Who’s Afraid of Poetry in America?

April 13, 2020 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read

Poetry and America have rarely been seen as the likeliest of bedfellows. In fact, the nature and stature  of poetry in the United States of America has been questioned pretty much since the latter first existed.

In his book Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville fired shots at the very concept. “I am not afraid that the poetry of democratic peoples will prove timid or that it will stay very close to the earth,” he wrote. “I fear that the works of democratic poets will often offer immense and incoherent images, overloaded depictions, and bizarre composites, and that the fantastic being issuing from their minds will sometimes make one long for the real world.” Within a decade or two, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would prove him wrong.

The concerns over the form in this country continue today, in a very different way. Contemporary poets and poetry lovers often bemoan not the dizzying heights of the form but, rather, its marginalized status in modern times. Even the increase in poetry’s market share, thanks to Instagram poetry’s big sales numbers, isn’t seen entirely in a positive light. Instead, many poets feel that those sales are leaving the majority of poetic tradition behind.

And yet there’s another perspective on American poetry: that its history is rooted both in tradition and experiment; that it is for both the poets and the people; and that, contrary to popular belief, it still plays an important role in many lives—and could in even more, if given a chance. That’s where Poetry in America, the PBS television show created, directed, and hosted by Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, comes into play.

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The show, which has returned for its second season, appropriately, during National Poetry Month, has begun airing on PBS stations around the country and will air nationwide on the WORLD Channel. The show will continue airing through the spring, summer, and fall, and episodes will also be available to stream on pbs.org and on the show’s website. Each episode focuses on a single poem, with New discussing works by Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Bishop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marianne Moore, Mark Doty, Stephen Sondheim, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman, with guests including Katie Couric, Vice President Al Gore, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill T. Jones, Secretary of State John Kerry, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nas, John Hodgman, Tony Kushner, Justice Elena Kagan, Raúl Esparza, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more.

The concept for the show, New said, came out of a set of online courses she was creating at Harvard. “Just as they were going into online learning and they didn’t have many rules, I commandeered video crews and started making content that was more like documentary television,” she said. “In the beginning, it was really just going to Brooklyn and filming, say, the ‘A Song of Myself’ marathon and talking to people there.”

Soon, though, New’s access to great minds across the board gave her the opportunity to interview visitors ranging from Justice Kagan to hip hop artist Nas. After six months, she said, she had “filmed some extraordinary conversations with people not known as poetry experts,” and reached out to Boston’s PBS member television station, WGBH. And thus the show was born.

The hope, New said, was to help people get over their apprehension of poetry. “The show evolved out of my sense that people are afraid of poetry,” she said. “They don’t know how to navigate a poem. And I thought that bringing the resources of a group to bear would give them a glimpse into the joy that one can feel by discovering both what everyone has always seen in a line of this poem—how Bill Clinton and a kid in a Harlem schoolyard, upon reading a poem, see exactly the same thing—and the joy of seeing how our language is so plastic and so multivalent that we all keep seeing new things in it.”

The variety of guests on the show serves a number of purposes, including showing that all sorts of people read poetry and that each brings a very different understanding of the use of language to the work of reading. As examples, New pointed to Justice Kagan, trained in the art of legal writing, and Nas, trained in the art of the lyric. “Both of them brought to their conversations with me their own writing practices, and explained their writing practices to me, and those practices intersect, in many ways, with the practices of poets—and of course Nas is a poet, and an extraordinarily gifted one,” New said.

But even those who are not writers themselves, New said—such as Vice President Joe Biden and Shaquille O’Neil, who were guests in the show’s first season—bring their own different understanding of the power of language to reading poetry. New spoke of Biden using language “that is drenched in affect” as “a kind of emotional signaling system,” and of O’Neil being “so accustomed to the fast patter of basketball talk,” and bringing that understanding to bear on his reading of poetry. “Everybody brings their own theory of language, from the kind of precincts of language in which they most comfortably dwell,” she said. “And if you can sort of match that with the right kind of poem, they’re just experts at reading it.”

New’s objective is to help viewers feel comfortable in poetry’s arena. And by focusing on one poem in a half-hour of television, adapted to the screen visually and aurally, and accompanied by carefully-matched selections of music and images and historical context, she believes she can do just that—and not in the same way as, say, Instagram poetry.

“I think that for the inexperienced reader of poetry and viewer of the series, the idea is that the series will show that you can sit tight and have an experience that’s different from any you’ve had before, and that you might’ve been afraid of before, and that that experience will be rewarding for you,” New said.

The trick, of course, with creating a public access television series about such an art form as poetry, coveted and beloved intensely by its practitioners and students, and often considered arcane and unreachable by the masses, is pleasing both parties. And New knew that, too. But in the end, she knew where to draw the line.

“For the initiated reader of poetry, I of course want to enhance that, that reader’s experience as well—and I always have the voices of the experts in my ear, sitting on my shoulder, warning me: Don’t dumb it down, don’t cheapen it, don’t oversimplify it,” she said. “But I would like, actually, to restore to some of them, their original joy and wonder, and also help them think about poetry as a more common pleasure. Walt Whitman said, ‘I am what is easiest, cheapest, freest.’ And we in the poetry world can be a little bit precious. So, even as I want to be as rigorous as my most rigorous viewer, I want that viewer to bear in mind what Frank O’Hara told us, which is that poetry should be fun, right? It should be like having a cocktail. It should be fizzy and delightful—even when the subject is grave.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is digital editor and associate news editor at Publishers Weekly and co-founder and editor of The Dot and Line. He has written for New York magazine, Esquire, Pacific Standard, Thrillist, Paste, Polygon, and Real Simple, among others.

One comment:

  1. What terrific news: a second season for “Poetry in America.” My spouse and I built our dinners around the airings last time, and we will again. I’m a two book poet, an National Endowment for the Arts fellowship recipient, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (I’m pretty sure that my time there overlapped with the incredible Marilyn Chin’s–I finished up my MFA in poetry in 1982) and I’m still learning plenty. Elisa New, you are doing a great balancing act between refraining from “dumbing down” and presenting these works and poets in a way that cheers me enormously as I consider your program’s transformative power for the non-initiated and the here-to-fore unconvinced and un-recruited among your viewers.

    yours,
    Julie Hanson
    (Unbeknownst, University of Iowa Press, 2011; The Audible and the Evident, Ohio University Press, 2020)

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