Celebrating the music of language - poetry

Orpheus was the Greek hero of poetry who played a lyre as he recited his poems. It's also not for nothing that Shakespeare is called the Bard, a singing poet.

And so it's only right that music floats through Fooling With Words With Bill Moyers (Sunday, Sept. 26 on PBS, check local listings). It underscores the idea of poetry as the music of language.

The 1998 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., is the basis for Moyers's film and for a series of nine half-hour close-ups of various poets featured at the fest - a biennial event. A Web site ( giving information about the coming Sept. 21-24, 2000, festival gives the program further life.

"Poetry today is about performance," Moyers says. Some poets play instruments or beat the podium as if it were a drum; one speaks as the Paul Winter Consort improvises a musical backup.

It is wonderful to hear poetry read (or sung) aloud by the poets of our time - especially for those of us who have not recently attended a poetry slam (a kind of competition where poets vie for a prize awarded by popularity) or festival.

Poet laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of Arts winner Stanley Kunitz, poet-playwright-scholar Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. Le Roi Jones), novelist-poet Marge Piercy, Jane Hirshfield, Kurtis Lamkin, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Paul Muldoon, Coleman Barks, Mark Doty, Deborah Garrison, and Lorna Dee Cervantes offer their ideas about what poetry means to this society, why they have chosen this path, and why we respond to the music of language.

"Back in the late '80s, there was resurgence of poetry at least on the public stage," says veteran newsman Moyers in a telephone interview. "It was obvious to me as I traveled the country, read local newspapers, and followed the specialty press that America was beginning a new romance with it."

He made the 1988 series "The Power of the Words," and in 1995, "The Language of Life," and found that the response to each was terrific. He points to the proliferation of poetry slams around the country and of events like the People's Poetry Festival in New York, which drew 5,000 people and included 700 people showing up at a chilly cemetery at midnight to hear Edgar Allen Poe's poems performed.

Mr. Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project encouraged individuals to videotape themselves reading their favorite poems for the Library of Congress. The White House has hosted poetry events. During national poetry month (April), Volkswagen even included poetry books with every new car it sold.

Events like these and others around the country convinced Moyers that the new renaissance of poetry is worthy of journalistic attention.

While it is true that most individual books of poetry don't sell many copies, collectively a lot of poetry books are sold.

"Taste is so individual, personal, and singular that it's hard to find a poet who addresses everyone," Moyers says.

There may be no poetry superstars like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, or Walt Whitman just now, but that's because, he points out, "We're not a homogenous nation anymore. We are what Whitman called a 'nation of nations' and we have more poems being written, more voices to speak them, more ears to hear them...."

Interviews with the poets disclose some of the deepest motives engendering poetry. But they also reveal new attitudes and methods: Many poets emphasize the physicality in their work, shortchanging issues of the spirit.

Poets are also drawing on every aspect of their environments; Pinsky uses television as fit grist for the mill.

Moyers accomplishes something significant with these films - he reminds us that poetry is not pass but is as vibrant as ever. Though far from the commercial interests of popular culture, poetry is culture and can be popular.

"I think in no small part, this is an important time for poetry," Moyers says.

"Poetry is subversive of those corrosive forces that have transformed our popular culture into, really, an enemy of humanity - that is, an enemy of sensitivity, an enemy of empathy, an enemy of compassion and insight," he says.

"Poetry comes from a deep, authentic place in a poet's life and touches something authentic in us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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