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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

A Fun, Festive Celebration of Poetry, 'Life'

June 23, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG

R oses are red, Violets are blue, I love this program, So will you.

In a current theatrical movie titled "The Postman," a simple Italian mail carrier is transformed by the verse of exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The postman's amazing metamorphose is the soul of this endearing, poignant comedy set in a tiny fishing village where illiteracy is the norm.

As enriching and gratifying in its own seductive way--and potentially as much a catalyst as the film's Neruda--is an eight-part series on poetry arriving tonight on PBS. Smoothly combining performances and cozy chats, "The Language of Life With Bill Moyers" speaks eloquently while displaying not one iambic pentameter of artifice or self-importance. Smart and deep, you'd expect. As a bonus, though, it's also fun. It's public television at its most public, a festive, deliciously eclectic and accessible outpouring of poetry devoid of obscure parlor elitists, pointy bearded coffee house brooders wearing berets and dark shades or any other stereotypes of the genre that come to mind.

Moyers repeats what others have been saying, that there's a renaissance of poetry in the U.S. If not, "The Language of Life" may start one.

Listen:

"This is where the line begins. From OTB to the Lotto machine. Flower shop and liquor store on either side. And early, early, early one morning, Ramadan begins, with 200 Muslims praying in the park. And tonight, tonight, tonight, the Indians will drain their six-packs and talk calypso, Simonize cars with the doors wide open, Bob Marley kicking on the Benzi Box . . . "

Stage lights throwing a sheen across his skin, that is Sekou Sundiata performing under a large tent, rhythmically evoking the sights and aromas of crowded streets and steamy nights in East Harlem and the Bronx, his cool words--a sort of scat rap--accompanied by the cool jazz of a quintet known as Craig Harris and the Black Coalition Orchestra.

He tells Moyers: "We call it oralizing."

On stage, the oralizer chants: "Ain't it funky. Ain't it funky now." At times his rhythms resonate New Age: "Open us and find us, let the positive find us." At times it's a race beat rising angrily from the housing projects where Sundiata grew up and learned the rules of life as an African American: "All depends on the skin, all depends on the skin you're livin' in."

Sundiata and hornman Harris blow you away.

The program's picturesque wooded setting, where spirits of Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and others murmur in the trees, is the biennial Dorothy R. Dodge festival of poetry readings and workshops in Waterloo, N.J. At this three-day mingling of renowned poets with thousands of their admirers, Moyers and his longtime collaborator, producer-director David Grubin, dwell engagingly on 18 of these talking heads, with Sundiata sharing tonight's two-hour segment with Naomi Shihab Nye and Coleman Barks.

Because "life is short, we must move very slowly," Nye says to Moyers. Daughter of an American mother and Palestinian father, Nye is an exotic hybrid of the U.S. and Old Jerusalem, and she has found in poetry an expression of the savory, unhurriedly pausing-to-inhale-life experience she values. A single brown braid falling over her shoulder, she recites a poem that celebrates her father and his repetitive labors as a broom maker, "Thumb over thumb, straw over straw." She counsels in another poem: "Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know that you could tumble any second. Then decide what to do with your time."

In 1976, Southern poet-scholar Barks decided that his time should be spent as the contemporary medium for 13th-Century Islamic poet Jelaluddin Rumi. And whether conversationally or on stage, grandly supported by music from the Paul Winter Consort, he frees these ancient, sage poems "from their cages" with such infectious joy, fresh wonder and haunting oneness with his subject that, as Moyers notes, the line separating Barks and the mystic Rumi blurs.

The forest of highlights continues. None higher than next month's encounter with former bad-boy Jimmy Santiago Baca, who wrote his first line of verse as a 17-year-old con in Arizona and whose belated interest in reading, he tells Moyers, bewildered his peers. He was told: "You can't fix a '57 Chevy with a book."

Half Apache, half Chicano, Baca found that he could repair his life with poetry. His emotional reading of "El Gato," his vivid and searing portrait of a young gang banger, sinking in a violent world of crack, homeboys, pipes and chains, is at once an odyssey of despair and jolting, spectacular theater that deservedly earns a standing ovation.

Pain also drives the work of Linda McCarriston, who tells Moyers next week that poetry "is about saying the unsayable." And McCarriston says it with a withering passion and intensity. To hear her recite a poem is to relive with her a tortured childhood deeply scarred by sexual abuse and savage beatings.

Far down the road, the series concludes with Japanese American David Mura, whose poems explore racial discrimination but also find humor in the irony of his marriage to a WASPy New Englander, and with Lucille Clifton, whose themes range from slavery to parenthood. "Poetry began," she says, "when somebody wandered off a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, 'Ahhh.' "

Instinctively in her work, the upbeat, positive-thinking, next-door neighborly Clifton appears to be following the advice of Rumi as expressed by her fellow poet Barks: "Let the beauty we love be what we do."

Thumb over thumb, straw over straw.

* "The Language of Life With Bill Moyers" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on KVCR and 9 p.m. on KCET; Sundays at 6 p.m. on KPBS.

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