Poet Wallace Stevens' colleague at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., now a gray-haired man seen looking off camera, recounts the long-ago encounter in absolute deadpan.
"Can you give me your idea of what imagination is?" the man remembers Stevens asking him. "I said, no, I didn't have any idea. He said, 'Well, why don't you think about it a couple of days and we'll talk about it.' He never brought the subject up again. I'm very thankful too."
Stevens' colleague is a soothing traveling companion for the viewer of "Voices and Visions," a new PBS series about a baker's dozen of American poets from T.S. Eliot to Sylvia Plath. Aimed at the tentative reader of verse who is interested but often befuddled by the demands it poses, this inventive and ambitious series manages to appeal to the imagination, calm fears and entertain -- sometimes in a quiet, academic sort of way, sometimes with surprising power. It premieres on WETA tonight at 10:30 with an episode on Robert Frost, and will air at different times for 12 more weeks. Random House has published two companion books -- a collection of essays about the poets and a textbook-anthology.
The New York Center for Visual History, which produced the series, has combined biography with a video version of an introductory poetry class, in the process experimenting with solutions to the problem inherent in a TV show about what is essentially a silent, solitary subject: How to make poetry visual?
Tonight's show has the advantage of drawing on masses of wonderful footage of Frost speaking to interviewers and reading his work, including an appearance on "Meet the Press." Film of a gently smiling Langston Hughes gives the segment on him warmth. For others, who were never such nationally popular or controversial figures, the series turns to family photographs, dramatizations and interviews with friends, neighbors and associates, many of them poets themselves and extremely affectionate speakers. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, Allen Ginsberg and James Merrill are not only fellow writers, but loving readers.
In a number of segments, narrators or the poets themselves read as the words glide, pop and swoop across the screen -- at first it seems comic, but the technique grows on you, as do other attempts to bring poetry alive. A slinky blues singer underscores Langston Hughes' revolutionary use of the blues idiom in verse. The rhythms of Hart Crane's work are beaten out by a hammer like the ones that built his beloved Brooklyn Bridge. An artist paints in the colors of a map while Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Map" is read: The delicate, detailed work of the brush is a beautiful accompaniment to the precise words.
In another episode, William Carlos Williams' son, a doctor like his father, cares for patients on camera and walks through his childhood home while speaking about his father, who wrote notes for poems on prescription blanks and whose voice is heard saying, "No one believes that poetry can exist in his own life, but everything in our lives, if it's sufficiently authentic to our lives and touches us deeply enough, is capable of being organized into a form which can be a poem."
Actors perform Frost's "Home Burial," which lends itself relatively well to such an approach. But the actor who plays Hart Crane in another episode by affecting a contemplative air and a white suit -- now he puts on his hat with an air of leaden Angst, now he looks about morosely, now he sits on a boat and stares at the water -- is more irritating than enlightening.
But faults in the series are easily forgiven. In the end, "Voices and Visions" offers a subtle rebuttal to critics who claim that the age when people read poetry has passed, killed off by deliberately obscure poets who write only for other poets.
While it may be difficult to imagine a latter-day poet appearing on today's "Meet the Press," this series proves complicated poets and poetry can be accessible and enjoyable. It's only a shame that WETA will be airing it so late tonight -- and in irregular, as of now unannounced slots after that -- when it will inevitably draw an audience smaller than it deserves.