Voices, Visions, And The Duke

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In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon American poets to fashion a distinctive art from the facts of American life. “Banks and tariffs,” he wrote, “the newspaper and Caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi, and are as swiftly passing away. … Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.”

“Voices and Visions,” a new weekly television series beginning this month on PBS, shows how right Emerson was. Thirteen of America’s most important poets are given an hour each: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath. I have seen six of the programs, and if the rest are anywhere near as good, they constitute one of the finest, most imaginative series ever mounted.

Poetry seems at first an implausible subject for television. At least in our time it has become a mostly private art. (I know one poet who actually stopped giving readings because he could not stand to hear the special, self-satisfied tone that inevitably crept into his voice.)

The easy way to have done this series would have been to concentrate on biography—and the facts of each poet’s life are indeed laid out unsparingly—but its central concern remains poetry , not poets. The viewer comes away from each program with a new sense of what it means to struggle with the sound and sense of words, and admiration for the audacity with which the most ambitious among these poets sought to produce what Crane called a “mystical synthesis of America” in a country growing too fast to pay much attention.

Eyewitnesses to their struggles have their say: William Eric Williams, the doctor son of Dr. William Carlos Williams, takes us through the poet’s attic studio, its wall still spotted with brittle, yellowed clippings that intrigued his father; Malcolm Cowley remembers suspecting that his friend Hart Crane was in love with him, while the late Peggy Cowley, with whom Crane surely was in love, recalls the poet’s suicide. Critics speak too: Richard Poirier travels to the places in Old England where Robert Frost’s New England voice was first heard: Richard Sewall suggests the impact upon Emily Dickinson of inhabiting a bedroom that overlooked the cemetery in which five of her girlhood friends were buried in a single year.

But most indelible is the infectious enthusiasm of living practitioners for the work of their forebears: Galway Kinnell lends Whitman’s work a special clarity through the understatement of his reading; Derek Walcott demonstrates the astonishing number of things conveyed by a single six-word line from Crane.

This is challenging, energetic television, adult in the best sense. Very little is oversimplified. While Harold Bloom quietly suggests that Whitman may never actually have expressed physically the sexual feelings about which he was so bravely ardent on paper, for example, Allen Ginsberg cheerfully claims to have slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with Whitman.

Frost’s harrowing poetic dialogue “Home Burial” and a scene from one of Hughes’s charming “Simple” stories are unobtrusively acted out. Costumed actors walk through scenes from the lives of those poets who lived in periods too early to have yielded up authentic footage—Crane picks up sailors in a bar, Emily Dickinson gazes perhaps a few too many times through her Amherst windowpane—but such scenes are mercifully silent; invented historical dialogue, the curse of television documentaries, is scrupulously avoided.

Virtually every technique of razzle-dazzle known to MTV is employed, always in the service of language: a Crane poem is elegantly animated; a Hughes poem is read to percussive riffs by the great jazz drummer Max Roach; the words are seen as well as heard, floating above landscapes or superimposed over historical images.

This series, as adventurous in its way as the poets it celebrates, demands—and rewards—close attention.

Like Emerson, and like Whitman and Williams, Hughes and Crane, and a good many other all-American visionaries, Duke Ellington really believed his art could sum up the experiences of a whole people, could tell us “all of the good things about ourselves.” as he used to say before launching into one of his best extended works, “A Tone Parallel to Harlem.” And as Duke Ellington , a new biography by James Lincoln Collier (Oxford University Press), makes clear, he worked at that art, night after night for nearly sixty years, under conditions different from, but no less difficult than, those endured by any poet.