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The Language of Life with Bill Moyers

Producer-director David Grubin intercuts the poets' performances and workshops at the fest with interviews in which Moyers plays his usual role: the earnest, engaged student whose questions often cut straight to the heart of the matter. He elicits thoughtful, provocative replies.

Producer-director David Grubin intercuts the poets’ performances and workshops at the fest with interviews in which Moyers plays his usual role: the earnest, engaged student whose questions often cut straight to the heart of the matter. He elicits thoughtful, provocative replies.

First seg, “Welcome to the Mainland,” focuses on Sekou Sundiata and Naomi Shihab Nye, whose approaches are vastly different but who share a concern with everyday detail and sense of place.

Sundiata, a “performance poet,” works with a group of jazz musicians; together they weave an elegy to Harlem and a vibrant street scene in the Bronx. His connection to language is rooted in his childhood experiences in the black Baptist church with its call-and-response “oralizing” and “testifying.”

Music is crucial to his art, and in certain pieces the band — led by composer Craig Harris — carries a good deal of the weight with its improvisational interludes. But Sundiata ably demonstrates his a cappella prowess in a couple of solo pieces, including a deliciously syncopated dramatic monologue by a character named Space.

Nye, taking a more traditional route (“May I have that band?” she quips upon taking the stage), reads poems that shape small moments with unexpected emotional weight. For Nye, there is no distinction between personal and political poems –“The dignity of daily life is politics,” she asserts.

“It slows you down to read a poem,” she tells Moyers, emphasizing the need for that “slow experience with words.” Nye finds joy in the quotidian details we often overlook. This is where poems hide; “What we have to do is live our lives in a way that lets us find them.”

Second hour, “Love’s Confusing Joy,” features the work of Barks, who for nearly 20 years has devoted himself to translating the writings of 13th century mystic poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Barks’ life was changed in 1976, when writer Robert Bly gave him a book of scholarly transcriptions from the Persian, saying, “These poems need to be released from their cages.”

Barks likens Rumi, a member of the Sufi sect of Islam who wrote as many as 14 poems a day in the last years of his life, to Shakespeare in terms of his stature as a “model of imaginative freedom.”

The Paul Winter Consort provides a lovely jazz counterpoint to Barks’ readings of Rumi’s aphoristic gems. For the Southern poet, the ancient master’s work is about opening the heart. He divulges some of his own mystical connections to Rumi, and Moyers observes that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Despite their diverse styles, the poets are united by the value they place on poetry as a way of expressing truth. Sundiata notes that through our exposure to political and advertising jargon, we have come to experience language as manipulator; we expect poets to take a stand. Nye speaks of poetry as a way of “going deep.”

Moyers and Grubin keep the focus on the making of poetry and the passions that drive these artists. In the first two segments, there is no discussion of the practical aspects of being a poet (most of the writers featured here are university teachers).

Fluid camerawork captures the tranquil village setting and festive mood: For three days, Waterloo is poetry paradise. Besides the general public, New Jersey high school students and teachers attend the fest through an associated, year-round program. Between scheduled events, teens gather on the green for impromptu readings.

Most important, the filmmakers catch the play of meaning upon the poet’s faces when they perform, when they teach and in their reflective conversations with Moyers. If, as Nye suggests, many of our contemporary ills are due to our exile from the contemplative place where poetry is found, Moyers and company serve up good medicine here.

Among the other 15 poets featured in the series are Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Bly and Daisy Zamora.

Series’ tone is celebratory, despite the difficult subjects often addressed. The accent is decidedly on the positive; there are no whiskey-voiced, nicotine-fingered nihilists in this bunch. But these writers’ work has the edge of truth, and their testifying is soul-stirring stuff, well worth our time — if we only slow down long enough to listen.

The Language of Life with Bill Moyers

(Fri. (23), June 30, July 7, 14, 21, 28, 9-11 p.m., PBS)

Production: Filmed in Waterloo, N.J., by David Grubin Prods. Inc. and Public Affairs Television Inc. for Thirteen/WNET New York. Executive producer, David Grubin. Executive editors, Bill Moyers, Judith Davidson Moyers. Produced, directed by Grubin. Co-producer, Nick Davis; field producers, Alice Markowitz, Dick Rogers, Cheryl Wang; camera, Edward Marritz; editors, Joan Grubin ("Welcome to the Mainland"), Nancy Ken ("The Field of Time"); series poetry consultant, James Haba; sound, Rick Dior. #Host: Bill Moyers. Poetry comes to primetime in high style in "The Language of Life," Bill Moyers' new series for PBS. "I haven't seen anything like it on television," poet Coleman Barks tells Moyers in the second segment of the eight-parter, and while the program's general format may be familiar to viewers of Moyers' past series, the focus on 18 poets and their work is a rare treat for TV audiences. Amid the glut of tube "talk," the good conversation offered here shines. Airing on six consecutive Fridays, with double episodes the first and last nights, "Language" takes viewers to Waterloo, N.J., for the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, where poetry lovers gather for workshops and readings in the idyllic setting of a restored 18th century village.

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