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Baedeker to the Realms of Gold : VOICES & VISIONS The Poet in America; edited by Helen Vendler (Random House: $29.95; 528 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Joel Conarroe | Conarroe, the author of books about William Carlos Williams and John Berryman, is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

This immense volume of essays is designed as a companion to a PBS series of one-hour programs affectionately referred to in the country's English departments as "Movies About Dead Poets." In addition to constituting a useful history of American verse, from Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath, the book is a veritable anthology, all but one of its 13 poets (T. S. Eliot, whose estate is grudging about granting permissions) represented by extensive quotations. The nearly 200 photographs and illustrations, moreover, offer riches in abundance for those persuaded that pictures are indeed more telling than words.

The films themselves, combining biographical information with critical commentary by knowledgeable critics and cultural historians, are entertaining, instructive, and uneven. The most effective--on Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Plath--feature recordings of the poet's voice imaginatively fused with appropriate visual imagery. As for the writers who lived in less technically sophisticated times, "Walt Whitman" has the benefit of Galway Kinnell's riveting delivery of the verse but also, in a directorial miscalculation, introduces a bewhiskered actor impersonating the bard. "Emily Dickinson" does a nice job of re-creating the social and intellectual milieu from which the poet emerged, but Jane Alexander's flat recitation of the poetry saps all vitality from the film and makes one yearn for Claire Bloom's luminous "Belle of Amherst," shown last year on British TV but not yet seen in the States.

FOR THE RECORD - 'VOICES AND VISIONS' OMISSION
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 21, 1988 Home Edition Book Review Page 7 Book Review Desk 3 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
The following paragraph, almost in its entirety, was omitted from Joel Conarroe's review (Book Review, Feb. 7) of "Voices & Visions: The Poet in America," a review that discussed a public television series on American poets as well as the book that accompanies it:
"We get a good sense of Langston Hughes' public life in the film about him but (and this is also true of Arnold Rampersad's otherwise illuminating essay in the book) no inkling of his private self, of any intimate relationships. Given, by the way, Hughes' love of blues and spirituals, this is the only film in which the use of music as underscoring for the poetry is not ruinous."

We get a good sense of Langston Hughes' public life in the film about him but (and this is also true of Arnold Rampersad's otherwise illuminating essay in the book) no inkling of his private self, of any intimate relationships. Given, by the way, Hughes' love of blues and spirituals, this is the only film in which the use of music as underscoring for the poetry is not ruinous. Since poetry is itself music, introducing a score is the equivalent of using Stravinsky, say, as background for aperformance of Copland. The obtrusive Muzak (there's no other word), the use of which reveals an absence of respect for unembellished language, is especially manipulative and distracting in the portraits of Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore. In the abysmal T. S. Eliot film, moreover, even the poet's masterly reading of "The Waste Land" is polluted by a noisy accompaniment. This won't do.

The Williams film, though occasionally arty in a way the poet never was, features not only the poet's own inimitable voice but also a moving recitation by Allen Ginsberg. "Wallace Stevens," too, has the benefit of readings by a living poet, James Merrill, most of which are mercifully spared musical underscoring. Other of the films are also enhanced by the inclusion of living poets, including Joseph Brodsky, Mark Strand, Adrienne Rich, Richard Howard, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Robert Hass, and Octavio Paz--an impressive galaxy of singers indeed.

Like the films they supplement, the book's 13 essays are uneven, some considerably more readable than others. I especially like Calvin Bedient's "Whitman," with its engaging critical voice: "Laid end to end, Whitman's long lines would form their own virtual transcontinental railroad, and the locomotive and cars to boot, and varied sights along the way." Allan Williamson's intelligent but awkwardly written essay on Hart Crane, by contrast, needs editing. Helen McNeil, in an arid piece on Elizabeth Bishop, doesn't mention her subject's often destructive personal relationships, though they were hardly irrelevant to the poet's seemingly impersonal art. (McNeil's essay on Plath, unlike the superb film it complements, is also disappointing.)

Obviously, one way to deal with volatile material is to ignore it, and hence in an otherwise dazzling essay on Pound, Hugh Kenner, one of our greatest critics, approaches the poet's anti-Semitism and the controversies that swirled around his life by saying nothing at all. "The emphasis belongs where I keep it," he insists, "on the continuities of the life of the mind and on the pleasures of his craggy texts." But can a craggy text ever be totally divorced from the craggy views that produced it? The Pound film, as it happens, by introducing Alfred Kazin as a kind of prosecuting attorney, offers a more balanced view of the poet.

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