Close Viewing

Touring the history of poetry in the YouTube age.

There she is, just after Willa Cather and before Eugene O’Neill. She’s bending toward a window, her lips soundlessly moving. A breeze stirs the curtain. Suddenly, from out of frame, a bird flies straight into her outstretched hand. It rests there for a second, takes in the room, then flits away again.

The video is a montage of New York in the Roaring Twenties: a jumble of street scenes, speakeasies, film stars, famous artists. The woman with the Mary Poppins touch is Edna St. Vincent Millay. She’s likely in her 30s, at the height of her notoriety as poet and bohemian. More than most of the writers featured, she seems posed, her scene clearly contrived. (How long was she waiting with birdseed in hand?) As a Greenwich Village literary star, she had an image to cultivate. This, her vignette seems to suggest, is what poets do all day: gaze out the window and wait for Inspiration to come to hand.

Fifteen years ago, finding a clip of this kind would have taken some serious grunt work. Now, abracadabra, I reach out and summon it to my browser window. I didn’t know it existed; I just trusted that I’d be able to watch some Millay on a whim.
The age of online video has been a gift to many art forms: dance, stand-up comedy, piano music played by cats. For poetry—a musical art that often sits quietly on the page, a performative art whose icons are only sporadically recorded—it’s been a less obvious, but no less lucky, windfall. Quality film in this area has long been hard to come by. There have been just a few good poetry documentaries over the years, most notably Richard Moore’s USA: Poetry series for PBS (1965-66), which spotlights poets as varied as John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, and Richard Wilbur. I’m also fond of Annenberg Learner’s 1988 Voices & Visions, a classroom-friendly primer on great American poets from Whitman to Bishop, featuring a dream roster of commentators: Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler, James Baldwin, and many more. 

But most gifts from the windfall are as casual as YouTube itself. The video featuring Millay contains no credits; it’s simply labeled “New York City in the 1920s.” It was posted anonymously under the handle “historycomestolife.” For all I know, it’ll be gone tomorrow. 

However scruffy by academic standards, online video libraries have dredged some remarkable treasures from obscurity. Even as they change the way new poets present their work, they’re reshaping our relationship to the history of the craft. “Read at random,” Randall Jarrell advised, and now poetry lovers can view at random too, free-associating our way through the most precious archival footage. It’s a new mode of research, a conjuring of spirits to our private theaters, where at a moment’s notice we can evaluate—or just savor—records that scholars a generation ago would have killed for.

When I told a friend I was writing about great poets on video, he guessed right away which poet had sparked the concept. In 1967, Al Alvarez interviewed John Berryman for the BBC, sharing beers with him in a Dublin pub and letting the old lion hold forth. The footage has become legendary in poetry circles, for good reason.

Berryman’s verse is known for its contrarian rhythms, the quirks of emphasis he sometimes signals with fastidious accent marks. Watching him declaim his “Dream Songs,” you realize how physical those rhythms were, how he converted bodily and vocal tics into metrical ones. You see him hunch and rock, stroke his outrageous beard, jab a pedantic finger on the line “this is not for tears; thinking”—and jab even harder as he shouts the word But in an explosive volta

Sure, he’s drunk, as the YouTube commenters gleefully point out. But sobriety wouldn’t smooth over such spiky eccentricity. We sense that for better or worse, we’re getting the full Berryman; the man, the poet, and the personae all come together. We witness the qualities that made him both brilliant and incorrigible, the awkwardness and passion that tangle so gloriously in The Dream Songs. We also see that he’s a bit of a ham—as though, if the BBC hadn’t been there, he might have recited to the nearest barfly.

In the popular imagination, poets are Dickinsonian loners who would wilt in front of a camera. The video evidence tells a more complex tale. Browsing a century’s worth of clips, I was surprised at how many famous poets revealed a knack for showmanship.

