At first thought, it might seem that great poetry and television are as ill suited and uncomplementary to one another as opera and comic books.
But after watching and listening to tonight's debut of the new PBS series "Voices & Visions," an ambitious 13-week celebration of the lives and works of 13 great modern American poets, you will know otherwise (Channel 28 at 10 p.m.).
"Robert Frost," tonight's subject, will be followed (in order) by a diverse group whose idiomatic American voices put the poetry of the New World on the world literary map: Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.
Frost's Yankee-strong images of rural New England life lend themselves easily to visuals, and the makers of "Voices & Visions" show a respectful and tender affinity for his words. Sometimes they simply let a camera slowly nose around an apple orchard while Frost's crusty voice recites "After Apple Picking" off screen. Or let a camera wander the streets of a working-class urban neighborhood to a sound track of Frost reading "Acquainted With the Night."
Frost's poetry is not just heard, however, it is seen as well. Text is often superimposed on the screen. And the words to the poem "Home Burial," about a young couple whose child has died, are turned into a touching, powerful dramatization.
Around the poems flows an informative stream of archival photos and film, as well as interviews with Frost and contemporary poets like Seamus Heaney and Soviet emigre Joseph Brodsky, who were influenced by Frost.
Frost's career as a poet, which apparently he calculated as carefully as one of his poems, is traced; and what he called "the sound of sense"--the idea that meanings of words are affected by how they are spoken out loud--is explained.
A tape of next week's poet, Ezra Pound, was unavailable for viewing. But "Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper" (the third episode of the series), about the black poet and writer whose jazzy urban rhythms documented his people's experience, is also well done. Like the Frost hour, you don't have to be an English major to find it appealing.
Robert Chapman, who with Jill Janows is a senior producer of the series, also produced "Robert Frost," which was directed by Peter Hammer and written by Margot Feldman. A tie-in book to the TV series, also titled "Voices & Visions," has been published by Random House.