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BILL MOYERS: Words, words, words. They are "the skin of a living thought," as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, and as Anna Deavere Smith demonstrates every night at the Second Stage Theatre here in Manhattan. Further south from the theater where she performs Let Me Down Easy, and very close to where the towers of the World Trade Center stood before that awful visitation of 9/11, New Yorkers have opened a new home for words.

Go there, as we did the other day, and you understand, so near what once was the scene of suffering and grief, how words can still "melt loss to gain." Take a look...

Poets House. You can walk in off the street and avail yourself of 50 thousand volumes of poetry. In late September, poets and their readers arrived in droves for the dedication of this lively new space devoted to the queen of arts. Founded in 1985 by the late Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz and the arts patron Elizabeth Kray, Poets House, began in an old schoolhouse and now occupies these 11 thousand sun-drenched square feet, and is one of the first cultural organizations to open in downtown Manhattan since 9/11.

CORNELIUS EADY: This is congratulations to Poets House and its achievement of, out of the ashes of Battery Park City and the World Trade Center, this incredibly new, beautiful house for poetry and poets. And I thought it'd be appropriate to read this 9/11 poem.

Communion

After the fall of the towers, it's hard to leave our apartments, Pull our eyes from the television, stuck on instant replay; so many angles, So many lenses, all this work and effort Just to be told they're gone. Again, and again.

LEE BRICCETTI: Why did people turn to poetry after September 11th? Right? It's a good question. But it's-- you almost forget that language is central to our identity as human beings and poetry is central to language. Every culture has a poetry. And I believe that when people in the caves were blowing paint into the imprints of their hands, they were also chanting words to go with that. It goes very, very deep into the essence of what we are as human beings.

BILLY COLLINS: Poetry fills me with joy and I rise like a feather in the wind. Poetry fills me with sorrow and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me with the urge to write poetry, to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame to appear at the tip of my pencil.

One of the first things you notice about Poets House is there's no apostrophe in the word poets because Stanley Kunitz said it should not be something someone possesses. It's for everybody.

MARK DOTY: It means a place to think, to meditate, to read, to refresh the spirit in the way that poetry can. And it seems to me that if New York City ever needed a place of respite, it needs it now.

MARIE HOWE: Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

KURT LAMKIN: Whether you're working on a forklift or a lathe or working in the hole. You still have that inner poem, or an inner narrative going on. And a lot of people don't get a chance to let that out, to air it out. But poets do.

grammama sittin on her porch easy rockin her grandbaby in her wide lap ol men sittin in their lincoln tastin and talkin and talkin and tastin

BOB HOLMAN: Then you start realizing that you got poetry all around you. That the lullabies that your mother sings are these. That the-- how you jump rope is to a poem. You know, and when the square dance caller is telling you which moves to make, you're dancing on a poem.

GALWAY KINNELL: I'm aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone. That is why I often take up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with. Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion. Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal with John Keats. Keats said I was right to invite him. Due to its glutinous texture, gluish lumpishness, hint of slime and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.

MARIE PONSOT: Poetry is priceless. It's priceless. It is a way of keeping yourself feeling rich and civilized even when you're quite poor.

PHILIP LEVINE: One lives inside an immense, endless opera punctuated by the high notes of sirens and the basso profundo of trucks & jackhammers & ferries & tugboats & helicopters. And when you merge your own small and sincere voice with the singing, you come to realize this music is merely the background to a great, American epic.

You go-- say go back to World War I in Britain. You see this outpouring of poetry that's just incredible, both from civilians and soldiers. Just incredible. How do we cope with this? How do we cope with a generation dying? Same thing happens in America in the '30s.

REGIE CABICO: And this last poem is called I Got It Bad for Nina Simone.

PHILIP LEVINE: I think tough times bring out the need for the communion you get with poetry, and the need to write it.

REGIE CABICO: Nina, look at the sky. April clouds hang a fat, sappy syrup on my saddest day. Played you Monday nights. My day unbearable as a wool coat in April. Came back to find my bed empty as a tire swing in winter. Nina, in my saddest hour, you have crooned me over a cruel block of loneliness when unrequited love is an Italian bartender who flirts with you from the torso and offers you more lies than a tiramisu.

JANE LECROY: Whose woods are these?

ALICE LECROY: I think I know. His house is in the village though.

JANE LACROY: He will not...

ALICE LACROY: Speak.

JANE LACROY: He will not see me stopping here to watch his--

ALICE LACROY: His woods--

JANE LACROY: Woods fill up with snow.

ALICE LACROY: Fill up with snow.

JANE LECROY & ALICE LECROY: My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

BILL MOYERS: That's it for the Journal . Log onto our website at PBS.org and click on Bill Moyers Journal. We'll link you to Poets House, and you'll be able to use our special poetry player to access the Moyers television archive of poets and their work. You also can find out much more about Anna Deavere Smith and her career as a unique chronicler of the American character. That's all at PBS.org.

I'm Bill Moyers. And I'll see you next time.

Poets House

November 13, 2009

From religious ceremonies to children’s games, poetry holds a central place in human communities, though some may take it for granted.

In 1985, poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray founded Poets House to be a community built around poetry. First housed in an old school house in New York City’s SoHo district, they meant it to be “a home for all who read and write poetry.” With rising rents pricing Poets House out of SoHo, the organization recently moved to a large rent-free space on the Hudson River, with a lease through 2069.

Bill Moyers Journal was there for the opening day ceremonies, along with many poets who came to read their work and talk about the importance of having a physical space for poetry in the 21st century.

Poet Mark Doty expressed the importance of Poets House, “It means a place to think, to meditate, to read, to refresh the spirit in the way that poetry can. And it seems to me that if New York City ever needed a place of respite, it needs it now.”

About Stanley Kunitz

Serving twice as Poet Laureate of the United States, Stanley Kunitz was an influential poet and tireless advocate for the form, remaining active in the poetry community as a writer, activist, and mentor to young poets until his death, at the age of 100, in 2006.

His published poetry spans much of the 20th century, from his first book Intellectual Things, in 1930, to Passing Through: The Later Poems, New And Selected, in 1995. His last book was published on his 100th birthday, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, with Genine Lentine, featuring photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.

You can learn more about Stanley Kunitz on the Poets House website, and at the Poetry Foundation website, where you can read poems by Stanley Kunitz as well as memorials written for him by other poets.

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  • Wayne S. Williams

    Beautiful.