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NPR Arts & Life

New York's East Village Ushers In New Year With Feast Of Language

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In New York, some 150 poets wailed, whispered and rang in the New Year in verse. They were part of the annual New Year's Day marathon reading at the St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. The event is part of the poetry project, which has for the last 50 years supported the work of contemporary poets. Tom Vitale has more.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Bob Rosenthal stood at the podium in the sanctuary of St. Mark's yesterday afternoon and read "Ode to Mendacity."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB ROSENTHAL: (Reading) If I were not in love with all things untrue, I, too, would be lacerated and drained. But I love a generous falsity.

VITALE: Rosenthal wrote this poem specifically to read at the marathon. He says it's about the nature of truth and lies in the wake of the presidential election.

ROSENTHAL: And about how we all share a part in accepting official lies and being controlled by them. We all have to own a part of whatever the results of the election mean to us.

VITALE: The New Year's Day Marathon poetry reading is a tradition that dates back to 1974. It was the brainchild of the poetry project's co-founder Anne Waldman.

ANNE WALDMAN: It's this idea of very naked, open, people speaking from their heart. It's the new year. You want to come with some kind of vision of what it's going to be like.

VITALE: The poetry project archived those visions and donated its recordings to the Library of Congress. Two years after the New Year's Day event launched, Ed Sanders began with a prescient call to arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED SANDERS: (Reading) This is the age of investigation, and every citizen must investigate, for the pallid tracks of guilt and death, slight as they are, suffuse upon the retentive electromagnetic data retrieval systems of our era.

VITALE: Sanders was followed by composer John Cage reading a work derived from excerpts of Henry David Thoreau's journals randomly arranged by chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CAGE: (Reading) Wasps are building summer squashes, saw a fish hawk when I hear this. Both bushes and trees are thinly leaved, few ripe ones on sandy banks.

VITALE: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Spalding Gray, Amiri Baraka, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Philip Glass have all performed at the event. The first reader at this year's marathon, Marcella Durand, says poetry is a tool for reflection at the beginning of a new year.

MARCELLA DURAND: Poetry is mysterious, and it's not quantifiable. It's not countable. It's a counterweight to all the pressures and consumerism in our everyday lives. It's another dimension that reminds you that life can be richer and fuller and quieter and deeper.

VITALE: The late poet William Carlos Williams wrote, it is difficult to get the news from poetry, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. Marathon founder Anne Waldman says that in the so-called post-truth fog of 2017, we need poetry now more than ever.

WALDMAN: There's talk of, this will be a good time for poetry, you know, when things get darker and stranger and your very speech is being questioned and the sense of trusting that human thing.

VITALE: Anne Waldman says the role of poetry is to wake the world up to itself or, as Ed Sanders put it four decades ago...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: This is the poets' era, and we should all walk crinkle-toed upon the smooth, cold thrill of Botticelli's shell. Happy New Year.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSION VENICE SONG, "NIGHTMARES ON WAX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.