Words at Heart of Show Special Combines Television, Poetry

By McAlister, Nancy | The Florida Times Union, September 27, 1999 | Go to article overview

Words at Heart of Show Special Combines Television, Poetry


McAlister, Nancy, The Florida Times Union


Television and literature, that cacophonous twosome, every now and then call a truce. It's typically a lopsided one, as in a TV adaptation like Gulliver's Travels. Although many viewers are turned on enough to buy the books, millions more tune in for a video equivalent of Cliffs Notes.

Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers (9 tonight, PBS) is that rare occasion when the literary form dominates. A documentary produced with young people in mind, the two hours showcase a smorgasbord of contemporary American poetry, from the wry workplace observations of Deborah Garrison to the haunting spirituality of Jane Hirshfield to the childhood remembrances of Halley's Comet by 95-year-old poetry dean Stanley Kunitz.

Filmed at the 1998 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., dubbed "the Woodstock of Poetry," the film showcases the power and pleasure to be found in words.

"The beautiful thing about being at the festival is that it's like a carnival, and you're the ride. You can be a roller coaster or whatever," said Kurtis Lamkin, whose lyrical, oral praise poems about African-American urban life are accompanied by a kora, the 21stringed African ancestor of the harp.

Although Moyers asks questions of the poets who perform their work, his cameras wisely focus longest on the poems themselves. Some are nothing short of captivating.

Amiri Baraka's performance from Wise, Why's, Y'z is a searing commentary on slavery and what he calls the railroad made of human bones at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Lucille Clifton's adam thinking and eve thinking are short, insightful observations about men and women. Mark Doty's New Dog is an ode to a dying partner's sad, noble end.

Hirshfield, who writes and speaks plainly about the life of the spirit, told Moyers she took to creating poetry as soon as she was taught to write. "Poetry was the field in which I developed the self that I became," she said, adding that, like many poets, she often wrote in secret as she tried to understand who and what she is.

But those secrets must come out, said distinguished writers such as Doty, whose works are about coping and living in the present. The act of making a poem implies that someone is listening. "So we're reaching toward, imaginatively, another consciousness, another listener," Doty told Moyers. Yes, there is the sheer pleasure of language. But in dealing with issues such as grief, words are merely an utterance until they're crafted into that which others can experience.

Poetry is the art of one human voice, said Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States. It is by nature individual, yet it must be tempered with the physical act of performing aloud. During Fooling with Words, he performs To Television, in which his mixed metaphors about the medium include "terrarium of dreams and wonders" and "tub of acquiescence."

Pinsky thanks the box for the fact that he was able to watch Sid Caesar's comic brilliance and pictures of Jackie Robinson stealing home. But those images, like the messenger, are as fleeting as Hermes, "winged at the helmet and ankles."

In one memorable moment of tonight's telecast, Pinsky demonstrates that writing a poem can appear as simple as ABC , the title of one of his works. But with the eloquence one would expect from such commentators, others talk about inner lives that directed their art.

For Marge Piercy, it was growing up with a mother who taught her to pay attention and observe everything. "When I first found poetry that spoke to me -- a street kid from Detroit, from a poor family -- it was validation that I wasn't crazy, wasn't bizarre, wasn't totally nutty. There were other people who felt the way I felt."

For Coleman Barks, it began at age 12 when he wrote things down in a little black notebook, like azalea, halcyon and someone stirring a spider web with a stick. Being a poet, he said, is a fascination or obsession with images and the taste of words. …

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