In his youth, Bill Murray wrote poetry, although he’s been wise enough not to share it with the world. “Everything rhymed,” he’s said of those juvenile efforts, a sentence halfway between a brag and a confession. In recent years, the actor has become a public supporter of the Poets House, an independent library in Manhattan devoted entirely to poetry, with over 60,000 volumes in its collection. “I think there’s really an alignment between comedy and poetry, and you see that in the way that Bill operates,” Lee Briccetti, the executive director of Poets House, tells Rolling Stone. “There needs to be a precision in the way you handle the language. Bill’s a master of linguistic control and pacing.”
At the biggest event on the Poets House annual calendar — a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, with pauses to recite poems at various locations, followed by what Murray calls “even more blah-blah-blah”) — the star has read poems by Sarah Manguso (“What We Miss”), Cole Porter (the lyrics to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”), and Wallace Stevens (“The Planet on the Table” and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts”). As one would hope, he’s a thoughtful, empathetic reader, who steps up to the microphone looking rumpled and professorial. Usually, that is — in 2013, Murray came straight from the set of St. Vincent, forgetting to take off the facial makeup that gave him two black eyes. He didn’t clean up until his son pointed out that he “was scaring the straight people in the room.”
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Murray’s been doing the annual poetry walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for 20 years now. Originally, he showed up because of his friendship with the Poets House vice president Frank Platt, a dapper, elderly gentleman who was Murray’s next-door neighbor, but he kept coming back. “He loved hearing the poems about the city in the places they celebrate,” Briccetti says.
Every year, after the throng makes its way across the Brooklyn Bridge, somebody reads Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” The first time Murray showed up, the orator was Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was greatly inspired by Whitman. Afterwards, he spoke with Kinnell and told him how much he had enjoyed his performance.
“I really like what you do too, Robin,” Kinnell replied.
“I guess I should call you W. B. Yeats,” Murray shot back.
At a Poets House reading and party, Gerald Stern (“a big deal in our world,” testifies Briccetti) read his poem “Stern Country,” and told the story behind it: In a restaurant in Prague, having dinner with a group that included author Mary Morris, Stern talked about having a big mouth and poor impulse control, which he eventually demonstrated by biting Morris’ shoulder.
At the same reading, knowing Murray was present, Stern laid into both the actor and the movie Groundhog Day, saying that he knew the town Punxsutawney and the titular groundhog much better than the actor did. At the end of his reading, Murray rushed up to the aged poet and bit his shoulder. The result, according to Stern: “All the women there said, ‘Why couldn’t he have bitten my shoulder?'”
The star also has a particular affinity for Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate whose work is conversational, funny, and profound. Murray introduced him at a public reading in 2005 by saying “He was actually baptized Big Bad William, but he’s sweet Billy now… It’s difficult to know someone like Billy Collins, and most people that have met him give up rather quickly.” Since the evening benefited public radio, Murray declared an impromptu pledge drive, saying that no poetry would be read until he had raised the sum of $13. He also treated the crowd to what he said was the shortest poem on record: “Cheez Whiz / Jesus!”
Although Murray memorably recites French verse in Groundhog Day, his very best encounter with the poetic world came on May 1, 2009, when the Poets House was preparing to move from its old location in SoHo to a brand-new building in the Battery Park district. He showed up at the construction site, wearing a black fleece jacket and a white hard hat, and read poems to about two dozen construction workers, who seemed baffled but generally willing to roll with this unusual experience.
After Murray finished “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” by Billy Collins, and got silent stares in return, he warned the construction workers, “They get worse. Okay? So if you want to lie down or get sick, take a sick day, do it now.”
He introduced “Poet’s Work” by Lorine Niedecker, “Okay, this is for the shorter attention span crowd.” After reading the poem — all of 19 words — Murray said, “Got that done. We’re getting paid by the poem here. It’s piecework.” The comedian licked his fingers, shuffled his handful of papers and announced to the construction workers, “Now we have an opportunity for one of you to step forward and do some of your own original poetry.” He was joking, but there was a hopeful glint in his eyes — maybe this would actually happen? “Come on, don’t be shy,” he said, but there was just uncomfortable laughter.
“Now I’m going to read a corny one for you,” Murray declared. “What’s this gal’s name again? Oh yeah, Emily Dickinson.” Murray read:
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.
As some of the workers likely knew, a gambrel is a roof in two tiers: an upper half with a gentle slope and a bottom half with a steep angle. They listened raptly to the words that bridged the world of poetry and the world of building houses, and applauded at the end. Murray smiled: Even if he hadn’t discovered a secret poet underneath the hard hats, he had succeeded at being a most unusual master of ceremonies.
“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for applause, fellas. What’s the deal? You think I’m getting paid for this?” he said with a grin. He concluded, “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.” Murray spoke conversationally, but it felt like he was uttering a secular prayer, a saint of New York City granting benediction to a new sacred space. “I know you feel it when you come here,” he said. “I know I feel it when I come down here. The fact that it’s going to be here is a pretty nice piece of bliss. It’s a little bit of balm — it’s the hope that comes out at the end of Pandora’s box. So thank you very much. You’ve got about three more minutes before this break is over — smoke ’em if you got ’em.”