The United States of Poetry

My Rating:

Visuals like the best MTV, with none of the lyrical vapidity.

Bitable Bytes:
"A Highly Likeable Series!"
"Engagingly Shot!"
"Truly Delightful!"

What to do while watching:
You'll know what to do.

What to eat while watching:
Halvah or crème brulee. Some rich, exotic dessert would be ideal.

The United States of Poetry wraps a lot of current creative threads into a highly likeable series, criminally underplayed on television but available (both for purchase and for enjoyment) to a wider audience. I strongly recommend it and have passed my two-video-set to many friends, both poets and non-, who have liked it very much.

When I talk about creative threads, what I mean is that this series ties together many of the thin bands of poetic information currently in existence in this world. Poetry is a relatively quiet and backwater medium nowadays, though it what was once de rigueur for the best people. Japanese emperors were poets. In Europe, nobility wrote and enjoyed poetry-and monarchs even paid poets (like John Dryden) to write about them. It's a long and ancient tradition, but it was never something "of the people."

Now, it is only of the people. Search the average American house, and you're bound to find at least one home-scratched poem. Mom wrote a ballad to her first love, and it's slowly disintegrating at the bottom of a desk drawer. Dad scrawled a paean to the U.S. victory in Iraq back in 1991, and it's tucked into a book on a dusty shelf over the television. Sis wrote an illustrated cinquain about pelicans for class. It's magnetted to the fridge next to Junior's Pokemon haiku, not something an emperor would have written, but an honest attempt nonetheless.

USOP brings the egalitarian aspect of poetry into the series. The poets who read in these five half-hour episodes cover the full range of U.S. citizenry from third-grader Sawyer Shefts ("At night I hear the dog bark / The wind blows my swing") to octogenarian Besmilr Brigham. Many races are represented: Naomi Shahib Nye, Palestinian; Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Hawaiian; Henry Real Bird, Crow; Indran Amirthanayagam, Sri Lankan; Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Native Alaskan. Larry Eigner, an exceptional poet in spite of cerebral palsy, reads from his wheelchair. Hal Sirowitz, a basket case, perhaps only when in character, reads from a shrink's couch.

More famous poets (as famous as poets can get these days) are also represented, of course, and these also cover the gamut, from champions of the poetry slam scene to academic poets to rock and roll lyricists. Though academia has been a stronghold of poetry for centuries, and poets like Robert Creeley still bring credibility to it, a lot of the vitality of poetry has seeped over to rock and roll. Lou Reed, Michael Franti, John S. Hall (of King Missile) are represented here reciting, not singing. A still vibrantly new middle ground between canonical poetry and rock and roll poetry is the poetry slam scene where poets vie for approval based on the words as well as their delivery in context. Champs Maggie Estep and Tracy Morris represent powerfully.

And a few celebrities who are not poets primarily also make appearances. Johnny Depp reads Jack Kerouac, and President Jimmy Carter reads one of his own compositions, which is pretty cool.

As a poet myself, I don't need much more than the title itself and the presence of the above readers plus Allen Ginsberg, Lord Buckley, Czeslaw Milosz, and others to get pretty excited about this video. For non-poets, getting to the actual moments of loading the tape and pressing play may be fraught with resistance, a mainstream indifference--even antipathy--toward the very word, poetry. But the opening montage is decidedly engaging, bringing a viewer into the poems, which are also engagingly shot.

Colors, imagery, and music all are done with taste and sensitivity. The poems become the foreground, brought to a heightened presentation suitable for an MTV culture. The snippets are fascinating and each half hour ends before you realize it has begun. Time truly flies on this poetry. The episodes are truly delightful, and take a step in returning poetry to its former and rightful glory while keeping it accessible to all who would come and feast.

As with any videos in my personal collection (Drunken Master, South Park's Mister Hanky episode, Latcho Drom, Velasquez's Little Museum), Bay Area residents and visitors are welcome to contact me to arrange a screening. It would be a delight to show this to you and to watch it again myself.

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For your collection: Look Here, for information about ordering the video series, CD or book

Gooden's listening to: Legends of the 20th Century, Spike Milligan

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