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Howard Rosenberg / TELEVISION

'NewsHour' Finds Poetry in the Soul of America

May 01, 2000|Howard Rosenberg

John Doherty, a 34-year-old construction worker for the Boston Gas Co., leans against a giant earth mover and gives a passionate reading of his favorite poem.

Surprise: It doesn't begin, "Roses are red. . . . "

Hard-hatless for this occasion, he begins the closing lines of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" in distinct Bostonese. "There is that in me--I do not know what it is--but I know it's me."

He enjoys this celebrated poem "for its upliftingness, its ability to inspire me and see things in life and in everyday existence that I hadn't noticed before, that I might have taken for granted before," explains Doherty, whose days are spent digging, laying pipeline and tapping into gas mains.

What is going on here? Poetry is going on here. And it's quite unusual and exhilarating.

The venue, of all places, is a television newscast. Well, not just any newscast. It's TV's smartest, most literate one, "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS, which is setting aside up to seven minutes each Monday for videos of ordinary Americans like Doherty reciting their favorite poems and explaining why they find them meaningful. To commercial newscasts, seven minutes equals a documentary.

Doherty's video is one of 50 shot to date for the Favorite Poem Project, which U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky--a "NewsHour" contributor--is creating as an archive to reside in the Library of Congress. The initial 50--ranging from relatively obscure verse to the mighty Casey striking out in Mudville--were culled from 18,000 responses that Pinsky received after putting out a call for submissions in 1998.

"To have great poems," Whitman once wrote, "there must be great audiences too."

"The NewsHour" audience is a nice place to start in the year 2000. Yet even for TV's most tenaciously anti-dumbing-down newscast, one known for its arts coverage, aren't these clashing cadences? Readings of verse consuming time that could be devoted to Little Elian?

Poems reflect life just as news stories do, Lehrer answered by phone from Washington, D.C. "They just do it in iambic pentameter."

Check out the pentameter of tonight's video in this series that began April 10 with Doherty. It has a young U.S. Marine officer named Stephen Conteaguero reciting and explaining his affinity for "Politics" by William Butler Yeats in Miami.

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You infer from the environment in which we see Conteaguero, a Cuban American whose father was an anti-Castro journalist before fleeing his homeland, that he is part of Miami's Keep-Elian-in-the-U.S. crowd that is shown on TV nearly always as a monolith of sloganeering protesters.

Pop goes the stereotype, however, for like Yeats, the married Conteaguero says he chooses love over politics.

Pinsky insisted on "The NewsHour" recently that Americans were hungry for poetry. "It's like the hunger for dancing, as well as walking, singing," he said. "That's why we have cuisine as well as food, love as well as copulation."

He said he hoped the Favorite Poem Project would endure as a portrait of the way we are in the year 2000. Not only a portrait of richly diverse poetry tastes, of course, but of Americans expressed through the poetry they hold dear.

Videos in the "NewsHour" series, for example, are as much about the readers as the universes described by the poets they adore.

Week 2 brought a moving reading of Langston Hughes' "Minstrel Man" by Pov Chin, a Stockton, Calif., student for whom these lines resonated the sadness she felt about the terror experienced by her family and others in the Cambodia of ruthless Pol Pot.

Because my mouth

Is wide with laughter

And my throat

Is deep with song,

You do not think

I suffer after

I've held my pain

So long?

Because my mouth

Is wide with laughter,

You do not hear

My inner cry?

Because my feet

Are gay with dancing,

You do not know

I die?

Then came the third week's poignant video with Vietnam vet Michael H. Lythgoe reciting "Facing It" in front of the Vietnam Wall in Washington. At such times, as Pinsky has noted, the reader becomes the instrument of the poet and virtually takes possession of the poem. In this case, the visions of poet Yusef Komunyakaa and reader Lythgoe seemed to coalesce when the vet broke down at the wall while reciting, "I touch the name, Andrew Johnson. I see the booby-traps flash. . . . "

Especially impressive here is the variety--from a Seattle glassblower to an eighth-grader in Santa Monica. Among coming weeks' videos is Jamaican-born Seth Rodney, a Long Beach photographer for whom Sylvia Plath was the portal through which he entered the cosmos of poetry that now visibly lights him up and brings him so much joy.

Perhaps the most revealing video here stars Donna Bickel, a Larkspur, Calif., bookkeeper, who finds in Stanley Kunitz's "Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation" images about transformation that evoke thoughts of dreams dashed that make her weep.

But the poem's killer ending--"Who can understand the ways of the great worm in the sky?"--is transforming, making her shed her melancholia and grin with infectious delight. "I love that last line," she says.

Poetry: Alive and well in Mudville, as surely as roses are red.

* "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" can be seen weeknights at 6 on KCET-TV.

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Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at calendar.letters@ latimes.com.

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