Poetry gets musicvid treatment in PBS’ “The United States of Poetry” to mixed results. Five-part series marries word to image with sometimes exhilarating innovation, and goes some way toward disproving the conventional “wisdom” that television and poetry are mutually exclusive means of expression.
Producers Joshua Blum and Bob Holman and director Mark Pellington, an MTV vet , package poetry videos in 30-minute segs defined by theme. First three of these , “The Land and the People,””A Day in the Life” and “The American Dream,” are most effective, and “Dream” is the strongest entry in the series.
Highlighted by contributions from Leonard Cohen (seated before an American flag that transforms into a bar code), Amiri Baraka (with an impassioned take on the same flag), Wanda Coleman (in a biting sendup of home shopping channels) and John Wright (delivering a TV-cooking-show-style recipe for planet Earth), “The American Dream” also features connecting visual poems by Barbara Kruger that heighten the level of ironic commentary on democracy and capitalism. (Artist Jenny Holzer supplies visual poems for the last installment, “The Word.”)
The interstitial elements are crucial: They provide a visual and thematic motif for each program. Opener “The Land and the People,” which strikes an elegiac tone of loss and displacement, includes series’ most inspired treatment of the connecting visuals. Lines from Emily Dickinson appear on a diner countertop, Longfellow on a highway sign, Whitman on a square of pavement — images that capture the sense of epiphany at the heart of any poem.
“A Day in the Life” moves cleverly through a 24-hour period, from the chanting of marching Army troops through Czeslaw Milosz’s midmorning contemplation of life’s blessings (“Whatever evil I had suffered I forgot”) to Ismail Azim El’s noon bus ride through a San Francisco heat wave — a crucible of “man and stone”– to the next dawn, when Derek Walcott steps across an autumn lawn in darkness to deliver a prayer that we “direct the worst in us through chaos / with the passion of plain day.”
“Love and Sex” segment is least successful, with several of its literal interpretations of love poems feeling like the musicvideo equivalent of easy listening. Elsewhere in the series, though, straightforward visual translations are potent — particularly Ruth Forman’s “Stoplight Politics,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Blood” and Sheryl Noethe’s “Goodwill Thrift Store, Missoula.” The use of music generally serves the poems well, but there are occasions of intrusiveness: When 88-year-old Kentuckian James Still reads his “Heritage,” the accompaniment, however lovely, gets in the way of the simple beauty of his voice.
Final segment, “The Word,” concentrates on language itself, with uneven effectiveness. It ranges from the glitzy Beat (Johnny Depp reading an excerpt from Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues”) to the simply earnest (Jimmy Carter) to the giddily language-intensive (Emily XYZ’s verbal evocation, in two voices, of a slot machine).
Overall, the slick camerawork and sharp editing bring the poems an immediacy that respects the texts; indeed, the poets were involved in the development of their works’ treatment here. Series was created during a 12-week cross-country road trip by the filmmakers. Their postcards from “The United States of Poetry” are mementos to savor — and they make for good television.