Poets, actors gather to celebrate 'Real Poems for Unreal Times'

Friday, May 23, 2003

NEW YORK -- "You're very lucky tonight," poet Glyn Maxwell told the audience at Cooper Union's Great Hall.

He stood at the podium Wednesday night, surrounded by an all-star cast of poets -- Charles Simic, Nina Cassian, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine and this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Muldoon.

Seeing contemporary poetry as it really is was the goal of the evening, a celebration of the American release of "Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times."

Besides the poets, actors Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Maria Tucci read selections from the book, including works by Langston Hughes, U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.

The anthology, published in Great Britain in 2002, came about after editor Neil Astley read a survey showing that most Britons see contemporary poetry as pretentious, boring and irrelevant.

"The trouble with that perception," Muldoon said in an interview before the reading, "is that it's only that -- a perception. The people who complain the most have never tried to read any poetry."

While Astley bemoans this state of affairs, Muldoon is content.

"I think it's perfectly grand," Muldoon said. "Poetry can't compete with 'American Idol,' but would it want to?"

Poets have been in the headlines this past year, most notably when concern over war protests led first lady Laura Bush to cancel a Feb. 12 White House forum on "Poetry and the American Voice."

Speaking before the reading Wednesday night, Streep called reactions against politically involved artists "nauseating" and blamed it on fear.

"People endow artists with power they don't have, but also recognize the power they do have, to influence," she said.


On the Net:

Poetry Society of America: www.poetrysociety.org

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