Once upon a time in America, a whole bunch of poets no one's ever heard of got really lucky: A crew of 15 producers, directors, hair stylists, makeup artists, and sound wonks cruised through their hometowns in a magenta tour bus, revved up on artesian spring water and a sure-fire winner of an idea. Hey you, barked the ideas man on board, wanna be on TV?
It was gonna be the hippest moveable feast yet, one that would blow the dust off the republic's verse and swing it into the 21st century. What happened, however, was the five-part United States of Poetry television series, which proceeds from the simple notion that poetry as we know it bores the masses to tears. All those words on the page! All that complicated language, that secret meaning! It's so exclusive, so highbrow, so... undemocratic. In other words, the perfect untapped mother lode waiting to be transformed into popular merchandise.
At first glance, the MTV-flavored program looks public-spirited and harmless enough. There's the correct mix of colors and ages and genders. There's a cowpoke on a horse in the amber waves of grain, a girlfriend in cornrows in the graffitied ghetto, a gen-x flatliner and an octogenarian from the backwaters, a misunderstood gay Chicano in a black slip, and an S&M hot wax aficionado with some verse set to Chopin. I pledge allegiance, you might want to leap up from the sofa and shout, to this great melting pot that is our America--one in which even a third-grade dead ringer for Richie Cunningham stumbling over his little rhyme about dad's bad snoring can be included in the pantheon of poets. Hey, what about that old dream of growing up to be president? No problem: Here, we even get head-of-state-turned-bard Jimmy Carter, who's nearly but not quite dumbfounded by the sight of a thousand billion stars in the night sky. "It troubles me," he incants, knitting his snowy brows, "it troubles me."
The unheard-of poets get even luckier when the edit crew splices them into cameos by celebrities like Johnny Depp, who croaks out a few choice lines by Jack Kerouac between drags on a filterless, and Allen Ginsberg, who, shirtless as ever, leers at some young-boy flesh in the soft-focus background. By now, the party's getting crowded: Lou Reed wanders by, and Leonard Cohen brushes against the ghost of William Carlos Williams, whose voice from a staticky recording offers the epigram that opens each of the half-hour programs: "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem."
And pleasurable it is, this quick-cut montage of spoken word and spry camera work. But a ways into the belly of this series that I.D.magazine calls "a new, rough beast," it might also occur to you that, with apologies to W.C. Williams, being pleasurable isn't the only qualification for a good poem. That in mind, you may also note this show suffers from the same malaise that has beset much of the art world these days, i.e.: the talk-show credo that everybody has something to express, and that to refuse them the soapbox of a televised moment, regardless of the quality of expression, is an act akin to elitism. Who can account for taste? goes the thinking; let's toss in enough stuff so that every viewer's got the chance to relate, to connect, to turn on to something. Carried to extremes, this thinking evolves into an ironed-flat terrain where a Motherwell canvas hangs beside a velvet Elvis, a vintage Coltrane session plays between out-takes of "Smoke on the Water" by the garage band next door, and an extraordinary poem by Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz butts up against the scribblings of an 11-year-old.
Perhaps more disturbing, the series seems to assume that language alone is no longer sufficient to catch and keep our interest. Even the people who must love poetry enough to create these programs seem to harbor a basic distrust of the unaccompanied, naked poem, the pure voice. They too have fallen prey to the pop notion that words need to be set to a soundtrack and transfigured into spectacle. Thus is born what the USOP promo pack unveils as a new art form: "Poetry as Television. Television as Poetry." Rather than allow the poet's words to evoke personal images for each listener, ready-made images are provided. And such a project--however well-intentioned--requires that the poetry must be of a certain type: televisable, easy on the ear, able to be taken in at a single listening, and in a not-too-abstract package. Needless to say, the poems of a John Ashbery or James Tate are destined for exile from this Eden.
The promo goes on claim that this series "vividly captures more than 60 of our nation's new heroes--our poets--in a work of startling innovation." Yes, there are some excellent poets here--Derek Walcott, C. D. Wright, Thylias Moss, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Robert Creeley are a few--and there are some excellent poems by others which should last in the mind long after the lights go down. There's one of Ai's haunting persona poems called "The Good Shepherd," which tosses the whole write-what-you-know argument into the fire. There's an elegant poem by Russell Leong called "Eclipse," and a poem called "Blood" by Naomi Shihab Nye which has an intimacy not even the set-design's artifice can destroy. But keep in mind that this version of our national poetry is a mediated vision. After all the spectacle, what remains is the disturbing idea that much of our best contemporary poetry, complex and unmanageable, wild and untelegenic as it often is, has no real place in the way the American imagination is shaping up. CP
The United States of Poetry airs Saturday, Feb.10, 10 p.m.-11 p.m. ("The Land and the People"/"A Day in the Life"); Sunday, Feb. 11, 10 p.m.-10:30 p.m. ("The American Dream"); and Saturday, Feb. 17, 10 p.m.-11:30 p.m. ("Love and Sex"/"The Word") on KTCA Channel 2.