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Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft

Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft

by Bill Moyers, Bill D. Moyers

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Fooling with Words is an intimate and inspirational celebration of the power and pleasure of poetry. Bill Moyers brings to life for the reader one of the most vibrant cultural events in the country - the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the "Woodstock of poetry." Every two years established and emerging poets gather in Waterloo, New Jersey, to share their


Fooling with Words is an intimate and inspirational celebration of the power and pleasure of poetry. Bill Moyers brings to life for the reader one of the most vibrant cultural events in the country - the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the "Woodstock of poetry." Every two years established and emerging poets gather in Waterloo, New Jersey, to share their craft with poetry fans from all over the country. This "demonstration of the democratic spirit," says the dean of American poets, Stanley Kunitz, "is one of the most important revolutions in the whole history of modern poetry in this country.

Bill Moyers has covered that revolution for a decade in a series of public television specials. In the fall of 1998 he returned to the Dodge Festival to record the performances of the poets and, in interviews with them, a dazzling array of sounds insights images, metaphors and emotions. His conversations with the poets take us behind the performance to explore the sources of creativity and imagination. Stanley Kunitz, now ninety-five years old, quietly captivates with his poems "Halley's Comet" and "Touch Me." Coleman Barks not only reads from his translations of Rumi but also shares the poems that he wrote in tribute to his "most beautiful granddaughter." Mark Doty talks with Moyers about "poetry's great power to preserve, its ability to take a moment in time and hold it forever." Jane Hirshfield talks about the influence on her poetry of the eight years she studied Zen.

Editorial Reviews


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.

—Aviya Kushner

Kevin Grandfield
Moyers turns his folksy interview style to poets gathered for the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, showing how and why the poets he interviews began creating and continue creating. One poet writes only while singing, one only in her head and another handwrites complete new drafts each time. But all of them—men, women, old, young, Jewish, African-American, Filipino immigrant—work hard at crafting the words they love so much, as evidenced by the poems reprinted with each interview. Moyers’ style dovetails neatly with poetry’s recent surge in popularity, from small-town poetry slams to Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s project of cataloging and videotaping people reciting their favorite poems. But by introducing many poets in brief, Moyers ends up not portraying any with much depth.
A clear window into truly poetic souls.
Wall Street Journal
This poetry tasting left me hungry for more. .
Library Journal
Moyers here interviews 11 American poets (e.g., Robert Pinsky, Mark Doty, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and Paul Muldoon) whose voices echo the diversity of the United States--a wonderful jumble of genders, ethnic groups, and religions. This book is not a how-to; interviews (accompanied by the interviewee's poetry) focus on the poet as an individual, the creative process, and enjoying poetry and reveling in its sound. The interviews reveal the passion and focus the poets bring to their writing and how they transmute mundane occurrences into vital, meaningful life experiences. Based on a two-hour PBS documentary airing this fall and ten half-hour programs Moyer did at the Dodge Poetry Festival in fall 1998, this delightful book is highly recommended for all libraries. [BOMC featured selection.]--Shana C. Fair, Ohio Univ. at Zanesville Lib. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-Moyers's fascination with poets in performance hasn't waned since he first visited the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, NJ, and documented what he found in the PBS series The Language of Life and its accompanying book (Doubleday, 1996). In this new volume-smaller in size but just as rich-he returns to the festival, offering the work of 11 poets, from established writers like Marge Piercy and Robert Pinsky to newcomer Deborah Garrison. Again Moyers interweaves his own voice with the voices of the poets as they read their work and discuss their lives. His perceptive questions and comments, and the poets' responses, place each poem in the context of the writer's life and illuminate the whole experience of writing. Both the art and the artists become more accessible. Teens open to the genre will find reflections of their own lives that will help them appreciate the work and the experience of others, and perhaps even move them to join in the creative process.-Jan Tarasovic, West Springfield High School, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
David Lehman
Moyers's work reflects, feeds and will help sustain the decade-long boom in American poetry.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 0.64(d)
Age Range:
4 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Stanley Kunitz

The Applause Beginsas Stanley Kunitz rises from the front row, makes his way up the steps, and strides across the stage toward the lectern, his arms swinging gaily at his sides. In his right hand he carries a collection of poems,which he places on the small podium while reaching with his other hand for the inside pocket of his lime green coat, fishing for his glasses. The applause has turned to cheers. He is a familiar and revered figure here. Now people are on their feet. Their hurrahs ricochet around the tent, and the noise of four thousand clapping hands sounds like rain on the canvas roof. Kunitz stands motionless at the microphone, his slight figure no more imposing than a sparrow. He is a shyman, and modest, and he isn't sure how to respond. Then a small smile creases his white mustache, he lifts a hand to acknowledge the reception, and opens the book of poems. Once again, the applause soars before the audience settles back to listen.

Out beyond the tent America is trapped in a media warp of Monicamania,where words are tipped in toxin and hurled like red-hot missiles in a rhetorical nuclear war. Here, inside this hushed sanctuary, Stanley Kunitz, acknowledging "the dark news emanating from the capital," reads a poem he had been moved to write during "the even darker days of Watergate." The poem--"The Lincoln Relics"--recalls an exhibit he once saw in Washington of the contents found in the pocket of the sixteenth president on the night of his assassination. The "watchfob and ivory pocket knife, / a handkerchief of Irishlinen, / a button severed from his sleeve," a five-dollar Confederate note, and the gold-rimmed spectacles "mended with a loop of string" made, for the poet, "a noble, dissolving music out of homely fife and drum." Addressing the slain president, whose innocence "was to trust / the better angels of our nature, / even when the Union cracked / and furious blood / ran north and south / along the lines of pillage," Kunitz asks, "in this Imperial City,/ awash in gossip and power, /... Has no one told you / how the slow blood leaks from your secret wound?"

There is not a sound in the tent, except for the quiet intensity of the poet's voice. He tells of taking a night walk along the Potomac, "searching for the prairie star, / westward scanning the horizon / for its eloquent and magnanimous light, / yearning to be touched by its fire:" The longing in the poem is palpable in the tent, and as this very young old man, age ninety-three, descends from the stage, the audience stands in a tumult of applause. In a rational world, I tell myself, Stanley Kunitz would heTime magazine's Man of the Century--not for armies commanded, cures discovered, or nations saved but because, through a discordant century of furious change, his voice--the poet's voice--speaks to what Lincoln himself called"the mystic chords of memory."

Let's begin with a remembrance of long ago.

I was five years old when Halley's Comet visited Worcester, Massachusetts, the city of my birth, in 1910. When I was near ninety, the memory of that encounter,which had been simmering so long, finally emerged in the shape of a poem.

Halley's Comet

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there'd be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground's edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
"Repent, ye sinners!" he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I'd share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family's asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street--
that's where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I'm the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

Fooling With Words. Copyright © by Bill Moyers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Bill Moyers's career as a television journalist has earned him more than thirty Emmy Awards. His reporting and interviews have been the basis for seven bestsellers. He is author of Genesis (Doubleday), The Language of Life (Main Street Books), and Healing and the Mind (Doubleday). He lives in New Jersey with his wife and creative collaborator, Judith Davidson Moyers.

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