Of course a few figures fit the elusive unicorn stereotype, whether because they neglected the public or vice versa. Footage of Elizabeth Bishop is scarce even though she lived until 1979. Lorine Niedecker appeared in someone’s holiday home movies and that’s it. Robert Hayden was rarely filmed even after becoming what’s now called US poet laureate; the NBC tape of one of his few screen appearances, on the talk show At One With, was erased. (Happily, at least one filmed Hayden interview survives: a fascinating conversation with Donald Hall, preserved in the University of Michigan online archives.)

There were also poets whose onscreen “careers” were constrained by their era. We would undoubtedly have seen more of Millay—by all accounts a magnetic performer—if she had lived past 1950. No extant footage of Dylan Thomas, the consummate celebrity poet, was on record until 2014, when researchers spotted him in the background of a 1951 film called Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

But as the moving image conquered the culture, more and more poets ventured out to court its attentions, its different kind of fame and unreality. No figure is more emblematic of this shift than Marianne Moore. Here was one of the great literary recluses: a woman who for decades shared an apartment (and bed) with her mother, a profoundly inward writer whose family nicknamed her “Rat,” as in book rat. Then the overbearing mother died, the poetry collected some major prizes, and Rat emerged, blinking, into full-blown celebrity. There she is, in a Voices and Visions clip, throwing out the Opening Day pitch at Yankee Stadium. There she is charming a Today Show host who has asked about her work routine: “I save up things that I like pretty well until I need them.” She adds that she saves them “in a little book called School Assignments,” perhaps lending a fresh twist to her contention (in “Poetry”) that poetry seekers shouldn’t “discriminate against ‘business documents and school-books.’” She even looks the part of the eccentric writer—a part she tailored to her whims. Has any other morning show guest ever appeared in a tricornered hat? 

This self-promotional flair grew among the generation of poets born in the 1920s and 1930s, including the New York School and the Confessionals. For starters, quite a few of them participated in the abovementioned Richard Moore doc, including several whose segments we can look up for ourselves: Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton.

O’Hara’s appearance has already fed his legend; Ron Silliman likens the figure he cuts to “the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, writing, drinking, smoking, talking to the camera, to friends in the room & to someone on the phone simultaneously with an ease & grace that was jaw-dropping. …” That’s fair enough, although anyone who has loved O’Hara’s poems won’t be too surprised by this whirlwind. Equally striking is Sexton, puffing her Salem cigarettes and radiating Old-Hollywood glamour. “My husband hates the way I read poems,” she coolly confides. “He says, ‘You sound like a minister.’” When this same husband appears in the doorway, she scolds, “Honey, don't be camera-shy.” She issues darker pronouncements too: “A hospital encases your soul.”

A few poets even gained something like media savvy. As his profile rose in the 1960s and 1970s, James Dickey became a recurrent talk show guest—and proved he was a born talker. He also scored a cameo in the film version of his novel Deliverance (after reconciling with the director, with whom he reportedly had an on-set fistfight). His performance as the menacing sheriff hovers somewhere between campy and inspired.

And of course there was Allen Ginsberg. None of his many tele-visitations ever matched his 1968 spot on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, during which he recited a poem he’d written on LSD (“the fifth hour of LSD, for those who are specifically technologists in this”). It deserves to be an iconic ’60s moment: the beatnik icon preaching to the founder of modern conservatism, the poet’s blissed-out vibes meeting the pundit’s eerie grin, the guru conjuring “visible orchards of mind language,” “the brown vagina-moist ground” of a Welsh mountain, and other wonders as Buckley’s mugging condescension turns to concentration. The audience hushes, too. Ginsberg exerts an undeniable pull; with each zealous gesture he really is trying to commune with the host. The host isn’t high enough—no one ever could be—but when the poem reaches its triumphant climax, Buckley flashes his grin, his blue eyes, and admits, “I kinda like that.”

