Judge Bryan Byun once tried to write a poem, but couldn't think of a rhyme for "Nantucket."
This exhilarating eight-part series testifies to the full range of human experience, and recognizes poetry's power to inspire, redeem, and celebrate life.
You're unlikely to find anyone more genuinely and avidly curious about the world, and eager to bring what he learns to the public, than Bill Moyers. He's a gifted, thoughtful interviewer and a diligent seeker of enlightenment, and whatever subject he turns his interest to—whether it be in the arts, politics, or spirituality—he rarely fails to communicate his curiosity to his audience.
That's certainly the case with Bill Moyers: The Language of Life, a series devoted to poetry that originally aired on PBS in 1995. Filmed on location at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry festival in Waterloo, NJ—the largest poetry event in North America—The Language of Life combines onstage readings by such poets as Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, and Robert Bly, with one-on-one interviews with Moyers.
The DVD set collects all eight episodes, covering a diverse group of poets from many different backgrounds and poetic styles:
• Episode 1: Polyrhythmic performances with Sekou Sundiata, and Naomi Shihab Nye's search for universal truths.
• Episode 2: Transcendent verse by the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi, as interpreted and read by Coleman Barks.
• Episode 3: Saying the "unsayable" about violence and love, poems by Linda McCarriston and Sandra McPherson.
• Episode 4: Poems of family and politics by Carolyn Forché and Claribel Alegría; haiku by Robert Hass.
• Episode 5: Everyday heroes and heroines in poems by former Sandinista revolutionary Daisy Zamora; "landscapes of the mind" by Gary Snyder.
• Episode 6: Expressions of rage and forgiveness by Jimmy Santiago Baca, of identity and duality by Marilyn Chin, and of aging and wisdom by Robert Bly.
• Episode 7: "Moving deeper into the heart of things" with Adrienne Rich, celebrating multiculturalism with Victor Hernández Cruz, and jazzing with Michael S. Harper.
• Episode 8: Poems exploring the pain and courage required to stand out, fit in, and stand up, by Lucille Clifton and David Mura.
Nearly eight hours of poetry readings and talk about poetry may be a little overwhelming—much like those huge poetry anthologies that no one ever gets through—but it's to Moyers' credit that he takes the time to get to know each individual poet and give us a sense of their inspirations and motivations, as well as their personalities. It's fascinating to see how poets from radically different backgrounds can share a similar approach to poetry, and express themselves in distinct ways that echo each other. Sekou Sundiata's rhythmic style and inner-city American focus don't seem to share much with Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría, but listen to them reciting their poems and you hear the music in them; the words almost don't matter as much as their delivery.
Also illuminating is hearing the poets explain why they do what they do, why they choose poems as their vehicle of expression—a question that may have been less necessary back when poetry enjoyed more ubiquity and status than it does today. It was a question very much on my mind coming into this series: is poetry even relevant anymore, in an age where speed and frequency of communication are increasingly more prized than precision of language?
As Naomi Shihab Nye points out in her conversation with Moyers, poetry is unique among forms of literary expression in that they require the reader to slow down, to stop, ponder, and digest individual words and phrases. It's a kind of language that is concise, but not efficient; rather than crisply conveying information, the most effective poetry confounds immediate understanding, jarring the reader out of predictable patterns in order to communicate familiar truths from unfamiliar perspectives.
The value that this kind of writing can have becomes immediately apparent when listening to Linda McCarriston's harrowing poems about her childhood abuse at the hands of her violent, alcoholic father. No prosaic, straightforward description of her torture could convey the pain of her experience, but in McCarriston's skilled hands, language that is normally so inadequate is given the power to bring audiences to empathetic tears. In her poem "To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons," a curse in poetic form to the judge who forced her mother (who had sought a divorce) back to her brutal husband, McCarriston writes:
When you clamped
This is a use of language I wish was commonplace; a use of words not just to communicate facts, but to say the unsayable.
Acorn Media's DVD set of The Language of Life comes in three slim cases in a box, with a 16-page viewer's guide that includes an introduction by Moyers and profiles of all the poets featured in the series. Video quality is a little iffy, due to the age of the series, and location scenes have the familiar washed-out, fuzzy quality of pre-digital video productions, but indoor interviews look very good, with warm colors and a clear picture. Audio quality is similar—outdoor scenes can be difficult to make out at times—but overall it's perfectly serviceable. The set doesn't offer much in the way of special features other than selected bibliographies of the poets.
Even in 1995, when this series was made, poetry was in a sad state of neglect, and I can only imagine the situation is worse now, in the age of Twitter and Facebook. But The Language of Life makes a strong, compelling case for why this literary form is still relevant—perhaps even more so, as our public language becomes more and more informal and imprecise—and still necessary.
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