Have you heard of the PBS show “Poetry in America?” Surprisingly, I hadn’t. But as I settled in to check out an episode, I quickly understood and appreciated the program’s important, progressive message: Poetry truly has something to offer everyone.
If you’re a poet, you know what the genre’s up against. It seems like every year, the debate about poetry’s relevancy surges, inspiring editorials on both sides on CNN and The Washington Post. Finding your favorite poet in a bookstore can be daunting, or downright impossible. So, seeing figures like Katie Couric and Sheryl Sandberg gather to discuss a poem, carefully ruminating over each stanza, marveling at specific word choice, and even blinking back tears, provides a powerful antidote.
The series, now in its second season and available to stream for free, analyzes both classic and contemporary, strictly formal and free verse. I chose an episode featuring Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” a celebrated villanelle and a personal favorite, as my introduction.
The show distinguishes itself from most other poetry-related media almost immediately by widening the community and the scope. In addition to poetry experts like lyrical writer and professor Gregory Orr, the discussion incorporates the voices of singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, physiatrist Richard Summers, and journalist Yang Lan.
This diversity allows for many perspectives, as well as an inspiring look at how poetry can impact people from multiple lenses and angles. Carpenter discusses how her songwriting techniques grew out of poetry, while Summers compares Bishop’s meditation on loss to leading psychological viewpoints on grief. The result? Poetry flourishes in this versatile context and allows readers to connect over timeless questions.
The episode delves into Bishop’s life, scrolling through images of her childhood house, her paintings, the lover who may have inspired the poem, and early, hastily scrawled drafts. Perhaps even more surprising, this becomes an entry point for others’ experiences. Couric and Sandberg, who both lost their husbands, say they relate to the grief in the poem. Together, they and the other guests consider the work’s central question: Can you ever master this emotion?
The emotional discussion spotlighted what I love about poetry. From Bishop to Whitman and Dickinson, these voices from the past can still drive the conversation in the present and into the future.
Next, I think I’ll tune into the environmental-themed episode on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish.” Like the Bishop episode, the preview teases new and unexpected voices discussing poetry, like former vice president Al Gore.
Wanting to use “Poetry in America” as a springboard to more writing and knowledge? The larger initiative from PBS, funded by the Poetry Foundation, also has free classes. It’s time to binge-watch and binge-write!