First-rate program on Robert Frost launches PBS series on poets

Voices & Visions: Robert Frost PBS, Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m., check local listings. Narrator: Laurence Luckinbill. Writer: Margot Feldman. Director: Peter Hammer. Executive producer: Lawrence Pitkethly for the New York Center for Visual History. Presented by South Carolina ETV. ``Robert Frost was no more a regional poet than Goethe was a Rhineland poet.'' That's the main message of the unique film that kicks off a unique 13-part series on America's poetic tradition. Frost is hailed as a writer of universality, a master of carefully designed simplicity.

``Voices & Visions'' celebrates 13 great American poets - first Frost, then Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. Their appeal, reaching beyond national borders, is stressed.

``The genius and originality of these poets helped to preserve the American idiom,'' according to a statement from the Annenberg/CPB Project, underwriter of the series, ``and for the first time placed poetry from the New World on a par with the poetry of Europe.''

This series reflects a determination to make certain that Americans understand their own poetic heritage.

Not only are the works of these poets explored through on-screen texts and voice-over recitations, but just about every poetry-enhancing technique is employed to present the poets at their most effective. In what may be considered overkill in some instances, the series utilizes drama, dance, music, archival footage, and interviews with admirers, critics, and scholars. The occasional instance of a recording of the poet reading his own work comes as a great calming solace in many cases.

Robert Frost is a good choice for the series debut. Despite his seeming concentration on the natural world, he himself points out that he is actually a humanist: ``All my poems have a person in them.... I want to reach out to all sorts and kinds.''

He became an American symbol in his own lifetime, a man who helped to create his own myth by going to England at the age of 38 to establish a reputation initially, then returning to America to ``grow Yankee-er and Yankee-er,'' as he put it, and to bask in the admiration of his fellow Americans for many years. He won several Pulitzer Prizes, was a consultant to the Library of Congress, and composed a special poem which he read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

According to one scholar, Frost did not write epics, cantos, suites. ``He was a lyric poet for whom the experience of writing seems passive. He doesn't go to the poem. The poem seems to come to him.... Then there is a transition from delight to wisdom.''

Those who believe Frost to be merely a pastoral poet may be surprised by the lyrical breadth of his work as it is read and analyzed.

``Voices & Visions'' is not a superficial film about the poet and his work; it is a film that doesn't hesitate to sample his work in depth.

Frost was interviewed, made speeches, and read his own poetry many times before he died in 1963. This film presents excerpts from those appearances, which make it clear that this wise, eccentric, humorous man clearly crafted his own career and shrewdly created the Frost public persona that America came to love.

During his years in Britain, he formulated the confusing theory that he called ``the sound of sense.'' Sentences without understandable words carried meanings to the listener, he believed, like voices from behind a door.

One of the most unusual segments of the Frost film is a dramatized performance of excerpts from ``Home Burial,'' which concerns a young couple's response to grief upon the death of their child.

While the playlet is moving, I wonder if tampering with Frost is the best way to present his work. Certainly, he was capable of writing the poem as a play, if he had so desired. Frost scholars consider the poem autobiographical, since he lost three of his own children. Poetry and family were his two great devotions, it is pointed out, and he found it difficult to accept the loss of his children and the later loss of his wife.

The series is likely to become a major educational tool. Available on many levels, it can be taken as a college course for credit (dial 1/800 LEARNER for details). There are two companion books available in bookstores; and VHS cassettes are available for $29.95 from the Annenberg/CPB Project, 1111 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036.

``Voices & Visions: Robert Frost'' is not merely a paean to this poet, although it is certainly that. It is a paean to American poetry - and to all poetry.

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