art.

Dan Barber -- of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Obama’s nutrition council -- spoke reverentially and urgently of the blackberries and pumpkin seeds in Robert Hass’s "Meditation at Lagunitas." And who knew that Michael Cunningham -- he of the steady, introspective novel -- would actually crackle with actorly electricity in Frank O’Hara’s "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)"?

Jesse Eisenberg performed with some of Mark Zuckerberg’s anxious egocentrism in Delmore Schwartz’s "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me," while the jazz singer, Cassandra Wilson, delivered a devastating climax that took for everyone by surprise in "Left," Nikky Finney’s poem about Hurricane Katrina. Adrien Brody wore a wide-brimmed fedora hat and growled into the mic, “I been in this game for years, it made me an animal / It's rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual,” from Biggie’s "10 Crack Commandments."  

And Patti Smith (adorable in person!) channeled her poet-kindred-spirit as she chanted the footnote to "Howl," practically possessed by the gonzo creative force of Allen Ginsberg. Alec Baldwin brought a wry wink to an otherwise tediously sing-songy "Annabel Lee."

But my favorite was Liev Schrieber, who read two poems I loved, "My Beloved" by Charles Simic, and this one, "A Song", by Joseph Brodsky. Imagine, if you can, an unflashy reading of measured, mature longing:

I wish you were here, dear, I wish you were here.
I wish you sat on the sofa
and I sat near.
the handkerchief could be yours,
the tear could be mine, chin-bound.
Though it could be, of course,
the other way around.

Yes, I saw all those people, in the flesh, on the same stage with nothing but a podium and a mic. Mark your calendars for Lincoln Center. Next year, different readers. I’ll see you there. For this year's program, with links to some of the poems, click here.