THERE ONCE was a man from St. Paul/Who went to a fancy dress ball./He said, 'Yes, I'll risk it. I'll go as a biscuit!'/And a dog ate him up in the hall."
The limerick is one of my favorite forms of poetry. So I was surprised when the Academy of American Poets asked me to read at its "Poetry & The Creative Mind" fundraiser in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center last week. I was onstage with a gang of worthies before a SRO house. While prize-winning playwright John Guare read from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and LBJ biographer Robert Caro offered Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, the Metropolitan's Philippe de Montebello ranged from Edgar Allan Poe to Sylvia Plath, plus W.H. Auden.
I recited one of the late Richard Burton's favorites - "Miniver Cheevy" and also a few scraps from Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again."
Magazine king Graydon Carter scored with Dorothy Parker's ode to the office, "A Hate Song" and Sex and the City's Candace Bushnell scored with the shortest skirt and highest heels ever seen in public. She read appropriately from the rebel Gertrude Stein. I was very impressed with the first reader, Yusef Komunyakaa, but the sound system mangled his Robert Hayden verses.
It was a tremendous treat to meet the gracious and charming Jonathan Demme who read Randall Jarrell's "The Lost Children." This man has directed some of the great films of all time; his films have been nominated for 20 Academy Awards and have won 11. I'll just name The Silence of the Lambs as one of my favorites.
Katie Couric came in a bit late from doing her CBS Evening News, but the audience simply adored her and applauded her demure black dress, her high heels and her personal intro. Then she read "The Anti-Suffragists" and Emily Dickinson's touching "I Measure Every Grief I Meet," concluding on an upbeat Langston Hughes "Dreams."
The last reader of the night was none other than Meryl Streep, who said her friend, the poet Rose Styron, had talked her into Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning." Ms. Streep told us when she started, "It's long!" With a sweep of blond hair falling demurely over her right cheek, this great American actress was her usual impressive self.
I particularly liked her new dark-green high-heeled platform stilettos with their red soles and the inside of the heel also scarlet. (Shades of the court of Louis XIV!) When I asked about the shoes, as women are ever wont to do, Meryl laughed: "I just about fainted when I heard the price!" This big star's enthusiasm for poetry and this event is inspiring. If I understood her correctly, she was saying backstage that she was spending these days at home, "cooking." She'll soon portray Julia Childs in a movie written by Nora Ephron. And, as usual, Meryl is doing her homework.
I saved the very best for last. Dianne Reeves is the Blue Note queen of jazz. She has won the Grammy for best jazz vocal for three consecutive recordings. Her new album, When You Know, lands on us happily this month. Ms. Reeves fractured the audience by improvisational singing of some of the work of Gwendolyn Brooks and James Weldon Johnson. The latter's "Go Down Death" is now my latest poetic rave, beating out limericks.