April 26, 2000
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Martin Amis wrote a funny and clever short story called "Career Move," in which all modern literary priorities have been turned upside down. A screenwriter suffers the humiliating and impoverished life normally accorded poets, and a poet is paid a fortune by Hollywood for a sonnet. He is summoned to LA to discuss prequels and sequels and all the other nonsense attached to commercial writers who write for movies. Amis' story is pure fantasy, of course. It is the poets of the world who yearn for publication in obscure, nonpaying journals; the poets who are the eccentric maiden aunts of literature; the poets who are caricatured as fops and weirdoes. Anyone who has ever seen Ernie Kovacs' Percy Dovetonsils will not easily forget him.
ERNIE KOVAC: For Adam and Eve wore fig leaves, in the earliest of earth's known years. They wore them through spring and through summer, labeling them "his" and "hears." (Laughter) You talk about your poetic license, huh?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: What greater proof could one have of their miserable social status than that April has been designated poetry month? Poetry month-- imagine a month dedicated to screenwriters. As soon as they name a month for your cause, be assured: You're cooked. And yet poetry is the people's art. It is very popular -- maybe not in total sales or in box office, sweetheart, but in the long, long run of generations. It sticks in the common language, which is common property. It sticks in the heart's memory. "Poetry," wrote Marianne Moore, "I, too, dislike it." Nonetheless, she wrote poems that survive:
The mind is an enchanting
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And all the eternal others: Yeats' "Second Coming"-
The best lack all conviction,
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And Auden's:
Lay your sleeping head,
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And Roethke, W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Ransom, Cavafy, Robert Penn Warren, back to Keats and Blake and Donne-- "Go and catch a falling star"-- to Milton to Shakespeare to "Beowulf" and Seamus Heany's new translation:
They said that of all the
ROGER ROSENBLATT: All these poets, all these lines hang in the air like hawks, as prose does not. Funny thing about poetry: It creates its own underground society of considerable size and zeal. Poetry readings: There's nothing like them in any other form of writing.
PERSON READING POEM: "When his boat, snapped loose from its mooring under the screeching of the gulls."
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thanks to places like the Academy of American Poets, the 92nd Street "Y," and the Poets House in New York, poets like Frederick Morgan, Galway Kinnell, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich can entice thousands to hear them read. When I was in the Soviet Union in 1987, Yevtochenko and others attracted audiences of over 14,000. The voices of poets sometimes account for this popularity. Dylan Thomas' built-in echo chamber...
POEM READ BY DYLAN THOMAS:
It is Spring, moonless night in
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Robert Lowell's New England patrician-cum-southern drawl...
POEM READ BY ROBERT LOWELL:
At Beverly Farms, a portly
ROGER ROSENBLATT: T.S. Eliot's dry eggshells of a voice...
POEM READ BY T.S. ELIOT:
April is the cruelest month,
ROGER ROSENBLATT: George Plimpton's "Paris Review" this month is packed with these riches, a groaning board, 430 pages. For an art form reputed to be remote and exclusive, it creates an impressive bang. New poems by young poets like Catherine Coy; worksheets of old poems and commentaries; interviews. The main reason for the mass appeal of poetry is that poetry comes closest to music. One does not have to understand it to understand it. In ancient Ireland, the poets were called the music. And when kings did battle, the lives of the poets were spared because they were more important than wars and politics, because they handled the truth, and because they were the music. That poem of Marianne Moore's, by the way, only begins, "Poetry, I, too, dislike it." Here's the whole thing:
I, too, dislike it.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm Roger Rosenblatt.