The Second Annual Campbell Corner Poetry Reading
Highlights from the Reading and Reception
October 3, 2000

Beth Ann Fennelley's Opening Remarks
Turning Twenty-Nine: a poem

Susan Guma, director of graduate studies at SL with Anthony A. Deaton, winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.

Robert Aneyci, writer; Shuba Gopal, PhD candidate at Rockefeller University; Maggie Richter, MDiv candidate at Union Theological Seminary.

Winners and judges enjoying their moment: Nathalie Andersen, Beth Ann Fennelly, Allan King (back row,left to right) April Selley, David Baker, Anthony A Deaton. (front row, left to right)

Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly and Elfie Raymond toasting the occasion
Conversations among poets and guests.

Introductory Comments and a Poem by Beth Ann Fennelly

I’ve been asked by the Joseph Campbell Chair in Philosophy and originator of this event, Elfie Raymond, to make a brief introductory comment affirming the centrality of poetry and philosophy in our lives. So I stand before you faced with two unpleasant options-one is to affirm the centrality of something I’m not convinced is central. The other is to disappoint Elfie Raymond. Why do I worry that affirming the place of poetry and philosophy may be a lie? Well, Joseph Campbell said you can tell what’s important to a culture by the size of its buildings. I have seen Trump Towers; I have seen the Superdome; I have seen the country’s sole poetry-only bookstore, Grolier in Cambridge; and friends, I’m afraid size does matter. I remember when I arrived early for my orientation at the University of Arkansas’ M.F.A. program, and took the opportunity to check out the library’s poetry holdings. I asked the librarian to show me the poetry journals; she misheard me and showed me the poultry journals. And chickens outweighed Chaucer, then as now. How many average Americans can name three contemporary philosophers, or three contemporary poets? So no, Elfie, no, I’m afraid I can’t affirm the centrality of philosophy and poetry in our lives.
And yet . . .and yet here’s Elfie, who’s given money to establish this award, and here are professors and administrators from Sarah Lawrence, which has supported it. I was lucky enough to be a finalist last year, and even luckier to be asked to be one of the judges this year to fill in for Philis Levin, currently abroad enjoying the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship. I felt so honored when three big boxes of manuscripts arrived on my doorstep, and I was reminded that for many, many people out there, poetry and philosophy do occupy a central place in their psyches. And then three more boxes arrived. And then three more. In the end, David Baker, Andrew Hudgins, and I were nearly overwhelmed by the passion of people eager to affirm this centrality. And so, in the end, I do find myself grudgingly repeating along with William Carlos Williams: “My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you, and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new-you will not find it there, but in despised poems. Poetry makes nothing happen, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” And I find myself stubbornly repeating with Auden: “After all, it is rather a privilege to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into background noise for study or hung on the wall by rising executives, but still stubbornly insists on being read or ignored.” And as for you out there-you are a stubborn crowd, insisting on your fidelity to this unpopular art, and for that I thank you. You’re in for a wonderful reading.

Turning Twenty-Nine

You thought by now you’d be wiser,
not still falling for the old x=y.
You wonder how you’d do if you were
the last person on earth and had to found
a new civilization: could you explain
a magnet? A battery? A light bulb?
You repeat the word bulb. Bulb bulb bulb.
You stop in the nick of time. Time nicks us all
sooner or later, that’s democracy.
Once you were in Russia and a woman
cut your hair. She bent you over a tub,
noosed you in a towel and snipped away.
It was the best cut you ever got.
You drank tumblers of vodka with her husband.
The next day, your last in that country,
you boarded a bus for the Hermitage
and puked in the john until closing.
You didn’t see a painting. Not one.
Somehow, you’re this kind of person.
It’s hard to believe, though
you were once voted Most Likely To Yak
in Russia’s Best Museum with Good Hair.
Don’t you hate it when high school’s right?
Don’t you hate it when second person
swishes its tongue inside your ear?
You wonder how you’d do in solitary confinement.
You can’t do long division in your head.
You don’t know isometric exercises.
Edison’s last words: It is beautiful over there.
Yours: These pretzels are making me thirsty.
You wonder if suffering makes people
more compassionate. Coleridge,
caring for his typhoid son, writing by candle
twenty-three nights into the fever:
Turned a poor (very large & beautiful)
Moth out of the Window in a hard Shower
of rain to save it from the Flames!

That’s one kind of person.
When you visit your father who is dying
at last, and he turns, death-dumb,
and whispers, Did you bring Beth Ann?
You say, No. That’s another.