Perhaps the most beautiful and most exciting books on great poets and their greater poetry that I have read so far is ‘THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE-A Festival of Poets’ by Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers (born in 1934) is an American journalist and public commentator. He served as White House Press Secretary in the United States President Lyndon B. Johnson Administration from 1965-1967.
He worked as a news commentator on television for ten years. Moyers has had an extensive involvement with public television, producing documentaries and news-journal programs. He has won numerous awards and honorary degrees. His reporting and interviews have been the basis for five extraordinary best sellers—The Power of Myth, A World of Ideas, A World of Ideas II, Healing and the Mind, and The Language of Life. He has become well known as a trenchant critic of the U.S. media. Since 1990, Moyers has been President of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.
‘The Language of Life’ by Bill Moyers brims with life in all its aspects. In a series of fascinating conversations with 34 poets, ‘The Language of Life’ celebrates language in its ‘most exalted, wrenching, delighted and concentrated form’ , and its unique power to re-create the human experience: falling in love, facing death, leaving home, wrestling with things of the mind, soul and spirit, losing faith, seeking God etc. Bill Moyers declares in his introduction “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 thoughts and emotions others can share. We only have to learn to listen... Democracy needs her poets, in all their diversity because our hope for survival is in recognizing the reality of one another’s lives’.
The setting in which Bill Moyers has interviewed great American Poets like W S Merwin, Claribel Alergria, James A Autry, James Santiago Baca, Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, William Stratford, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forche, Donald Hall, Joy Harjo, Adrienne Rich, Stanley Kunitz, Li-Young Lee, Linda McCarriston, Octavio Paz etc. is the DODGE POETRY FESTIVAL IN NEW JERSEY’S HISTORIC VILLAGE OF WATERLOO. Bill Moyers says that during the 1994 Dodge Poetry Festival he came upon thousands of poetry lovers, from a score of States, having the best time of their lives. This festival is a biennial event, sponsored by the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation as part of an effort to reconnect people to poetry through classroom workshops and public events. As Bill Moyers puts it: ‘Nowhere will you find language more verdant and vibrant, an atmosphere more festive. Noted poets and new comers read to large audiences under a big tent and conduct daily workshops with small groups of students and teachers. Spontaneous audiences gather around young people reading their newly minted poems in the gazebo on the village green. There are moments rich in humour and wisdom, transcendent moments after which one sees the world differently, and moments when the play of language dazzles the ear as fireworks delight the eye on the Fourth of July every year.’ We can learn from Bill Moyers book that ‘Poetry is always meant to be experienced—a joy to be sought and owned.’
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), one of the greatest 20th Century American poets, was interviewed by Bill Moyers. Kunitz, past 90 years, told him: ‘Poetry is most difficult, most solitary, and most life-enhancing thing that one can do. It’s a struggle because words get tired. We use them. We abuse them. A word is a utilitarian tool to begin with, and we have to re-create it, to make it magical. You have to kill off all the top of one’s head, remove it, and try to plunge deep into self, deep into memories, deep into the unconscious life. And then begin again...Poetry is a means of feeling that, solitary as you are, in the act of writing the poem you are in touch with the whole chain of being. You are always trying not only to get in touch with your most primal self, but with the whole history of the race.’ In short Kunitz succeeded in communicating to Bill Moyers that individual poetic masterpieces are not single and solitary births. They are the outcome of many years of thinking of the mass—of the whole race—behind the single voice. Great poets achieve great simplicity by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort or by both. What they achieve through the medium of electric and ecstatic words indeed represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit—the triumph of genuine feeling and earnest thought over the natural sin of language. We can see how Kunitz achieves great simplicity in the following poem titled ‘An Old Cracked Tune’:
My name is Solomon Levi,
the desert is my home,
my mother’s breast was thorny,
and father I had none.
The sands whispered, Be separate,
the stones taught me, Be hard.
I DANCE, FOR THE JOY OF SURVIVING,
ON THE EDGE OF THE ROAD.
When Bill Moyers asked Kunitz as to the background of the above poem, Kunitz said: ‘It is a poem that had its origin in a scurrilous street song remembered from my youth. The butt of the song’s mockery was a stereotypically avaricious and conniving Jewish tailor. The very first line—the one I appropriated—went: ‘My name is Solomon Levi.’ It didn’t occur to me until later that Solomon was my father’s given name and that he was a Levite, a descendent of the priestly house of Levi. When the line from that odious anti-Semitic song popped into my head, I wondered, ‘Can I redeem it?’ And so I wrote the above poem.’ Kunitz is a Jew. He also told Moyers that he was repelled by the anti-Semitism in America in the days of his childhood and youth. To quote Kunitz’s own words in this context: ‘It hurt me and left a scar. The bigotry of this country early in the century cut deep into our social fabric. And it persists to this day, as an ugly racist infection. I’m not implying that this was in mind when I started to write that poem. Poems don’t tell you why you need to write them. Perhaps you write them in order to find out why. My driving impels was to embrace a wounded name.’
I have particularly enjoyed the following four lines of Stanley Kunitz:
An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.
I am presenting below the question raised by Moyers and the answer given by Kunitz on the above poem:
Moyers: Why did you use the word ‘perturbation’ in the second line, ‘A perturbation of the light’? Why not ‘commotion’ or ‘disturbance’ or ‘flurry’?
Kunitz: There’s more wingbeat in ‘perturbation’. I might add that the rhythm is intentionally persistent, relying largely on the interplay between open and closed vowels.
| Octavio Paz (1914-1998)|
Octavio Paz, was a Mexican writer, poet, and diplomat, and the winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was Mexico’s Ambassador to India in 1968. During the course of his interview with Bill Moyers, he said: ‘Poetry, in the past, was the centre of society, but with modernity it has retreated to the outskirts. It has become more and more a marginal art. I think the exile of poetry is also the exile of the best of humankind. Our society lacks the other dimension, the dimension of light and darkness that is poetry. We live in a kind of artificial electric light—but electric light, the light of industry, is not all the light. Both primordial light and primordial darkness are part of being human, and we have tried to hide these realities. When you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to make life a marvel, that is the role of poetry.’
I am presenting below a short but beautiful poem titled ‘BROTHERHOOD’ by Octavio Paz:
Homage to Claudius Ptolemy
I am a man; little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.
One of the poets interviewed by Bill Moyers is Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi Shihab Nye (born March 12, 1952) is a poet, songwriter, and novelist. She was born to a Palestinian father and American mother. Although she regards herself as a ‘wandering poet’, she refers to San Antonio in USA as her home. According to her: ‘Poetry is a conversation with the world; poetry is a conversation with the words on the page in which you allow those words to speak back to you; and poetry is conversation with yourself’. Unfortunately today, a severe disconnection has occurred in society with respect to history, nature, and language that makes the deep longing for each more acute, even as our frenetic lives hardly allow us to slow down for seeing sunsets, recalling memories, or enjoying poems.
Naomi Shihab Nye
Any one of us can get a new vision or poetic insight from the following lines of Naomi Shihab Nye:
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) said it for all time when in his famous essay ‘An Apology for Poetry’, he wrote: ‘A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth’. A poem should not mean, but BE. Poetry is the deification of reality. Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth degree. All poetry is putting the infinite into the finite. Let me conclude with the words of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967): ‘Poetry is the search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable’.
(To be contd...)