Yet Ginsberg’s appearances also capture what is least filmable about poetry, the aspects of the job that evaporate in limelight. During the same Firing Line broadcast, he delivers a tougher kind of wisdom: “No one can understand the problem of police brutality in America … without understanding the language of the police. The language that the police use on hippies or Negroes is such that I can’t pronounce it to the middle-class audience.” He’s taking a swipe at Buckley’s viewership—and probably at the network censors too. Those censors would have reviled much of Ginsberg’s own language; all these years later, the networks would still bleep out parts of Howl. And if the screen abhors certain kinds of frankness, it’s all but lethal to the state of inwardness that produces poems. In 1978, we find Ginsberg on The Dick Cavett Show, instructing Cavett in Tibetan-style meditation. Though Ginsberg stresses that the practice “includes the world ... it’s not a trip to the moon,” he seems to realize the absurdity of performing it for a crowd. However vital it was to his artistic life, the studio stage reduces it to an actor’s affectation. He keeps the lesson short and jokes about receiving “applause for doing nothing.” 

Later, Cavett challenges him to improvise a haiku about the FBI. Ginsberg obliges: “FBI poring / over ancient Xeroxes, / beards growing white on their chins.” Hearing the tepid applause, he revises a line. Then he changes it back, declaring, “First thought, best thought.” But this apostle of poetic spontaneity doesn’t seem pleased with either version.

What the camera is much better at eliciting—and even dramatizing—are the stories behind existing poems, including the secrets of an author’s “process.” Consider a 1982 episode of The South Bank Show devoted to Philip Larkin. Apart from publicity stills, his screen presence is limited to his hands as they leaf through an old notebook. Luckily, he revisits a masterpiece, “The Whitsun Weddings,” and his voice-over comments on the drafts reveal more than pages of criticism could.

“I thought I wrote it pretty quickly,” he recalls, “because I’ve always said that this was one poem that anybody could have written.” Reviewing his notes, however, he finds that not only did it take “an enormous time” but that “I didn’t even stick to it very conscientiously.” The poem, published in 1959, turns out to have had a glacial genesis: the train ride that inspired it took place in 1955, and he jotted down the first lines two years later. His puzzlement sounds genuine: “This is not the way I normally work.” 

As he goes on to explain his working method, we might be surprised by Larkin’s surprise. “I advance very cautiously and slowly, and when I think I’ve got far enough, I cross it out and rewrite it.” A close-up shows pages full of tidy lines, nearly all of them struck through; the poem really is “advancing” like a wary army under massive attrition. Even when the battle is won, it isn’t: Larkin allows that the majestic ending is “deeply symbolic in various ways” but frets that “I don’t know whether, in fact, [it’s] as good as it could be.” He also notices that the final draft version ends with the words turning to rain rather than the familiar (and metrically superior) becoming rain. He muses that he must have made that change in typescript: “Type makes [a poem] look very different, and all sorts of unsuspected weaknesses catch your eye.” 

The overall effect is to dampen any notion of a divine outpouring. For Larkin, this was a long trek from greater to lesser dissatisfaction. Reaching the end—that flawless arrival—required no miracles, just dogged patience and an implacably fussy ear.

A scholar could glean some of this from the archived drafts themselves, but other videos unearth context that would surely have been lost otherwise. If not for an obscure public-access TV interview, how could we have known about Lucille Clifton’s editing skirmish with Toni Morrison? Clifton told the tale to fellow poet Roland Flint on a 1991 episode of The Writing Life, backed by a set so heroically low-budget it makes your heart soar. Apparently Morrison, who edited Clifton’s early volume An Ordinary Woman, “couldn’t stand” a passage from the autobiographical “my poem” sequence:

she’ll keep on trying
with her crooked look
and her wrinkled ways,
the darling girl.

Although the younger writer “was in awe of Toni Morrison,” she refused to change that last line because, after all, “I write poems and she writes prose.” Besides, she adds with a big laugh, “I am a darling girl—why shouldn’t I say so?”

