Diverse state of American poetry TV preview: MPT's MTV-style series cuts, pastes and puts verse in our faces. You won't like it all, but it's an entertaining mix.

February 01, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The United States of Poetry," a five-part, 2 1/2 -hour series debuting on MPT at 11 tonight, is not so much about verse as about diversity, about finding the artistic muse everywhere, about how all-encompassing the word "talent" is.

Thus, this scattershot anthology of American poets embraces everyone from a freckle-faced Idaho third-grader to a woman of 70-plus years living in Arkansas with her husband and 50 cats. It features the work of a homeless man living in L.A. and a former president of the United States. Its stars range from New York performance artists to Nobel laureates.

The approach used by producers Joshua Blum and Bob Holman and director Mark Pellington is decidedly MTV-driven, and rarely has the style been used to better advantage. Most of the spots clock in at under three minutes and almost all are propelled by variations on a driving bass beat; if you don't like one poem, take a few deep breaths and it will be time for another.

Faces are almost always shown in extreme close-up (thank goodness; the faces of these men and women say as much about them as their work), graphics fly up on the screen and then disappear. The pace is frantic, the tone almost experimental.

As well it should be, for watching this series will be an experiment for most viewers. Some names may sound familiar, including Nobel Prize winners Derek Wolcott, Joseph Brodsky (who died earlier this week) and Czeslaw Milosz, as well as rock-and-roll poets Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. But most are artists who have dwelled in commercial obscurity, whose names mean little outside the walls of academe and Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

Some aren't even named, including cheerleaders and military recruits on drill, square-dance callers and sports fans. Poetry, we are reminded, is everywhere.

Occasionally, as if realizing the audience needs a breather, a few lines from the old masters are thrown onto the screen. The effect is calming. Just when you're ready to despair for a good old-fashioned rhyme, the works of Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes appear on screen.

It's all right, the series reminds its audience, this isn't totally alien territory.

The artists featured here recite their own work (save for the late Jack Kerouac, whose "113th Chorus of 'Mexico City Blues' " is read by Johnny Depp), and the result is 300 minutes of verse read as it was meant to be read. The works themselves are uneven -- with 60 poets contributing their work, you're guaranteed not to like all of them -- but they're never less than interesting.

But the highlights are many. Sparrow, a New York poet who nudged his way onto the pages of the New Yorker by reminding its editors, "My poems are as bad as the ones you publish," arises from a sea of shuffling commuters to recite "A Testimonial," a thank-you to all those nameless souls over the years who have told him that he dropped something. Milosz's "Gift" inventories a day so happy "there was nothing on Earth I wanted to possess/Whatever evil I had suffered I forgot."

John Wright's droll "Boulder Valley Surprise" reduces the history of the planet to a recipe, while Ismail Azim El's crackling "It's So Hot in Here" seems to have been ripped whole from the city streets.

Some of the poems are sure to disturb some of the people. Several deal with homosexuality (including Allen Ginsberg's touching "Personals Ad") and, one suspects, will drive the Jesse Helmses of the world to distraction -- particularly since the series was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

But diversity should not be a negative.

Any medium that can produce a poem as beautiful as Pearl Cleage's "Turning Forty" -- at once the most passionate, most erotic and most innocent work here -- deserves our support.

"The United States of Poetry" may not turn us into a nation of poetry lovers. But at the very least, it will give us a new appreciation and respect for those who already are.

Parts 1 and 2 of "The United States of Poetry," "The Land and the People" and "A Day in the Life," air tonight on MPT, Channels 22 and 67. Parts 3 and 4, "The American Dream" and "Love and Sex," air from 11 p.m.-midnight next Thursday. Part 5, "The Word," airs from 11 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Feb. 15.

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