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The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by Bill Moyers

Main Street/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-48410-0, $18.95 US/ $26.95 CAN

Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-47917-4, $29.95 US/ $38.50 CAN

BDD audiocassette, ISBN 0-553-47427-8, $29.95 US/ $38.50 CAN

Reader's Companion: ISBN 0-385-47926-3; Copyright © 1995 Doubleday, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.


1. Introduction
2. Group Discussion Questions
3. Writing Exercises
4. About Bill Moyers
5. List of Poets
6. For More Information


When I was a schoolboy our teachers required us to memorize poems. By copying the lines over and over, I excelled at the sport. But it was only a sport. The words I had committed to memory were divorced from meaning or emotions. I knew the poems but not the experience of them. Only later, when a series of English teachers gifted in Elizabethan theatrics began to read serious poetry aloud in class, did I hear the music and encounter the Word within the words. Now love truly became a "red, red rose;" "the road not taken" proved to be haunting; and I knew for certain that it is indeed wisdom "to follow the heart." Poetry that entered the ear traveled faster to the "upper warm garrets" of my mind than poetry perceived by the eye. I continue to value the architecture of a poem in print, but as Maya Angelou has said, "poetry is music written for the human voice." Hearing's the thing, and poetry readings are concerts of sheer joyous sound. In the words of Octavio Paz, "When you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to make life a marvel, that is the role of poetry." One only need attend a robust festival of poets to witness the marvel; better still, to experience it.

I used to think of the poet as living a lonely existence, waiting in solitude for the Muse to appear on beads of sweat coaxed from a secret chamber deep in the soul. That is true in a way, but it is not the whole truth. Poets love each other's company, and they love an audience. The first time the filmmaker David Grubin and I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey's historic village of Waterloo, we came upon thousands of poetry lovers, from a score of states, having the time of their lives. The 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. Nowhere will you find language more verdant and vibrant, an atmosphere more festive. There are moments rich in humor 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.

The New York Times covered the most recent Dodge Festival as if it were the epitome of poetry's resurgence on the public stage. "Once the trademark of a Beat generation," the Times reported, "poetry readings have moved out of smoky cafes" to become a staple of the country's cultural scene. Poetry performances are held at over 150 places in the New York area alone. At the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village, audiences rate performances "like Olympic judges." But the renaissance of public poetry is nationwide. The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle schedules sixty readings a year. Among the many poetry readings in Southern California is one in Van Nuys, where people age sixty and older gather to share in verse "their war stories from the battlefield of life." In Bergen County, New Jersey, octogenarians and twelve-year-olds read each other's poems in a program called Joy.

Every age calls forth new poets who create new forms, and our age is no exception. Like the Dodge Festival, contemporary poetry reading is a stage on which fresh voices take up the democratic conversation. No less a literary figure than Adrienne Rich has worried aloud about poetry's banishment to the margins,"hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities." She sees this exile as a form of censorship that "goes hand in hand with an attitude about politics, which is that the average citizen, the regular American, can't understand poetry and also can't understand politics, that both are somehow the realms of experts." Readings are returning poetry to the people. They recall those public gatherings in early America in which citizens assembled on commons to read their broadsheets and discuss the news of the day.

Poetry is news--news of the mind, news of the heart--and in the reading and hearing of it, poet and audience are fused. Strangers converge but community emerges, the shared experience of being present when poetry reveals a particular life to be every life--my life, your life, you, me, us. It doesn't happen on the Internet in cyberspace; the mere transmission from afar of information or knowledge among parties with common interests is of course communication, but what occurs at poetry readings is communion.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has often said that there are really three elements to any work of literature: the words themselves (the poem), the maker/arranger of the words (the poet), and the audience. Achebe goes on to say that in traditional African cultures where the poet and the storyteller still survive, there is a generally shared understanding that all three of these elements must be present for the poem to be realized; what begins as a crowd becomes a community; poem, poet, and public interact to produce a new and living organism. The poets in this book seemed to be yearning for, and working toward, this sense of community. Connection is crucial to being a poet.

As for the showmanship, Quincy Troupe reminds us that poetry begins as song. It was performance. Troupe and other African-American poets still invoke the tradition of the griot, the roving troubadour who sang his poetry to villagers. "Language is a living thing, " Troupe says. "It feeds on the living language of a community," When Troupe goes home to St. Louis to read his poetry at Duff's Restaurant, he knows from the response of people there if he has the rhythm and realities of life just right. His poem about Magic Johnson taking it "to the hoop" has them shouting and stomping and roaring with pleasure, as if they were watching the game itself. Poetry creates an experience that the audience lives.

