How fitting that it was a doctor—William Carlos Williams—who welcomed the Poetry Center into the world on October 26, 1939. Like all the poets who appeared that inaugural season—including Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore and W. H. Auden—Dr. Williams performed his poetry in our art gallery, from behind a simple podium placed between the two windows along the north wall.
At the beginning, the poets said yes to an aspiration, not an institution. They shared the belief of Kimon Friar—the Poetry Center’s second director—who said that “the poet’s presence, the poet’s own voice, helps to give poetry a local habitation and a name, to make it belong, to give it a body.” The first audiences were small—Auden was the most popular—but over time they grew.
By the end of the first decade, most of the readings took place in the concert hall next door, and it wasn’t just poets but novelists and playwrights, too. Just about everyone said yes.
Arthur Miller said yes, though he claimed illiteracy. Marianne Moore said yes and sent directions to her house in Brooklyn. E. E. Cummings said yes if he didn’t have to dine with donors. Wallace Stevens said yes if we’d make it free. Truman Capote said yes and almost missed the boat from Paris.
Dylan Thomas said yes and we sent him on tour. Norman Mailer said yes and we brought the curtain down on his head. Allen Ginsberg said yes and brought his father along. Elizabeth Bishop said no then yes then asked us to burn the recording. Tennessee Williams said no then yes when Carson McCullers asked him again.
John Ashbery has said yes for sixty years. Adrienne Rich said yes for fifty. So did Richard Wilbur and Galway Kinnell and Stanley Kunitz. Susan Sontag said yes for forty. So did Gwendolyn Brooks and Seamus Heaney and Cynthia Ozick, who sat in the audience for years before taking the stage herself. Richard Howard has never said no.
Samuel Beckett said no because he was Beckett. Jean-Paul Sartre said no because of Vietnam. Andrei Voznesensky was told no by the Soviets and we protested. Pablo Neruda said yes and was let in. Zbigniew Herbert said yes and saw the Grand Canyon. Leonard Cohen said yes and sang.
“Love the words” is what Dylan Thomas asked of his actors before the premiere of Under Milk Wood, and it is this aspiration, shared by writers and readers, that turns a concert hall into a community. To celebrate the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary is to celebrate the voices of literature. We’ve looked after the voices all these years and made a home for the extraordinary possibility of encounter, for moments of rising and wonder that do not happen anywhere else.
Love the Words is supported by a generous gift from Eva Colin Usdan and John Usdan and is a collaboration with Duggal Visual Solutions. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Steve Siegel, our beloved archivist. It was Steve who taught us that the past is full of inspiration and confirmation of a future we know by faith.
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