Some things seem too good to be true: for example, Shaquille O’Neal talking about poetry. More than that—Shaq close-reading Edward Hirsch’s poem “Fast Break,” with its memorable opening line, “A hook shot kisses the rim,” and then proceeding to demonstrate, with his lips, varying degrees of that kiss’s intensity. Yet this is precisely the sort of an experience the viewers of the new PBS program Poetry in America can expect from the 12-episode series, released last week in time for National Poetry Month.
“April,” as T.S. Eliot famously wrote in his epic poem The Waste Land, “is the cruelest month.” There is a cosmic irony to the fact that “the cruelest month” is also the month the Academy of American Poets chose to celebrate their art, a time when one sees a spike in poetry readings and programs. Even the major publishing houses step up their game and promote their ever-shrinking poetry lists. There is something bittersweet about these initiatives, for all too often they unwittingly demonstrate poetry’s lamentable fate in America, and its ever-decreasing relevance. Not so with Poetry in America.
Elisa New, the host and director of the series, is a Harvard professor of English Literature (and Tablet contributor). She seems fully cognizant of the fact that most readers out there are permanently scarred by those deathly boring encounters with poetry they had back in high school or college, where authority figures lectured or droned on and on about long-antiquated, unwieldy verses that have little relevance to anyone still breathing. Meanwhile, one of poetry’s greatest pleasures is the conversation around it, the free-associative discussion during which poems begin to open and unfold, offering those involved not only profound personal insights but also a sense of intellectual and spiritual bonding with other participants. It can be an intimate, and precious experience.
The basic concept of Poetry in America is New talking about poetry with various celebrities and other folks who may not be naturally thought of as authorities on poetry. Some of the “guest interpreters” featured on the show include musicians Bono, Herbie Hancock, and Regina Spektor, politicians Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, among others. Despite her status as an expert, New does not lecture. Occasionally, she offers bits of helpful context, though for the most part her ideas seem to spontaneously erupt at climactic points of the encounters with her guests.
Instead of lecturing, New asks thoughtful and interesting questions. Edward Hirsch’s poem “Fast Break” revels in the lingo, familiar to basketball players and fans, and it is delightful to hear Shaquille O’Neal and another NBA retiree, Shane Battier, get deep into the poem’s imagery, context, and even the form of the piece. While the conversations seem to have been conducted 1-on-1, in the final cut, they’re juxtaposed and collaged in a way that keeps the show moving in a dynamic, engaging manner. Best of all, the discourse around the poem is interspersed with archival NBA footage that illustrates some basketball terms and concepts mentioned in the poem. Hearing the poem, and watching Shaq’s stunning play, it becomes clear that poetry isn’t merely the art of words—but, perhaps, is the quality of the experience, the sublime moment that is present in the actual game, as it is in the words that describe it.
The notion that poetry is far more than the written words that comprise it is repeatedly invoked in what appears to be the most eccentric and unusual episode of the series—one that focuses on the iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and his two poems, “Hymmnn” and “Hum Bomb.” The segment opens with New’s introduction: “We may think of poems as primarily words we read on a page. A poem, we imagine, is a statement of meaning we decode with our intellect. But Allen Ginsberg embraced a different vision of the poem. Inspired by a visionary and mystic William Blake, and by ancient religious traditions, Ginsberg chanted poems that howled and hummed, and sometimes bounced off the walls.”
Ginsberg’s “Hymmnn” is an addendum to his epic poem “Kaddish,” in which he mourns the passing of his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, and recounts the story of her gradual descent into mental illness. Recitation of the poem is juxtaposed with a chazzan’s chant of Kaddish, the Aramaic prayer. This makes sense, because the “Hymmnn” incorporates the words from the traditional Jewish liturgy, even as it escalates them into a deeply personal, heart-breaking improvisation:
In the world which He has created according to his will Blessed Praised
Magnified Lauded Exalted the Name of the Holy One Blessed is He!
In the house in Newark Blessed is He! In the madhouse Blessed is He! In the house of Death Blessed is He!