Because Americans come from so many places, the poets of our time are infusing powerful new energy and idioms into our language. Their poetry flows from different geographies and cultures, as immigration continues to transform this country and native-born Americans retrace the steps and recapture the voices of their ancestors. Moreover, the source of much new poetry is also spiritual, originating in some unmapped interior country waiting to be explored. Linda McCarriston held a packed house in silent thrall at the recent Dodge Festival as she read her poetry about the torments of a family ravaged by her violent father; until she started writing about these experiences, she said, she never felt that she possessed "as a woman" the authority to speak to the larger culture. As she read on, into poems about healing those wounds from her past, she ceased to be the victim and became instead sojourner and celebrant, whose praise of life wrapped her audience into the exaltation with her.

Listening that evening, I was struck by how much we owe our poets for reminding us that experience is the most credible authority of all. Democracy needs her poets, in all their diversity, precisely because our hope for survival is in recognizing the reality of one another's lives. "Is that a real poem," the student asks, "or did you just make it up?" It is real because it is made up--from life, so that even those of us who are not poets know when we hear it that the language is true. We nod yes and say, That is just how I felt when my father died, or when I spied the first crocus parting the snow, or when the maple withered outside our breakfast-room window, or when waking from surgery I looked into my wife's eyes, or when I took my new grandson's hand into mine.

Poetry is the most honest language I hear today. It can be unbearably honest. Such honesty is why even modest poems are useful--better a fumbling effort at truth than a slickly packaged lie--and good ones indispensable. Against the sybaritic images of advertising that daily wash over us, against the sententious rhetoric of politics, poetry stands as "the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination" (W.S. Merwin's description). The poets I have met would be incapacitated if they did not write from a place of truth. Revelation is their reason for being.

Revelation comes hard. As Stanley Kunitz once acknowledged, poetry is "the 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."

Now in his ninetieth year, Kunitz still plumbs the depths. He says that "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."

If that were the only reason for poetry, it would be enough. In accepting the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, Czeslaw Milosz said: "Our planet gets smaller every year, and with its fantastic proliferation of mass media is witnessing a process that defies definition, characterized by a refusal to remember." A refusal to remember. Yet memory is critical if a people are not to be at the mercy of the powers-that-be, if they are to have something against which to measure what the partisans and propagandists tell them today. Memory is critical if, as democracy requires, we are to make midcourse corrections in the affairs of state and our personal behavior. Mark Twain wrote that a cat, once it had sat on a hot stove, would never do so again, but neither would it sit on a cold stove. We humans are different. We can reflect on our experiences and share the insights with others. Life becomes a conversation between generations--past, present, future. "New ages don't begin all at once," Bertolt Brecht said. "My grandfather lives in the new age. My grandson will still live in the old. New meat is eaten with old forks. From the new antennae come the old stupidities. Wisdom is passed from mouth to mouth."

It has often seemed to me that in the poems I most fancy, every word has hanging on it scores of remembrances, like pots and pans dangling from a prairie schooner trekking westward. The poet's yearning to haul to the surface those reverberations from the past is a yearning I share. My own puny, failed, and always furtive efforts to write poetry are in response to distant voices in my head. One belongs to my grandfather Joseph, who died when I was five. How long I have wished to unwrap from the enigma of that cold, waxen corpse the person I yearned as a child to know. I have tried, too, to call up my great grandmother, abandoned with three children in the 1880s by her husband who left Tennessee for California and never came back. There are family secrets only she can answer, and that I imagine the poet's muse coaxing from her.

Garrett Kaoru Hongo, too, agrees that "poems are carriers of memories." His Japanese American grandfather was arrested in Honolulu the day after Pearl Harbor and held for questioning. He never forgot the pain and humiliation, and every night after dinner, bourbon in hand, he would repeat the story to the grandson whose poems are now a family's vessels of remembrance.

Naomi Shihab Nye says, "Poems allow us to savor a single image, a single phrase. Just think how many people have savored a haiku poem over hundreds of years. It slows you down to read a poem. You read it more than one time. You read it more slowly than you would speak to someone in a store. And we need that slow experience with words."

