Why Bill Murray gets up to recite poetry every year

December 15, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Bill Murray loves poetry. He loves poetry so much he trades comedic one-liners for lines of poetry at a yearly benefit for Poets House, a nonprofit library and cultural center in New York City. Special correspondent Francesca Maxime reports.

GWEN IFILL: Actor Bill Murray is enjoying a renaissance. He has a new Netflix comedy special, and The New York Times recently declared him a pop culture icon.

It turns out Murray is also a poet.

And, as special correspondent Francesca Maxime reports, he’s found a home at New York City’s Poets House.

DAN AYKROYD, Actor: I think we better split up.

HAROLD RAMIS, Actor: Good idea.

BILL MURRAY, Actor: Yes. We can do more damage that way.

This is the Bill Murray we know, the actor, the comedian, the one who makes us laugh.

BILL MURRAY: He slimed me.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: But there’s also the Bill Murray we aren’t as familiar with, one who trades comedic lines for lines of poetry at a yearly benefit for Poets House.

BILL MURRAY: “What the Mirror Said” by Lucille Clifton.

“Listen, you a wonder. You a city of a woman. You got a geography of your own. Listen, somebody need a map to understand you. Somebody need directions to move around you.”

I used to be able to look in the mirror and see who’s there. You know, who’s there? And, sometimes, it’s a reminder that there’s no one there at all. There’s not very much there. And, sometimes, there’s someone that gives me confidence.

And I feel that that poem is about someone who has an inner — you know, a self-confidence that’s bigger than — that can’t be contained in the frame of a mirror.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: Murray loves poetry so much, he wants to share some of that confidence with poets, writers, and readers. His support of Poets House, a nonprofit library and cultural center in New York City, has helped make classes and writing workshops like this one possible.

MAN: What we should be doing in the poem is, like, thinking about the way information is released at every step of the way throughout the poem. Now, how do we do that?

FRANCESCA MAXIME: One way to do that, according to Poets House executive director Lee Briccetti, is having all kinds of poetry available to read, for free, under one roof.

LEE BRICCETTI, Executive Director, Poets House: It is really the national poetry collection. We have collected, for the last 25 years, absolutely comprehensively. You can walk in and have an experience that almost doesn’t exist anymore, especially doesn’t exist for poetry.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: Poets House sits along the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, boasting a 60,000-volume public library, exhibition space, reading room, and children’s room. Every year, it collects and displays hundreds of books from publishers in its annual showcase, which assembles all American poetry published in one year in one place.

Still, some critics argue that the location isn’t gritty enough.

LEE BRICCETTI: I have to say, we were worried ourselves. And it’s more diverse. Our audiences have tripled. This is an affluent community. And so we really worked hard at making sure that our doors are open to everyone, that we really make sure that there are free class trips, and that we program in an incredibly diverse way that invites everyone in.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: While Poets House offers many in-house programs, others take place out in the community. We went to their Poetry Walk across Brooklyn Bridge this summer, which is how Bill Murray first encountered Poets House years ago.

While the Poetry Walk has been going on for 20 years, it keeps getting bigger and bigger every single year. This year, hundreds of people came out in order to hear Richard Blanco recite Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

RICHARD BLANCO, Poet: “We love you. There is perfection in you also. You furnish your parts toward eternity. Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.”

FRANCESCA MAXIME: At Poets House, Oscar-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriters and poets rub elbows with everyday visitors and fresh creative writers like Aziza Barnes, who learned about Poets House from a friend.

AZIZA BARNES, Poet: I would start coming here, and I would always run into somebody I loved here, like, no matter what. And I was like, OK, I think this is a rich place.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: Barnes became a Poets House emerging fellow in 2015. The fellowship included a stipend and writing workshops, with some of the country’s leading poets serving as mentors. There, she wrote the poem entitled “Self-Portrait.”

AZIZA BARNES: “Only the turn of cement can arc black. I am blue damage, mother-gut and tower. Truth, we are all for rent, red, lined systems. The door out is green and full.”

FRANCESCA MAXIME: What was it like being an emerging fellow with a bunch of other young poets here at Poets House?

AZIZA BARNES: I think — I think that, especially in the class I was in, there’s, like, not really that much of an interest in ego, in like I’m a good poet because I wrote the thing that was published in the thing.

It was more like, I’m here to be a student of this for the rest of my life.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: Cultivating that lifelong learning is just what the Poets House co-founders sought.

Stanley Kunitz, who was twice poet laureate of the United States, and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray, had a vision.

They felt that poets were lonely in this culture and needed a place to gather, to meet, to be nurtured.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: Like other nonprofits, Poets House requires public and private financial support to keep its doors open.

AZIZA BARNES: A lot of the world would like to make you believe that the work you’re doing is not important, will not change anything, particularly the arts. But I think it’s like the only thing that survives about culture for real. And, like, people do need it.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: Including Cornelius Eady, a poet, professor, and co-founder of Cave Canem, a national organization for African-American poets which rented space from Poets House years ago to provide those writers with a safe place to create art and build community.

CORNELIUS EADY, Co-Founder, Cave Canem: Validation is really one of things that’s so incredibly important and that Poets House continuously sends out into the world as a message, a great big yes.

FRANCESCA MAXIME: What is poetry to you, in a word?

BILL MURRAY: I think it just gives me an opportunity to, you know, hear some sort of voice of the soul. Sort of the soul of a poet, it’s all of our soul.

This one’s by Billy Collins. It’s called “The Moon.”

And if you wanted to follow this example, tonight would be the night to carry some tiny creature outside and introduce him to the moon.

In New York, I’m Francesca Maxime for the PBS NewsHour.