Blessed be He in homosexuality! Blessed be He in Paranoia! Blessed be He in the city! Blessed be He in the Book!
As it continues, the poem reaches into the depths of despair, and heights of ecstasy. Even when it gets ironic, the poem is incredibly intense. Bono, thinking through Ginsberg’s expansiveness, puts it this way: “There is nothing off limits. I can’t think of many poets that can write like that about a tear, or a drip off their nose, or the most savage sexual act.” A number of religious leaders, including two rabbis, chime in, interpreting the work, its breadth, darkness, and liberation. Rabbi Claudia Kreiman davens Ginsberg texts with a melody generally used for traditional Jewish liturgy.
The season’s finale is the discussion of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” a well-known and well-worn poem, the final lines of which are familiar to all:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The star of the episode is Regina Spektor, Soviet-born singer-songwriter, who immigrated to the United States from Moscow at the age of nine. Contemplating the phrase “give me your tired,” Spektor insightfully points out that we’re talking about “spiritual and existential exhaustion,” and then, thinking about the phrase “wretched refuse,” proceeds to speak about the anti-Semitism and persecution that brought her family to the United States more than two decades ago. Given this backdrop, it is all the more poignant to see the episode’s footage of the recent pro-immigration marches, which feature a protester carrying a sign that quotes various lines from Lazarus’s poem, including one that states “HUDDLED MASSES” with arrows radiating outward.
Spektor doesn’t merely come prepared to speak about the poem: She learns it by heart and recites its somewhat unwieldy phrases in a strikingly accessible, melodic manner. As she explains: “I come from a culture where poetry was recited constantly … everybody memorized poems, and once you’re using your voice it’s this in-between thing: it’s conversation but it’s also elevated, it kind of vibrates on a higher level.”
In the episode, Spektor’s own song “Après Moi” is juxtaposed with Lazarus’s poem in a striking way. First, as the discussion turns to immigrants, we see Spektor singing the song’s verse in Russian (that verse is borrowed from a poem by Boris Pasternak). At the very end of the episode, we hear the song’s chorus, which, in the context of this discussion suddenly seems to attain a new dimension of meaning:
I (uh) must go on standing
You can’t break that which isn’t yours
I (uh) must go on standing
I’m not my own, it’s not my choice
For a second, it seems that Spektor’s song is in conversation with Lazarus’s poem, and the one who “must go on standing” is none other than Lazarus’s “Mother of Exiles” herself. The symbolic torch is being passed to the new generation of poets.
Poetry in America is infectious: it made me want to re-listen to my Spektor records, just as it engendered a few blissful hours with the works of the former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, whose penetrating remarks about Ginsberg’s poetry were themselves pure poetry.
My concern about Poetry in America is that while it features poets who, in their day, innovated poetry and broke its rules (Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, and Gwendolyn Brooks), the few contemporary poets whose work is discussed on the show are far from being boundary-pushing. These poets may move you but they won’t deeply rankle you, offend you into clarity, or mess with your mind. The poetic forms they work with are similar to one another. Even the inclusion of the rapper Nas’s hit rap “N.Y. State of Mind” seems less about poetic innovation and experiment, and more about the attempt to emphasize the mass appeal of poetry and its metamorphosis into song lyrics.
Two decades ago, Charles Bernstein, avant-garde poet and provocateur, in his essay “Against National Poetry Month As Such,” pointed out that high-profile mainstream poetry programs tend to “exclude … much of the formally innovative and ‘otherstream’ poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry.”
Poetry in America is a terrific program, and if watching it leaves you inspired to seek out more daring and unusual contemporary writing, you may be interested in seeking out your local open mics and late-night off-the-beaten-path poetry hangouts. You may also want to take a look at the poetry-themed articles here on Tablet, or the wonderful community of readers and thinkers that erupted around ModPo (aka “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry”), a Massive Online Open Course from the University of Pennsylvania, where experimental poems can be discussed with thousands of readers worldwide. Take that assist from Shaq, and run with it.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.