Here, then, for slow readers like myself, is the language of life.

(Excerpted from the introduction to The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by Bill Moyers. Introduction copyright © 1995 by Bill Moyers. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Group Discussion Questions

1. James Autry wrote a poem called "On Firing a Salesman." What in your business or public life would you think a poem could be written about? Would you write a poem about closing a deal? Being tortured by an ethical business dilemma? A business lunch? Losing or winning a promotion? Are such things worth writing about? What could be the value of recognizing the emotional content of such experiences?

2. James Autry expresses regret about the loss of the vernacular language in his community in Mississippi. Name some phrases and kinds of language from your own past that are being lost. Is this loss a natural development, or should such language be preserved? How might it be?

3. Jimmy Santiago Baca says that poetry saved his life. How did it help transform his rage and the violence he lived with into self affirmation? Are there other instances you know of in which art has helped transform a life? How can this happen?

4. What is the connection between poet and translator? What are the connections between Coleman Barks and Rumi? To translate a poet, must one be a poet? Must one share the same view of the world and sense of language in order to translate a poet?

5. In his interview with Bill Moyers, Robert Bly talks about letting many parts of you speak when you write poetry. How does his poem "A Dream of Retarded Children" relate to that idea?

6. What has been lost through assimilation in Marilyn Chin's poem "How I Got That Name?" What has been gained?

7. How does Lucille Clifton's poem "Climbing" exemplify her idea that "poetry will get past any of the artificial boundaries which separate us"?

8. In Lucille Clifton's poem "At the Cemetery, Walnut Grove Plantation, South Carolina, 1989," Lucille Clifton asks slaves who are long dead to "tell me your names..." Why is "naming names" such an important human activity?

9. Stanley Kunitz says that poetry can "consume and recycle almost anything." What experiences has he transformed in the poems "Three Floors" and "The Portrait?" Think of a painful experience--it could be your own or something you've read about (the recent deaths in Rwanda, for example). How does poetry "recycle" such experiences so that stating them in poems helps bring about some kind of redemption?

10. In discussing her poem "Quilt of Rights," how does Sandra McPherson relate the process of writing poetry to quilt making? Do you see any connection with Robert Bly's dream of retarded children?

11. In her interview with Bill Moyers, Sandra McPherson talks about the process of establishing identity through names. How does her sense of the importance of names and naming relate to that of Lucille Clifton, above?

12. David Mura says that if poetry doesn't acknowledge "the darkness of history--then the life goes out of poetry, and it becomes an escape." What are the "darknesses of history" (both personal and political) in "From the Colors of Desire" that Mura has chosen for his subjects? Does his poetry transform them into beauty? How does poetry helped us resolve our personal darkness?

13. How does David Mura's poetry help him to confront conflicting ideas and feelings about race and sexual desire?

14. According to Naomi Shihab Nye, what is "the wisdom that . . . small things have to teach?" Find it in the poem "The Man Who Makes Brooms." Why does she say that such poems, about people working, are political poems?

15. How and why does Adrienne Rich believe poetry is growing from "points of stress" in our society? How can poetry help us to see and to survive such stress?

16. Gerald Stern observes that his poem, "Behaving Like a Jew," is "well-liked, but to a certain degree it's a failure for me because all the things I'm talking about don't seem available in it." Discuss whether, even if the allusions behind the poem may not be known to the reader, the poem still carries an impact, and may even lead the reader to an understanding which was not intended by the poet.

17. What are the sources of Sekou Sundiata's art?

18. How is Sekou Sundiata's poetry like improvisational jazz?

19. Read the poem "Dijerrido," first to yourself silently; then read it aloud. What is the difference in its impact on you? After reading it aloud, do you understand it differently? How?

20. In the poem "Dijerrido," Sundiata says "What you dream up is deeper than what you know." Talking about the poem, Sundiata says he is talking about a person's power. What power is he referring to?

21. James Autry speaks of a strong sense of "connectedness" with his Mississippi roots. Compare his sense of community with that of Claribel Alegría, who was born in Nicaragua, grew up in El Salvador, and lived in exile under the threat of death. Where is Alegria's community, and how does it compare with his? Compare their sense of community with that of Jimmy Santiago Baca, who says that he grew up wearing "the mantle of an outcast."

