Bill Moyers's PBS Series Looks at the Renaissance In Public Poetry

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'We never reflected on the projects, we just lived in them."

Poet Sekou Sundiata - eyes shining with the wonder of it all - is telling Bill Moyers about his life before he discovered poetry.

Like most other kids he never dreamed that his home turf - the Bronx and Harlem in New York City - was the raw material of art. In school, "poetry didn't grab me, speak to me in any way," he says. But toward the end of the 1960s, he noticed that people were writing poems and other works about the projects with "some reflection, some introspection." They "just started naming the world in particular kinds of ways," he recalls, "foregrounding things that were in the background in school."

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Best of all, they used the same words that Sundiata used in everyday speech - words, he says, "I didn't know you could say in a poem. It enabled me, opened up a door. Wait a minute, there's poetry in the language I speak."

The story is typical of the revelations to be found in an eight-part weekly series airing on PBS beginning Friday, June 23 at 9 p.m. (Please check local listings; the first and last programs include two episodes). Filmed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, the programs describe the renaissance of "public poetry" in the United States, a performance style in which poets - often accompanied by a musical group - read their works in gatherings.

These exhilarating sessions require lots of poets, and one object of the series is to show, through interviews with Moyers, how they came to be poets and what they think about their art. We also hear poems read, see snatches from lectures by poets, and see rapt faces in the audience.

Some specialists think such poetry events are preaching mainly to the converted. Robert Faggen, professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California, feels such festivals and also "slams" - poetry competitions - are "aimed at those people who are into poetry. We need to take aim at those who don't normally have access to or interest in poetry and let them know it can be interesting and fun."

This series promises to do just that. It lets you see poetry's effect on others, watch poets at work and see their involvement - before you start reading and feeling it yourself. This should help viewers make the link between language and experience. And it should help them shake the notion that poetry is an elegant, effete, or rarefied business, but rather is idiomatic, tough, and true.

Before this series is through, it will have looked at 18 poets working in a range of modes, from the jazz-rhythms of Sundiata to Coleman Barks's modern version of the mystic 13th-century Islamic poetry of Rumi. What links them is their relationship to language and the way it helps them see their own souls and the world around them, often by "rubbing one image up against another," as poet Naomi Shihabi Nye puts it. Our brains are desperate, she says, for the kind of primordial energy this produces.

We hear her and Sundiata - the subjects of the first program - talking with Moyers and speaking before audiences. When Sundiata performs, he jogs gently to music spoken and played by his background combo. He half chants, saying phrases over and over like thoughts rattling in your head. In one poem, the phrase "It all depends on the skin you're living in" echoes. You can hear the rise and fall of a black minister's cadence.

By contrast, Nye's style seems more direct and painstakingly worded. At one lecture we see her leading a young audience into the roots of poetry - into their own feelings and understanding of words. She reads a poem to her Palestinian father: potently evocative, tracking the memories and feelings of a man who once wove baskets.

James Cummins, a poet and curator of the University of Cincinnati's Elliston Poetry Collection, thinks "you can sell anything in this country, including poetry, by TV." That's what's happening in this series, and it's a product well worth having.

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