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Making Poetry TV-Friendly: New Bill Moyers Series Is Easy to Digest


MOYERS: THE POWER OF THE WORD PBS, tomorrow, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings). Premi`ere of a six-part series on poetry, with Bill Moyers as host. Produced by Public Affairs Television and David Grubin Productions, Inc. `WHEN I tell you this series is about poetry, some of you are going to reach for the dial,'' says Bill Moyers at the opening of this series. ``Once upon a time, so would I. Poetry was something one could get through a whole life without.''

Whether it's the reverse psychology of this subtle disclaimer or on the brand-name quotient of its 18-Emmy-winning presenter that draws you into ``The Power of the Word,'' the end result is that Mr. Moyers does it again - pierces the veneer of the seemingly arcane and serves up a feast that is delicious, easy to digest, and good for you (don't tell the kids).

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As tomorrow night's opening segment (``The Simple Acts of Life'') will show, Moyers keeps himself aurally and visually in the background, but leaves his ever-questioning-Everyman stamp everywhere. Having posed his queries, he lets the poets talk (tonight's segment includes William Stafford, Robert Bly, Octavio Paz, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell. Those to follow: Stanley Kunitz, W.S. Merwin, James Autry, and more).

Having chosen both some of the best-known names and not-so-well-known venues for poetry readings, he lets his characters and locations tell the rest. The 1988 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo Village, N.J., is one such venue. Later stops include schools and boardrooms, prisons, and churches.

Not an inexperienced hand at the writing craft himself, Mr. Moyers's introduction to the series is a fine distillation that bears repeating:

``... I discovered that love is like a red, red rose, and we are haunted by the road not taken, and it is wisdom to believe the heart. Poets told me these things. They told me what they felt about falling in love, facing death, leaving home, losing faith, finding God, or seeing Magic Johnson do ballet with a basketball.

``I'd have to admit to myself, `That's how I feel, too.' I came to see that poets live the lives all of us live, with one big difference: They have the power - the power of the word - to create a world of thought and emotion others can share. We have only to learn to listen. Listening's the thing. ... When we hear it, we say: `I know that, and didn't even know I knew it.'''

That said, Moyers and company set off on their adventure, proving by series end that poetry, far from being merely a lofty concern for language elitists, can and ought to be a day-to-day province of self-discovery within grasp of everyone. ``I want to be on guard against writing just to write good poems,'' says William Stafford, describing his craft as a ``river of possibilities circling us at all times.'' Not knowing where he is headed with a poem is part of the point, he says, and ``like a gull, you come upon great swoops of revelation and vistas that veer off in all directions.''

Says Octavio Paz, ``The mission of poetry is to give eyes to mankind in order that the simple acts of life can establish their interior dignity and mystery.''

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Those statements can stand as warning that there is one aspect of this series that is appealing and frustrating at the same time: Poets are not only masters at distilling their thoughts about life; they are masters at distilling thoughts about poetry. That means the pearls of wisdom come so rapidly at times that you don't have a chance to savor one before the next is upon you. Be ready with pen and pad.

``Poets,'' says Sharon Olds, are ``like steam valves, where feeling can escape and be shown.''

Poetry is a ``unique art,'' says Galway Kinnell. ``It's the only art in which one person says directly, without intermediaries and other characters, in words what is going on inside.''

Not only are such delectable morsels elicited by Moyers in interviews, but there are instructional segments as well. One includes Ms. Olds teaching a poetry workshop, helping students build poems from lists of nouns, verbs, and adjectives they have chosen. Another has Kinnell telling students how to get beyond what is ``merely personal'' in a poem to uncover the universal. Oddly, he says, that can come by going deeper into one's self to ``touch a level in the psyche where we are all one.''

The production values of ``The Power of the Word'' can best be described as spare. Though segments move quickly from place to place, poet to poet - linked by flute or violin music over shots of nature - one does grow weary of talking heads. But the ideas are, with few exceptions, so powerful that I shouldn't quibble. After all, one could argue that a series on bards and versemakers should appear, like the writers themselves, more rumpled than slick.

For here we see the poets many of us have known only in print, and they're talking, laughing, expounding, showing their quick wit. It is interesting to compare the emphasis of words and phrases, orally punctuated by their authors, to the words of their well-known poems when read. ``It is important to test your poems against the ear,'' asserts Stanley Kunitz. ``The page is a cold bed.''

In concluding tomorrow's segment, Kinnell and Olds engage in a sort of poetic dialogue, alternately reading excerpts of their own poetry for the New Jersey festival audience. As described by Moyers, this exchange was designed to ``treat (us) to a conversation of poems [showing] how, through the power of the word, we can share with others our most intimate experience - love and communion.''

Some of the lines deal directly with sex - perhaps as to show doubters that poetry can deal with intensely personal, contemporary attitudes. Olds describes in detail everything from necking to loading an IUD with ``glistening spermacide.''

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