Tonight is one of the biggest nights of the year for us. Back in September, a standing-room-only crowd filled the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium to mark the beginning of Charles Wright’s term as the 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry; tonight we will gather in the same room to mark the end of Wright’s term. He has chosen a remarkable way to end: sharing the stage with his old friend Charles Simic–the 15th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry–and with Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine.
This event will be historic, I’m sure; it also will be the continuation of a public conversation the two Laureates have had for decades. When I was almost half the age I am now, I ran across “Narrative of the Image: A Correspondence” in the pages of the Gettysburg Review. It was a selection of ten letters by Simic and Wright, which started when the latter sent along a statement he’d written up to his poetry workshop students. The two argued and teased, made in-jokes and played around–they didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously. Then again, they were as serious as could be in trying some essential questions about the art, and their humor seemed like a kind of humility before such a task.
The feature was a revelation to me, at that time in my life–much like Philip Levine’s essay “Mine Own John Berryman” was a few years earlier. You can imagine how awed I was at the end of Phil’s term as Laureate, when he delivered his lecture, “My Lost Poets.” And I am awed now, for what will happen in the Coolidge Auditorium in just a few hours. I should say that, while Phil had given me hints about his lecture before he gave it, I do not really know what will happen when Charles, Charles, and Don start talking to each other. Don hasn’t met either poet, which makes their conversation-to-come all the more exciting. (From experience, I can say that Don is just wonderful, both on- and off-stage.)
I hope to see many of you there tonight, to celebrate the Poets Laureate and to experience the continuation of their conversation–on a stage both have graced before, and with a newcomer that happens to be one of the country’s great editors. While the event itself ends Wright’s Laureateship, what it represents is something larger. Something that, as Don said of his editing style, looks backwards as it moves forward. I expect it will change my sense of what poetry can do, and I can’t wait to discuss it afterwards–with the participants, of course, but with anyone else who will do so.