National Poetry Month: How and why I celebrate

Based on my own experience, I still think of television as an especially powerful tool in raising poetry’s profile.

Think you don't like poetry? Try listening to John Gielgud expounding on six centuries of English verse and then tell me how you feel.

After graduating from college and escaping the demands of required reading, I didn’t expect to encounter much poetry. I’d studied to be a journalist, after all, a profession in which writers are encouraged to say exactly what they mean. Poets, who had a habit of writing in riddles, seemed an unlikely source of inspiration for my new work and life.

But less than a year after leaving campus, while home alone recovering from minor surgery, I got bored enough to watch a public television documentary about Elizabeth Bishop. It was part of “Voices and Visions,” a landmark 1988 series about major American poets that featured Bishop, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman and many others.

Still groggy from pain pills, I drifted in and out of sleep while actress Blythe Danner lent her elegant voice to such affecting Bishop poems as “Questions of Travel” and “The Moose.” Bishop had a genius for capturing the alternately liberating and confining strangeness of being human, and listening to her stanzas drift over my sofa, I felt an odd sense of levitation. But then again, as I told myself at the time, maybe this had more to do with my drug-addled brain than Bishop’s peculiar art.

Book club alert: 3 good picks for April

A few days later, with my health restored and my head now clear, I headed to the bookstore to get a copy of Bishop’s collected poems and see if her magic endured. Happily, Bishop’s poetry continued to charm me, and reading her work led me to other poets, including Frost, Marianne Moore, Pablo Neruda, and Donald Hall. Thus began a love affair with poetry that’s lasted more than two decades, and I owe it all to television.

All of this comes to mind with April’s observance of National Poetry Month, an annual exercise in awareness-raising that’s aimed at getting more people to love poetry just as much as I do. Public readings and other initiatives have their place in building an audience for poetry, but I still think of television as an especially powerful tool in raising poetry’s profile.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place for would-be poetry enthusiasts to start than where I did – in an encounter with “Voices & Visions,” now available on DVD and the Internet. The seven-disc, 13-hour DVD set sells for a whopping $389 at Annenberg Learner, which caters to classroom users. But luckily, the series is also available for free viewing.

To watch “Voices & Visions” is to be reminded that with its frequent use of vivid imagery and verbal music, poetry is tailor-made for television. Appropriating the techniques of music video, the series mixes dramatic visual interpretations of selected poems with biographies and critical views of the featured poets. The haunting musical score also does a great job of simulating the intellectual dreamscape in which poetry so often comes to life.

Another standout in public television’s celebration of poetry is Bill Moyers’ “The Language of Life,” an exhilarating, eight-part series shot on location at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Think of a rock concert for poetry, and you’ll get some idea of the energy from the Dodge Festival’s heavily attended public readings, which is deftly captured in Moyers’ 1995 production. Featuring readings and interviews with leading poets, the series includes Robert, Bly, Adrienne Rich and Gary Snyder among others. The series has just been released by Athena Learning in a three-DVD, $59.99 set.

At the same web site, Athena also offers “Six Centuries of Verse” (three DVDs, $69.99), a series that first aired on public television in the 1990s. The late John Gielgud hosts a sweeping survey of English-language poetry from Beowulf to Robert Lowell, with everyone from Lee Remick to Anthony Hopkins performing dramatic readings. The sets and presentation on this production tend to look dated by modern standards, so it’s up to the actors to save the show. One of the highlights, Hopkins’ reading of Dylan Thomas, is among the clips available for free preview at Athena’s web site.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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