Four years after his eight-hour series “The Language of Life,” Bill Moyers returns to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival to spend time with 20-odd poets in performance and conversation. This is a welcome, all-too-rare small-screen celebration of the poetic muse and the imaginative process.
In 1998, the biennial gathering, the largest of its kind in North America, drew 12,000 people to the restored New Jersey village of Waterloo for four days of readings and workshops. “Fooling With Words” spotlights participating scribes both renowned (Amiri Baraka, Galway Kinnell, Marge Piercy, W.S. Merwin) and lesser known (David Gonzalez, Deborah Garrison, Joe Weil, Lorna Dee Cervantes). The program lacks the sustained depth of the more intensive earlier series, and perhaps of the upcoming strand of nine half-hours (“Sounds of Poetry,” skedded for fall), but nonetheless offers moments of quiet beauty, insight and eloquence.
Although the dialogues are brief, Moyers’ talent for eliciting thoughtful, provocative observations is not wasted here. Against the picturesque setting, he and some of the poets delve into the nature of their craft, the “private exploration,” in the words of Jane Hirshfield, that paradoxically ends up in public. Mark Doty notes, “The act of making a poem implies that somebody’s listening” — it is the shaping of an emotional cry into compelling language.
Doty’s commentary and readings are highlights, his elegantly wrought poems evoking with wit and poignancy such experiences as an unexpectedly transcendent amateur performance of Handel’s “Messiah” (complete with “altos from the A&P”) and his dying partner’s wish for a new dog. Poet laureate Robert Pinsky offers an ode to TV (“terrarium of dreams and wonders”) and a surprisingly powerful 26-word alphabet poem, “ABC” (“Any body can die, evidently. Few/Go happily, irradiating joy”).
Director Catherine Tatge and d.p. Joel Shapiro capture not only the interplay between poets and their appreciative audiences — which include fellow poets — but the pleasure the writers derive from language itself. Their subjects may be pain or grief, but, as Shirley Geok-lin Lim notes, the sheer joy derived from moving, eloquent wordplay may be “the oar we need not to drown.”
There’s an impressive diversity of voices and styles; Stanley Kunitz, who in 1995 became the first English-language poet to publish a volume of new poems at 90, lauds the festival’s “generosity of spirit.” But certain similarities among the poets emerge. Perhaps the most intriguing is that of secret childhood scribblings; many began writing poetry as children — and have been doing so ever since. For these artists, poetry remains a way of deepening self-knowledge and experience. And when nonagenarian Kunitz stands before a rapt audience to read a poem about his Cape Cod garden and says, “I can scarcely wait till tomorrow,” the making of poetry looks like a good way of living indeed.