Paul Simon doesn’t care much for requests, but he might ask you to sing along.
The singer-songwriter’s latest honor came from the Poetry Society of America, which celebrated him Tuesday during a dinner benefit at the New York Botanical Garden.
Simon and longtime poetry editor Alice Quinn were the guests of honor, their careers both lasting for decades and making them revered names among lovers of words.
Quinn has championed Sharon Olds, Edward Hirsch and countless other poets as an adjunct professor at Columbia University, the poetry editor at the New Yorker (from 1987 to 2007) and an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. She is stepping down as executive editor of the poetry society, where she has served since 2001. She was introduced by Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, who praised her contributions to “the inner life across this country and beyond.”
Quinn noted that Simon had been a supporter of the poetry society and remembered seeing him in the offices of Knopf, which published a book of his lyrics. Simon was then introduced by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who noted that Simon was among the first rock songwriters to use the word “poetry” in a song (“I Am a Rock”) and to name poets, reading lines about Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson from Simon’s “A Dangling Conversation.”
Simon, meanwhile, was alternately playful and contrarian. He chastised Collins for misremembering a discussion they had about writing and wondered about the meaning of awards when the planet was “disintegrating.” He joked about making room for his poetry society award among his “shelves and shelves” of prizes, right next to a special trophy for being the “best-dressed dad.”
His acceptance came in three parts: He read work by two poets who died this year, Les Murray and W.S. Merwin; chatted briefly on stage with Collins about writing; and, to everyone’s obvious pleasure, performed a few songs.
Simon, 77, has retired from touring, and his voice sounded strained at first. But he grew stronger, and even danced a little, as he ran through such favorites as “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and “The Boxer,” asking the audience to join in on the chorus of “Lie-La-Lie” as a small backing group added touches of jazz and Cajun music.
Be careful, though, about requests. Simon explained that during one show he saw a woman come close to the stage, sobbing, begging him to perform a certain song. But Simon couldn’t understand what she was asking for. What song, he wondered, had made such a “deep connection” that she couldn’t stop crying? Perhaps he had reminded her of a “loved one or a parent.”
Please, the woman finally asked, would you play “The Lion King?”