Poetic joy. That's what award-winning journalist Bill Moyers's beautiful new book of interviews with 11 of America's poetry-makers (Stanley Kunitz, Coleman Barks, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Paul Muldoon, Jane Hirshfield, Mark Doty, Robert Pinsky, Deborah Garrison, Marge Piercy, Kurtis Lamkin) captures as it probes how and why poets do what they do.
The deep happiness that comes from reading, writing, and hearing poetry, Moyers insists, is part of its power through the centuries. It's what made his high school teachers who were "married to the English language" so passionate about transmitting it to their students. It's also behind poetry's rising popularity in the United States, seen in everything from Manhattan subway billboards to the books of poems that pop up in hotel rooms right next to the usual Bibles.
That visible joy is what impressed Moyers when he started recording the lives of poets at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, an event that has attracted 50,000 attendees since 1986. The veteran broadcaster -- a man who's practically seen it all -- noticed something overwhelming in that gathering of young and old people listening to poems read aloud. "I cannot recall seeing anywhere else so many happy people in one place," he writes.
But right off the bat, Moyers acknowledges a basic fact -- poetry isn't easy stuff. It can baffle, and the people who write it can seem like otherworldly creatures. Characteristically, though, Moyers doesn't let these difficulties stop him. In fact, a key strength of Moyers's book is his explanation of what his book is not, which comes on the very first page:
This is not a book for the experts. I am a journalist, not a literary critic; the only sure thing I can tell you about poetry is that I like it. The sounds of poems are pleasing to me, and I enjoy a poem read aloud even when I do not wholly understand it.
One thing that helps Moyers understand a poem is talking to its maker, and that's his motivation for interviewing poets, of all ages, genders, races, and styles:
Talking to poets about their lives also makes their poetry more accessible to me. Once I know how a poet feels about a granddaughter or a father's death or about hiding under the steps to read while other kids were playing soccer, I am more likely to hear the poet's voice in the poem.
This is how Moyers approaches many of his subjects, and his deep desire to understand helps him make difficult topics accessible. He takes pains to approach poets as people:
Just as I read biographies of political leaders to see their lives in context, I like to know about the experiences that produced the poet. Perhaps this desire to see the human side of the art is the reason I am a journalist and not a critic.
In a refreshing change, Moyers does not present poets as depressed, womanizing, drunk, or destitute creatures -- just a few of the more common stereotypes. Instead, this consummate asker of excellent questions paints portraits of a grandfather, an immigrant girl, a young boy in New Jersey who falls in love with the sound of stops said in a train conductor's voice. He focuses on trying to understand how lines like these happen:
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray
This excerpt, from Stanley Kunitz's "The Layers," is preceded by Moyers's account of Kunitz's performance at the Dodge Poetry Festival, in which Moyers details the magic in the tent, the riveted attention of the listeners to this man who has helped so many young poets and has founded several key arts institutions. Moyers movingly calls Kunitz, at age 93, "a very young old man."
Moyers also begins to chronicle something else in that first interview with Kunitz, when he remarks on the poet's youthfulness. Again and again, in each interview, Moyers explains why poets live off poetry, and how the art keeps them alive.
So when Lorna Dee Cervantes says that "poetry really changed my life, saved it. I mean that literally," Moyers gets Cervantes to elaborate, to explain the connection between the act of writing poems and staying alive:
Right after my first book was accepted by the publisher, I moved to Provincetown, and I was unpacking all my things and I found this foldout from my middle school class. Pictures of all the kids in that class. It hadn't been that long -- I was about twenty-three or twenty-four -- and I looked at those pictures and I thought: Wow! He's dead, died driving drunk. She's dead, her boyfriend killed her. This couple's dead, overdosed on barbiturates. He's dead, killed in prison; And on and on. I realized that almost fifty percent of my junior high school class was dead. I could have been one of them.
Moyers not only shows why poetry is essential for poets but also why hearing poetry read aloud can be so powerful. He gets poets to talk about why the seemingly solitary act of writing poems becomes a very public affair. Here, for example, Kunitz tries to explain the "curious relationship between a poet and his audience":
Paul Celan, the great poet of the Holocaust, wrote cryptically that "a poem is solitary and on its way." In my interpretation, the poem is on its way in search of people. For its complete fulfillment it has to find an audience; it has to be invited into some other person's mind and heart. Once the poet lets go of his poems, it is no longer his. It belongs to anyone who wants it. It's a gift.
Moyers's book offers many gifts. It presents some of America's most interesting minds in detail, and it doesn't shy from the tough questions of how poets work and why they work so hard at something so difficult. It offers a treasure trove of pointers on how to read a poem. And it presents a beautiful palette of definitions on what poetry is. To avoid giving it all away, here's just one take, from Coleman Barks, who started collecting words and images at age 12, words that he "loved the taste of, words such as azalea."
Poetry, Barks tells Moyers, is "a fascination or obsession with images and with the taste of words, language that is delicious to the mouth." With his careful and insightful questions, Moyers provides an invaluable guide to that baffling but addictive deliciousness.