More than 600 people gathered at the First Church of Christ Thursday evening, sitting on the floor and lining the back walls to hear and see nine Bollingen Prize-winning poets, including several Pulitzer Prize winners and two former U.S. poet laureates.
The poets included John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Louise Gluck, John Hollander, Stanley Kunitz, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Mark Strand and Richard Wilbur. After what most spectators deemed an extremely successful and fulfilling evening on Thursday, the poets reassembled Friday morning for two panel discussions at the Whitney Humanities Center.
The Bollingen Prize for Poetry was established in 1948 by Paul Mellon. The prize is administered by the Yale Collection of American Literature and is awarded every two years for either lifetime achievement or a particularly noteworthy volume of poetry. Former winners of the highly acclaimed prize include W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings and Robert Frost.
Although the prize itself has been in existence for more than half a century, Yale has never before sponsored an event of this magnitude. This year, Barbara Shailor, the director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Maria Rosa Menocal, the director of the Whitney Humanities Center, decided to invite all living Bollingen Prize winners to Yale to share their work. Patricia Willis, the curator of American literature at the Beinecke library, and Nancy Kuhl, assistant curator of American literature, both served on an organizing committee for the event.
The nearly 900 audience members — 600 in the First Church of Christ and another 300 watching via television at the Trinity Episcopal Church — came from a wide variety of places to take advantage of the rare opportunity.
“To hear Stanley Kunitz say ‘Where Are My Stones,’ I would have come from the other side of the world,” said Andrew Sage, a graduate student at Columbia University. “These are poets, some of whom are standing on the threshold of the next world. We will not have another opportunity in our lifetime to hear, in rapid succession, with our own ears, these unique and mighty voices.”
Although Bollingen winners Donald Justice and Anthony Hecht were not able to attend the event, their works were read by other poets. Similarly, Strand read for Kenneth Koch, who passed away this past summer. After these substitute readings were finished, the poets read their own pieces.
Many audience members seemed thrilled with the event as they filed out of the church.
“I drove down from Boston just for this,” said Pat Peterson, who said she learned of the event from a friend in New Haven. “I’m not a poet, but the opportunity to hear all these great poets was just compelling. The best of western civilization had been marshaled for my pleasure. At a time when we all feel vulnerable, it was comforting and enriching.”
The second half of the event consisted of two separate panel discussions. The first, entitled “American Traditions in Poetry,” was led by professor Langdon Hammer. Creeley, Ashbery, Gluck and Strand discussed the history of American poetry and the reasons why many poets devote significant time to teaching at the university level. Hammer began by posing his own questions to the panel before he opened the discussion to the audience.
A second panel, entitled “The Craft of Poetry Today,” followed a brief interlude in which audience members were free to talk to the poets. Snyder, Wilbur, Hollander and Merwin participated in the second discussion.
The poets seemed to enjoy the event almost as much as the audience did.
“It was so very lively, so many different voices, each excellent in their own way,” Strand said.
Gluck said the decision to come to New Haven for the event was an easy one.
“I was overwhelmed and honored by the prize,” said Gluck, the 2001 winner. “However it’s been given, it seems to have generated a list of artists of the highest caliber. I’ve often felt grateful, but I never before felt honored. Anything that Yale asks me to do now, I couldn’t not do.”