TV with Class or Summer School? Poetry and History Make Lively Viewing

By Pennington, Gail | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 25, 1995 | Go to article overview

TV with Class or Summer School? Poetry and History Make Lively Viewing


Pennington, Gail, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


EIGHT hours of poetry. Ten hours of ancient history. You say you'd rather eat bugs? Sure, it's June, and there's nothing good on, but you're not desperate enough to sign on for the TV equivalent of summer school.

Oh, stop whining (and spit out that gum). This isn't only good-for-you TV, it's good TV. You won't hate it - swear.

I will admit I did some serious foot-dragging before popping in the tape for "Bill Moyers' `The Language of Life' " (5 p.m. Sunday on Channel 9). But Moyers' name in the title should have been a tipoff that this series on contemporary poetry wouldn't be deadly.

To the contrary, it's a lively visit to Waterloo, N.J., for a festival where poets like Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye read their work to rapt audiences and talk to Moyers with infectious enthusiasm.

"Poetry makes us listen in a different way," Nye says. "We pause. Take note. A story is being told."

As different as could be is the opening hour's other featured poet, Sekou Sundiata, a Bronx-born American who turns poetry into performance, backing his readings with a jazz combo.

He also talks about how his life was changed when he heard a poet who spoke his language.

"I didn't know you could say that in a poem," he recalls. "We said that all the time in the neighborhood, but he was saying it in a poem. He'd made literature out of this. It opened up a door - wait a minute, there's poetry in the language I speak."

Throughout, Moyers asks thoughtful and intelligent questions, but he remains unobtrusive. The spotlight is on the poets, and plenty of time is given to the poems themselves.

We also get a look at the festival audience, made up of people of all ages, including many teens. Their faces - alive, involved - are a better argument than even Moyers can make for the relevance of poetry to life today.

A second hour of "Language of Life" follows at 6 p.m. Sunday. The series continues, in one-hour segments, the next six Sundays at 6 - which means (wouldn't you know?) that it conflicts with your required course in ancient history over on NBC. So warm up the VCR.

"Lost Civilizations" (6 p.m. Sunday on Channel 5) is a new documentary series to out-PBS PBS, three years in the making by Time-Life and being released on home video next month. Sam Waterston is the narrator.

To tell the story of people who lived and died thousands of years ago in a vivid way, executive producer Joel Westbrook employs actors' re-creations, 3-D animation and computer imaging.

The result is generally effective, although the re-creations, good as they are, feel fraudulent, and can even be confusing as we near the present and actual film footage is incorporated.

Sunday's opening installment, "Egypt: Quest for Immortality," takes an ironic look at the pharaohs' desire to live forever (including mummification and pyramid-building) before shifting to the desecration of their tombs, particularly by scientists and explorers at the turn of the century.

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