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See Bill Murray read poetry to construction workers: Why not?

May 5, 2010

Bill Murray at a Poetry House gala last year.

Bill Murray is the last guy I’d peg as a poetry lover. Baseball? Sure. Cigars? Of course. Golf? Beyond question. So imagine my surprise when I found a video of Murray reading poetry to a gang of Manhattan construction workers. He teases them for being bored, and calls Emily Dickinson “corny gal.”

It turns out that Murray is a longtime supporter of Poets House, “a national poetry library and literary center” founded in 1985 by poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray.

Poets House is home to a library of 50,000-plus poetry books and conducts 200 public programs each year, including an Annual Poets Showcase that gathers the thousands of books of poetry published in a given year, from large publishers and small, in one place.

From 1990 until 2007 Poets House was located in a Soho loft, but rising rents forced it to seek a new home. The Battery Park City Authority came to the rescue, designating Poetry House as a “rent-free tenant in a new building on the banks of the Hudson River.” Poets House moved into the new location, 10 River Terrace, in the summer of 2009.

Apparently taking seriously the mandate to develop new audiences for poetry, Murray visited the site as construction neared completion. During a work break, he read poems by Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker and others. He cracked jokes about short attention spans, pointing out cellphone users, and said undocumented workers were leaving the site to avoid the video camera.

But his readings, especially of Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility” are credible and heartfelt. The faces of the workers vary from boredom and perplexity to smiles of apparent approval and understanding. A few seem to nod their heads in time with the music of Dickinson’s verse — wisely chosen for an audience of builders:

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

At one point, Murray launches into a typical semi-sensible Bill Murray monologue: “Lastly I want to say thank you for building this and putting yourselves into it, the way the poets put themselves into their words and the way all New Yorkers put themselves into what they really, really–gravitate to, what really makes them a man or a woman. This site — I know you all feel when you come here — I know I feel it when I come down here, the fact htat it’s going to be here, it’s a pretty nice piece of bliss. It’s a little bit of balm, the hope that comes out at the end of Pandora’s box. So thank you very much, and you got about three more minutes before this break is over. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

Murray’s construction site poetry reading took place last year, so I don’t know why it’s just now circulating on the Internet. But it’s worth checking out. It reflects Murray — and poetry — in a fresh light.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2010 9:10 am

    Wow, I have to say that I am absolutely shocked. I could see him being a proponent of literature in general, but poetry specifically? WOW. Well, good for him.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 5, 2010 9:47 am

      I was shocked, too. Like you, I take Bill Murray as an intelligent man, possibly of some refinement — but poetry? I love the way he calls Emily Dickinson “corny gal.”

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 5, 2010 9:12 am

    I have to disagree with you, Chauncey Mabe–because it is my job. I’m not surprised at all Bill Murray is a poetry fan. Kudos to him.

    And while Soho is an arts district, the new location for Poetry House in Battery Park is magnificient as well, I’m sure. Very beautiful there.

    • May 5, 2010 9:15 am

      Haha, that’s my job too!! Imagine that. Although, I guess I didn’t do a very good job this time…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 5, 2010 9:49 am

      You better watch yourself, Ms. Simmons. You’re coming up for performance review soon…You, too, Ms. Strand.

      I am sure the Battery Park location is beautiful, indeed. I plan to visit Poets House the next time I’m in New York.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 5, 2010 9:27 am

    That’s right, Alexis, you didn’t. So go to your room.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 5, 2010 9:50 am

    Hey, you. Don’t be bossing my employees around. Take your complaint to customer service.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 5, 2010 11:02 am

    When you go to New York, can I come too?

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 5, 2010 11:36 am

    We’ll get a suite at the Plaza!

  7. Sean permalink
    May 5, 2010 11:38 am

    Chauncey, thanks a bunch for sharing this one. I think the construction guys kind of liked the Emily Dickinson poem, and it was great watching Murray get the crew to introduce themselves. I Googled words from the first poem and whaddaya know, it’s Billy Collins, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 5, 2010 6:34 pm

      Thanks, Sean. You’re such a good journalist — I didn’t even think to do that, although it did seem odd to me that the video started in the middle of a poem. A small flaw, though.

  8. rachel permalink
    May 5, 2010 4:19 pm

    It’s great that they got a spot rent free. More money for the buying of the books.

    I want a poetry house!

    Thanks for sharing Chauncey Mabe.

    “Lost in Translation” softened me to Bill Murray. Before that all I saw was him doing the same thing over and over again infuriatingly.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 5, 2010 6:54 pm

      Even today he’s capable of being in bad movies, or of giving less than his best performance. It’s a thin line between intelligent existential deadpan and not really trying. But still, when he nails it, he nails it, so I’m always willing to give Bill a chance. You might consider seeing, at your leisure, Groundhog Day, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore (this is my Lost in Translation, the one that won me over to Bill’s side), or even The Man Who Knew Too Little.

  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 5, 2010 8:03 pm

    Was he one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 5, 2010 10:58 pm

      No, he came along the second year as Chevy Chase’s replacement.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        May 6, 2010 8:38 am

        That’s right. Chevy Chase was/is a pretty funny man in his own right.

  10. Michael A Ruzicho permalink
    February 16, 2011 3:35 pm

    one of my favorites

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