Though not quite standing room only, the Strathmore was packed from its crowded orchestra to its fourth tier balcony; even some of the throwback box seats elevated along the sides of this enormous structure had audience peaking over the rails. The stage was empty, however. The chorus had not yet arrived. The orchestra was nowhere in sight. “Where were the instruments?” the audience might have asked. “The piano and the big bass drum?” Were the two performers going to sing a cappella?
As it turned out, poet Wallace Stevens’ famous line, “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” was more than apropos for this occasion, as our two performers were not singers, but poets; and the thousand plus eager ears in the audience were yearning not for the sonorous chords of an oboe or a lute, but for the small wonders of two of America’s most famous bards: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (who is, by the way, of no relation to this critic).
As a poet and performer myself, I have long bemoaned most poets’ inability to engage a live audience, almost as if years of academia had trapped their voices within the books they are constantly reading. To be sure, with the emergence of performance poetry—slam and spoken word—that lack of a live voice is disappearing. With the gain, however, comes a countering decline in poetry’s essential solitude—its ability to question the rawness of experience. Oh, how I hoped that Collins and Oliver would strike a balance or bridge a synthesis between those paradoxical necessities!
And did they ever, bringing to life on the Strathmore stage the sublime solitary of poetic expression while at the same time embodying its desire for community. By the end of the event, Collins and Oliver stood before satisfied ears to a thundering ovation.
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