Bill Murray's Place in Poetry

Ryan OMalley

Nov 15, 2010

I've attached a video here that many of you have probably viewed, or if you haven't, you're just too ADD-addled to watch it: the video shows Bill Murray reading poetry. In case this isn't already something in the vein of Bill Murray (doing odd things, that is), he does it in front of a large group of construction workers. These construction workers are not just working on any type of building, but on the new building for the organization Poets House. From their website, the gist of their mission is as follows: Poets House is a national poetry library and literary center that invites poets and the public to step into the living tradition of poetry. Our poetry resources and literary events document the wealth and diversity of modern poetry, and stimulate public dialogue on issues of poetry in culture.

Now, if you're reading this blog or are even partially interested in the world of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction, a building like this more-likely-than-not interests you. But that isn't the point of my post. It is interesting to watch as the camera pans, as Murray reads from the likes of Dickinson to a small gathering of workers, and to try to gauge their reactions. Granted, there seems to be a large amount of editing in the video, but the impression I get is that the workers seem to be engaged, or at least are being respectful during the reading. And I'm sure at least a handful of those reading these poems have been to readings in odd places, where poetry isn't exactly the main stage, but is rather more a little side-show relegated to some corner, away from other more important goings on.

This video is not only surreal and essential Bill Murray, but it also raises some questions for me, and hopefully for you, regarding the "place" of poetry outside of academia. We as poets or writers of fiction are so well protected inside this shell of academic readings, where we know there will be at least a golf-clap at even the lamest of poems. I wonder how the reception would be if me or another poet were reading to these surly construction workers during their break (which from my experience, is a very special time in the day of labor and union work -- any time lost from that usually brings curses upon the person responsible for the transgression and loss of time).

All of this leads me to an even larger question of the place of poetry in our culture, especially American culture. I would wildly guess that probably 80% of poetry in this country is read by either other poets, or students forced to read it in courses they grind their teeth through. The other 20% may just be that segment of the population who can see the necessity and importance of Eliot, Fairchild, Sonnets, and Villanelles. I wonder who these people are, but I also love them unconditionally, because they add another segment to the population who value something that we all do. Although these are wild guesses, I feel that even a video meant to be a little goofy can still elicit important questions for all of us when we think about poetry and the creative writing world we live in as well. Or perhaps Bill Murray is just a man from Chicago who would rather be in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, than reading poems in a New York construction site, but the foundation waved a check in his face. I will assume the latter.