The night of poetry began with the verse of Emily Dickinson set to television music, peaked with a shaman-esque chant by Patti Smith and ended with Alec Baldwin making good on his college English studies with a flawless recital of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee."
"I was in tears from Alec Baldwin reading `Annabel Lee.' It's such a beautiful poem," Smith said Wednesday night after a gala event at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, where nine artists and celebrities were featured readers for Poetry & the Creative Mind, a benefit sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and staged in honor of April, National Poetry Month.
Only Smith qualified as an actual poet, but Adrien Brody looked like one in his porkpie hat and dark beard, and all performers honored material that demonstrated the unruly range of American verse. There were standards memorized in classrooms ("Annabel Lee," Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"), the anguish of Delmore Schwartz, the ecstasy of Allen Ginsberg, the street talk of Charles Bukowski and the rap of Christopher Wallace, aka the late Notorious B.I.G.
The classic and the colloquial were paired from the beginning. Master of ceremonies Chip Kidd read a gloomy excerpt by Marilyn Monroe and continued a tradition of fitting Dickinson's compressed verse to contemporary song. Two years ago, he picked the melody of "Yellow Rose of Texas." On Wednesday, he sang some of Dickinson's most morbid lines to the bouncy theme of "Gilligan's Island":
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
The readers were aligned in chairs behind the podium, their dress business-casual, from Caroline Kennedy's silk jacket and blouse to the tie-less attire of most of the men. The moods were serious, silly, confessional, righteous.
Kennedy, who has edited several collections of poetry, earnestly explained the importance of hearing verse aloud. Jesse Eisenberg, a picture of self-absorption in "The Social Network," nervously smacked his lips as he acknowledged that his choice of Schwartz's haunted "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me" was a "veiled way to further my narcissism." Brody slouched at the podium and rasped through Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ten Crack Commandments."
Chef-food writer Dan Barber claimed he didn't bother with poetry, "like never," but so enjoyed Robert Hass' "Meditation at Lagunitas" that he read it twice. Singer Cassandra Wilson introduced herself as a novice but sounded like a natural through an accomplished and emotional tribute reading of Nikky Finney's "Left," an elegy for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Until her turn came, Smith hardly seemed on the same stage, or in the same cosmos. She sat stiffly, arms folded across her chest, her eyes closed as if in solitude. But at the podium, her graying hair in pigtails, her round glasses blinded in the spotlight, she shook and shouted through Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl," with its rush of "Holies" and its Utopian climax: "Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!"
Smith left to applause long and impolite, old news for a rock star. An awed Baldwin began his reading with a chant of his own.
"Oh, man," he said. "Oh, man. Oh, man."