The Virgin of Bennington [excerpt]
In these excerpts from Norris's book, she describes Betty Kray, the first executive director of the Academy of American Poets, and Kray's relentless efforts to promote American poetry.
Betty hoped that the position [as executive director] would afford her considerable autonomy, but she was apprehensive. The Academy's newsletter, Poetry Pilot, then featured cute mottos, such as "Poetry says it best," and was adorned, as was the institution's letterhead, with a lumpy blue Pegasus. Betty arrived in this insular world not as a breath but as a blast of fresh air. And for years she campaigned—unsuccessfully—to get rid of Pegasus. She wrote to a friend in 1962, "I am trying to stuff all kinds of activities under the Academy's wings. If a reading program goes through, then that poor blue horse will look like a broody hen."
Betty did get her reading series, and much more. She and Marie Bullock considered how they might fund new programs and literary awards, including what became the first prize competition open to American poets for verse translations. They developed a proposal to install a national poetry library at the new Lincoln Center, a project that though it unfortunately never materialized, did establish their working relationship. Stanley Kunitz termed this partnership, which endured for more than twenty years, "the most formidable and irresistible twosome imaginable on the side of the angels."
The title of the document she submitted to the Rockefeller Foundation reveals what she was up against, and seems absurd today: "An Explanation, Definition, and Defense of the Practice of Reading Poetry Aloud to the Public." It begins quietly, affirming that "poetry readings are spoken to a minority. Poetry is a low voice speaking in the midst of loud voices."
Grant proposals do not often make for stimulating reading, but most are not fueled by Betty Kray's passion. "Those who come to poetry readings come for relief, and for pleasure," she wrote, "especially the pleasure of...hearing spoken language in its most subtle form. I should say that poetry readings primarily serve the person who finds delight in language." She homed in on the importance of allowing people to "experience the oral imprint of poetry," and concluded that even the physical presence of the poet was important, for he or she is "presenting the flesh and bones behind the poem." The living poet "prevents the listener from abstracting the poem away from the living language and the feeling person, as is so often the student's habit. The spoken poem ceases to be 'ready made,'" refuses to be an object that exists to be manipulated, but asserts itself as something far more complex. The poem offered at a reading, Betty believed, was an experience as broad and contradictory, and as full of potential, as any human experience.
In May 1973, with the Parks Department staff helping navigate the municipal bureaucracy, the Academy arranged an event celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. The program began aboard the Wavertree, a nineteenth-century merchant marine schooner that had recently been moored by the new South Street Seaport Museum, where several writers read poems about the bridge by Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, and Walt Whitman. The audience then boarded a city fireboat, borrowed in order to reinstate, for one glorious (and one-way) ride, the Brooklyn ferry that Walt Whitman had known so well. Once in Brooklyn, the group walked to the Long Island Historical Society, where Harvey Shapiro and Paul Zweig read more poems about the bridge by Yvan Goll, Vladimir Mayakovsky, George Oppen, and Louis Zukofsky. We then joined the crowds gathered on the promenade to see a municipal fireworks display and to sing "Happy Birthday."
Three things about the event stand out in my mind: the mountain of paperwork graciously handled by Trudy Kramer of the Parks Department staff, the pouring rain that failed to hamper our celebratory spirit, and James Wright's sonorous voice reading Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" as we crossed the East River:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky,
so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one
of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh 'd by the gladness of the river
and the bright flow, I was refresh'd...
Only in Betty's city could I converse at an Academy reception with the distinguished poet John Hall Wheelock, then well into his eighties, who had for many years been an editor at Scribner's, working with such authors as Thomas Wolfe, Louise Bogan, and Allen Tate. As Wheelock sipped a Manhattan, grateful that he could still enjoy a cocktail on occasion, we told him we were planning a program in which we hoped to take the audience on a ferry to Brooklyn. Betty's eyes lit up, and she said, "You must remember the Brooklyn ferry, John." Wheelock replied that his father had taken it every day to his job on Wall Street, and that he had always been thrilled when he was permitted a ride. "Once," he told us, "when I was very small, five or six years old, my father hoisted me to his shoulders and pointed to a dignified, white-haired man with a great beard. He was standing alone, his face to the wind. 'I want you to always remember this, John,' my father whispered in my ear. 'Remember that you have seen Mr. Whitman.'"
Caring for poets became Betty Kray's vocation, but her attentions were never condescending, in part because they were both intimate and impersonal. My contemporary Gregory Orr captured the nature of Betty's gift, in admitting that she had always made him feel "cared for," but that "it was not just personal: that it had to do with poetry, which was more important than any of us." Orr had come to New York from Virginia in the late 1970s so that his wife could attend art school. When Betty learned that he was stranded in his apartment with a broken foot, she arranged for him to come to the Academy offices several days a week to screen manuscripts for a competition. Orr says that he read slowly, because the way Betty interrupted him with "wonderful, funny, wicked stories" about poets she had known—Auden, Cummings, Roethke—was so enjoyable. She made him feel that it was all right if a poet was "a little crazy or miserable," and best of all, that "she was including me among the half-cracked poets she cared for."
Betty Kray and Marie Bullock epitomize an era when arts institutions strongly reflected the personalities and idiosyncratic passions of their founders or directors. When I went to work for the Academy, I saw that others considered it a mysterious place, with its board of directors recruited from the elite enclaves of investment banking and the Social Register while the poets in Academy programs reflected the social and ethnic diversity of the city and nation. The uneasy marriage that Marie Bullock and Betty had wrought was all the more remarkable because it lasted for over twenty years, and the two women made it seem cohesive.
In order to appreciate the accomplishment of Marie Bullock and Betty Kray, one must envision what was available to American poets in 1934, when Marie Bullock began talking nonsense about funding an annual fellowship, or in 1954, when Betty Kray dared suggest that colleges in a region band together to sponsor young poets to the tune of $100 per reading, or a decade later , when she came up with the harebrained idea of having poets visit school classrooms to talk about poetry. The two women indelibly changed the landscape for poetry in America.
Reprinted from The Virgin of Bennington (Riverhead Books, 2001) by Kathleen Norris. Used by permission of Penguin Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.