We encounter a few romantic anecdotes too, flashes of that side of the writing life that extends beyond proof pages and phone calls. Bantering with Robert Lowell in an uncredited clip from around 1969, Dickey reveals that he has a lovely, recurring dream more “heartbreaking” than any nightmare. “I fear those tears of loss, and deprivation … when you’re at the happy swimming pool, which is kind of like Eden, you see, for a few minutes of one anonymous suburban night, and is forever gone.” Dickey fans will hear echoes of his dreamlike anthology piece “The Lifeguard,” in which a tranquil lake becomes a place of irrecoverable innocence:

As I move toward the center of the lake,   
Which is also the center of the moon,   
I am thinking of how I may be
The savior of one 

Who has already died in my care.   

Almost as fantastical is the true story Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) tells a Danish interviewer about his beginnings as a writer. When he learned as a Syrian teenager that President Shukri al-Quwatli would be visiting his province, he resolved to read a welcome poem so impressive that Quwatli would grant his wish: “to go to school.” Incredibly, it worked. He got his audience with the president, recited his poem practically barefoot, and was rewarded with a prestigious scholarship. Later, infuriated by rejection letters, he took the pen name Adonis—because poetry editors “were trying to kill me” just as the wild boar killed the Greek hero—and saw his luck immediately change. All these decades later, he smiles: “In one way or another my own life became a sort of a myth. … Sometimes I hesitate to tell it. Because how can someone have a dream which becomes a reality?” But something in his manner—a restrained intensity, a puckish self-confidence—hints at the answer.

What videos give poetry fans above all are performances: windows onto authors’ conceptions of pieces we’ve carried in our own heads; cadences we never detected on the page; obscure material, curiosities, “extras.” After one more viewing of the Berryman, I drink another late-night coffee and browse on.

Here’s Langston Hughes reading “The Weary Blues,” backed by an all-white jazz band, on Canadian TV in 1958. His voice and manner faintly recall the anchormen of that era—maybe it’s his direct, bespectacled gaze at viewers. His smooth, professional tone doesn’t oversell the poem’s musicality; he knows it’s already there in the language.

And here, just as effective, is Basil Bunting crooning “Briggflatts”—a bard of the old school, rolling his r’s and reveling in his vowels, wringing each drop of lyricism out of the verse.

And a performance that isn’t poetry at all but actual song. A few years ago, the Cortland Review filmed the late Claudia Emerson and her husband, Kent Ippolito, duetting on the country standard “How’s the World Treating You?” They’re strumming guitars at home as their cat paces the floor. Their harmonies are as sweet as their chemistry. Now that Emerson is gone, I can’t help hearing that moody little melody—Every day is blue Monday / Every day you’re away—in the background of her poems, which became self-elegies much too soon.

As the Web grows up, more and more such clips will surface, and countless others will be created by savvy younger writers. The kind of video interviews produced by the Academy of American Poets will become more common, even as performance pieces such as those featured by Button Poetry—not to mention crossover experiments such as Beyoncé and Warsan Shire’s Lemonade—draw viewers in the millions. We’ll see better organized archives with full scholarly apparatus. But I love the disorder we’ve got now, the haphazard flotsam that’s turned up on digital shores for people like me to pick through: home movies, blurry audience recordings, vintage Canadian TV. It suits the art form, which can seem both mysteriously remote and humbly local. And it confirms our sense that even the hammiest great poets remain somehow elusive, not quite adapted to the mass media hive—that the essence of their legacy floats somewhere out of focus, out of frame.

Originally Published: September 13th, 2016

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

  1. September 16, 2016
     Shalom Freedman

    This is an interesting and informative survey.
    There is no doubt something about the presence of the poet given in video that the words on the page by themselves alone cannot equal.
    It is another dimension entirely.
    And yet the heart of the poem is not the poem as spoken or read by any one person, even the poet himself.
    The heart of the poem is its words, and they can be spoken , read, heard in a variety of ways each of which has its own addition to the total reality of the poetry.

  2. September 17, 2016
     Steven Durning

    Essays like this make me love more than I already do.

  3. September 23, 2016

    We do live in a great age...I have spent many a drunken evening watching Berryman and Ginzy on You Tube, wanting to share on Facebook but thinking better of it...few would listen.