75 Years Of 'Colossal Poets' And Live Literature At NYC's 92nd Street Y Writer Cynthia Ozick attended readings at the Y in the 1950s. "You saw these icons standing in a blaze of brilliant spotlight," she says, "and you felt that you were at the crux of all civilization."
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75 Years Of 'Colossal Poets' And Live Literature At NYC's 92nd Street Y

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75 Years Of 'Colossal Poets' And Live Literature At NYC's 92nd Street Y

75 Years Of 'Colossal Poets' And Live Literature At NYC's 92nd Street Y

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Literature comes alive at the poetry center at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. It's home to this country's most famous reading series. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the first writer to appear there; it was William Carlos Williams. The poetry center is celebrating its diamond jubilee by digging into its archives of audio recordings and posting some of them online for free. Tom Vitale has more.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Cynthia Ozick was in her 20's, fresh out of grad school, when her husband bought her a 20-dollar season subscription to the reading series at the 92nd Street Y. There, she heard T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Marianna Moore and W. H. Auden. She calls the time, the age of colossal poets. And she says the 92nd Street Y was their cathedral.

CYNTHIA OZICK: You sat there, and you saw these icons standing in a blaze of brilliant spotlight. And you felt that you were at the crux of all civilization in the 92nd Street Y in the 1950s, or so it struck me then, when I was sitting there and thinking, I want to be a writer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm happy to give you W. H. Auden.

(APPLAUSE)

VITALE: Auden took the lectern at the Y's cavernous, mahogany-paneled theater in 1951 to read his poem, "In Praise Of Limestone."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

W.H. AUDEN: If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly because it dissolves in water.

VITALE: Auden's poem is part of the anniversary project called "75 At 75," pairing 75 of The Poetry Center's rarest recordings with contemporary essays. Cynthia Ozick wrote about hearing Auden.

OZICK: There was something in his voice which made everything intimate because it was a conversation, even though there he was, standing up in this enormously brilliant light. And that came about, I think, because of the way he read in this absolutely flat, monotone, sort of commonsensical - as if he were not reading lyric lines of poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUDEN: Not to lose time, not to get caught, not to be left behind, not, please, to resemble the beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water or stone whose conduct can be predicted...

VITALE: Auden was one of the first writers to be recorded at the Y, even though the series began more than a decade earlier. And The Poetry Center's archives capture some of this country's best-known writers at the beginnings of their careers. In 1953, Eudora Welty read from her first book, her signature short story, "Why I Live At The P.O."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EUDORA WELTY: I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course, I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking pose yourself photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood. I'm the same.

VITALE: This was a time before writers were expected to do book tours and in-store readings. Novelist T. C. Boyle is used to that sort of thing, but he says the celebrated writer John Cheever wasn't.

T.C. BOYLE: He is an awkward reader. He doesn't pause for the audience to catch up and enjoy the sly wit of this wonderful story. And yet, it doesn't really matter to me. (Laughter). It's a thrill to hear John giving his performance.

VITALE: Boyle wrote the essay that accompanies Cheever's 1964 reading of one of his most famous stories, "The Death Of Justina." It's about a Westchester man whose wife's cousin dies in his living room. But when he tries to arrange for her funeral, he's told his posh part of town is not zoned for dying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CHEEVER: For Christ sake, I said. Yes, yes, he said, it is difficult. But after all, you must realize that this is the world you live in. And the importance of zoning can't be overestimated. Why, if a single member of the council could give out zoning exceptions, I could give you permission right now to open a saloon in your garage, put up neon lights, hire an orchestra and destroy the neighborhood and all the human commercial values we've worked so hard to protect.

VITALE: The voices themselves take us back to another time, says T. C. Boyle. Hearing writers reading their own work, giving their own version in their own accent and their own rhythms, is always a revelation.

BOYLE: It's thrilling. It puts you in that audience, even though these things occurred, sometimes, before you were even born. It allows us to touch the past in a way that the words on the page don't exactly touch the past in quite this way because you don't have the human presence and the human voice behind them.

VITALE: One of those voices belonged to Dylan Thomas, born 100 years ago today, who premiered his play "Under Milk Wood" at the 92nd Street Y in 1953.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN THOMAS: To begin at the beginning, it is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble-streets silent and the hunched, courters'-and- rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black, fishing boat, bobbing sea.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: And all the people of the loved and dumbfound tongue are sleeping now. Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners...

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