Natalie Merchant, the renowned American folk-rock artist, closed the 16th Annual Poetry Conference at West Chester University's Swope Hall with a 90-minute performance of poems set to music that was as informative as it was musically captivating.
Backed up a tasteful 3-piece acoustic band and armed with a powerpoint presentation of black and white photographs, Merchant's performance to the assembled poets and professors was an enchanting mix of lecture and music. She performed 15 or so "songs" from her most recent release, Leave Your Sleep. Critics have called it the most ambitious project of her long and auspicious career.
She took nursery rhymes, poems, and lullabies of 19th and 20th century British and American writers as source material for her record, setting them to original music. Some are well known children's standards and others barely known at all. Some of the authors she covered in last evening's performance were e.e. cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mervyn Peake, Ogden Nash, Nathalia Crane, and Robert Graves.
Among the highlights of last evening's performance were Nash's wonderfully whimsical "The Adventures of Isabel", Crane's "The Janitor's Boy" (a paean to unrequited teen-age lust) and Stevenson's somber "The Land of Nod," written in a feverish stupor near the end of his life when he weighed less than 110 pounds.
Merchant's performances of the poem/songs were always engaging. She used her arms and hands expressively to accentuate the lyrical meaning of the songs. Seeing her perform in such an intimate setting (the event was held in the Madeleine Wing Adler Auditorium, which only seats 300 or so patrons) made the evening a special event.
What made the evening especially memorable were Merchant's small touches: the black and white photograph portraits of the poets she projected onto a back-dropped screen and the stories she told about the poems she choose for her project. These intimate history lessons, though academic in nature, were perfect for this scholarly audience and not the kind of performance she would likely duplicate in a concert setting for her regular fans.
It was a bravura performance and a worthy way to end Professor Michael Peich's tenure at the helm of the annual poetry conference. A panel of tuxedoed poets, lead by the former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Dana Gioia, held a "celebrity roast" of Peich at the Holiday Inn afterward Merchant's performance.
Most of the jokes, stories and poems recited in Peich's honor were far too ribald to repeat here.
It was a night to remember.