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Poetic Links on the Web:

PBS Online: Press release for "The United States of Poetry."

Literary Kicks: Beat poets and other subterranean types.

Internet Poetry Archive: Features contemporary and Nobel Prize winning poets.

Project Gutenberg: Massive electronic collection of literary texts.

    Some of the damnedest stuff appears. "James Joyce, he was stupid," snarls Young Turk poet Matt Cook. "He didn't know as much as me. I'd rather throw dead batteries at cows than read him." Cook sits beside a dilapidated building with two slack-jawed idiot-boys squinting behind him, as if asking, "So, who's the bonehead here?"

    There's a major downside to the format: solemn, structured verse collapses under its own weight. There's no time for reflection, no time to study the framework to get at meaning. Derek Walcott, author of the book-length poem Omeros, comes across as a middle-aged mumbler rather than the Nobel Prize-winner that he is.

    On the other hand, Czelaw Milosz's achingly beautiful piece steps through the screen as if it weren't there, describing "A day so happy ... whatever evil I had suffered I forgot." And Larry Eigner, twisted by cerebral palsy, painfully types his poems as if they were subtitles for his muffled speech: "There's a word for each leaf, and each/wall and/a word for nothing."

    Sometimes the medium overshadows the message, as when Johnny Depp plays at being a hipster beatnik, reciting from Jack Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. Some results are even further off their mark. Lois-Ann Yamanaka's diatribe against her stingy sister, "Boss of the Foods," makes one wonder who would want to give her "any focking candy," as she puts it.

    "Remember," reminds Wanda Coleman in a sendup of the Home Shopping Network, "being sincere solves nothing." More self-proclaimed poets should take heed. There's a blotch of self-pity that recurs, as well--though that's leavened by an ironical interjection: "Admit nothing/Blame everyone/Be bitter."

    Poetry is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder, and sometimes that requires a refocus: a troupe of soldiers at Ft. Bliss, Texas, chanting as they jog in cadence; Sparrow (who got published in The New Yorker by complaining that their poems were as bad as his); or '50s raconteur Lord Buckley (who died in 1960) booming about passenger trains.

    The United States of Poetry presents a wide variety of American poets within its contemporary boundaries. There are African Americans, Native Americans, a Japanese-Hawaiian-American, Euro-Americans, hustlers and professors, even a self-styled queer Chicano. They're old, young, man, woman, child, deaf, hearing, "professional" and amateur. Poetry, it would seem, is everywhere--and it's fun, too.


    The United States of Poetry airs in five parts on Thursday beginning at 8:30pm on KQED (Ch. 9).

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From the Feb. 28-Mar. 6, 1996 issue of Metro

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