Friday, May 7, 2010

Writers and Poets Among Friends

“The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal.”
~ William James

Last night, in a room on the 10th floor of New York University's Kimmel Center, with the lights of the New York City skyline shining through the windows, the Academy of American Poets held a tribute to poet, editor, mentor and friend to writers Daniel Halpern.

Halpern is the founder and editor of Ecco Press, which publishes everyone from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali to Joyce Carol Oates, Ian Frazier and Werner Herzog. He was also, with Paul Bowles, the co-founder of Antaeus, which many of the night's speakers called the best literary magazine ever (Antaeus published from 1970 to 1994).

Paying tribute were novelists Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, chef-author-TV personality Anthony Bourdain and poets John Ashbery, Janie Fink, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass and Campbell McGrath. Each spoke about Halpern's influence, his friendship, his editorial genius and his insight as a teacher. And then they read his poetry.

There are no reality shows about serious poets and novelists, who normally do their work quietly. If we see them at all, it is as if through a telescope — as a brightness in the distance or, like the late David Foster Wallace, a comet streaking across the sky. This was different. Being in the audience last night felt like sitting by a warm fire, just listening, while a group of close friends shared stories.

Joyce Carol Oates revealed an impish, playful sense of humor that gave her waif-like appearance a Tim Burtonesque air. Richard Ford was insightful and hilarious, repeatedly tiptoeing up to the point of a roast and then backing away. Describing his decades-long friendship with Halpern, he said something extraordinary: that they never talked about cars they once owned or drank beer together or indulged in any other rituals of male bonding behavior, so all that was left was to be close friends.

Halpern stood up at the end to thank his friends and spoke briefly about his life among writers. It was obvious why so many are so fond of him. He's a man with an enormous zest for life. Who wouldn't want to be his friend?

A poem by Daniel Halpern...

Careless Perfection

According to Lin Yutang,
both Po Chuyi and Su Tungpo
"desperately admired" Tao Yuanming,

a poet of nature who wrote a single love poem,
a poem thought by Chinese dilettantes to be
the one "blemish in a white jade."

Can a poet be faulted for calling a woman
carelessly perfect in beauty?
He chose to long for her by envying

the candle that glowed upon her
beautiful face, the shadow
that followed in her every move.

Yet the nature poet Tao Yuanming, at home
with the sudden turning of seasons,
now feared the shadow in darkness,

a discarded fan that once stirred her hair,
feared the candle at dawn. At last believed
that for beauty he had lived in vain.

“The poet and the politician have this in common: their greatness depends on the courage with which they face the challenges of life.”
~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy

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