22. Many of the poets in The Language of Life (James Autry, Gary Snyder, and Stanley Kunitz, for example) talk about the importance of reading their work aloud to an audience. What communal function can poetry play?

23. Stanley Kunitz says we all keep asking Gauguin's set of questions: "Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" How are these questions answered by Kunitz? by David Mura? by Sandra McPherson?

24. How does writing poetry help people survive and even thrive under life's most difficult circumstances? Consider Mary TallMountain, Linda McCarriston, Jimmy Baca Santiago.

25. In "I Went Into The Maverick Bar," Gary Snyder says he came back "To the real work, to what is to be done." What is the "real work"? For Snyder? For Adrienne Rich?

26. According to Adrienne Rich, the "culture of poetry" has changed over the 40s and 50s, and a rich poetry culture is developing. Marilyn Chin says, "We're breaking new ground...My voice is one of the many voices of America." How do the poets in The Language of Life exemplify the new poetry culture?

27. How can you help support or create a culture of poetry in your community? Check your local library, senior centers, book stores, coffee shops, and local schools or colleges to see if they hold poetry readings. Or, you may wish to encourage a culture of poetry by inviting people over to read poems they've written and/or poems they love.

28. Why is it that in America, novelists, painters, and even television journalists can be stars, and yet poets remain unknown? Daisy Zamora and Claribel Alegría say that poetry is part of the fiber of their countrymen's lives. Why has poetry been seen as a rare, acquired taste in America?

29. Which single poem in The Language of Life speaks for you at this point in your life? Which poem would have spoken for you ten years ago? Which poem would you like to speak for you in five years?

Writing Exercises

1. Claribel Alegría credits the use of a notebook, which she calls her "seed-book," as the source of much inspiration. "It's a simple notebook, and when I read something that really touches me, or when I hear something, or when I dream...I put all these things into my seed book...Sometimes I go to my seed book and all of a sudden there's a click." For one week, try keeping a "seed book," with thoughts, snatches of conversation, quotes, phrases from a newspaper, and anything that strikes you.

2. Robert Bly talks about the value of writing a poem every day without worrying whether it is "good" or not. Write for a few minutes about the first image that touches you every morning for one week.

3. Stanley Kunitz describes shouting words he loved into the woods as a boy. James Joyce believed that there was music in everyday words. His favorites were "cellar door." Pick ten of your favorite words. Arrange them into a ten-word poem. If you are in a group, pair up and combine two sets of ten words into a twenty-word poem.

4. Naomi Shihab Nye says "sometimes I feel that I am just an audience for words floating by and through." Give yourself three minutes. Think of a subject that has strong meaning to you, and, putting it out of your mind, write any words that occur to you on a page. Stop after three minutes. Look for meaning and rhythm in what you've written. Do this one time every day before your next group meeting.

5. Some of Gary Snyder's poems--like "Hay for the Horses"--take their inspiration from simple jobs, like loading hay or repairing something that is broken. Choose one job in your life--it could be as simple as sewing on a button or as complex as building a house--and write a short paragraph about it. Give yourself only five minutes, but describe the entire job from start to finish.

About Bill Moyers

During his 25 years in broadcasting, Bill Moyers has pursued a broad spectrum of journalism for which he has received many major awards, including over 30 Emmys; the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians; the George Foster Peabody Award for political reporting and international coverage; and the prestigious Gold Baton which is the highest honor of the Alfred I. duPont/Columbia University Award. Columbia University President Michael Sovern has called him "a unique voice, still seeking new frontiers in television, daring to assume that viewing audiences are willing to think and learn." He was one of the first three persons to be awarded the Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by the American Film Institute.

Since establishing Public Affairs Television as an independent production company in 1986, Moyers has produced more than 200 programming hours including: Facing Evil; In Search of the Constitution; The Secret Government; The Constitution in Crisis; God and Politics; Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth; A World of Ideas; The Public Mind; A Gathering of Men with Robert Bly; Amazing Grace; The Songs Are Free with Bernice Johnson Reagon; Project Censored; Sports for Sale; The Arab World; All Our Children; The Power of the Word; Beyond Hate; The Home Front; Spirit and Nature; Special Report: After the War; 20 years of Listening to America; Circle of Recovery; Facing Hate with Elie Wiesel; Minimum Wage; Hate on Trial; Families First; Listening to America with Bill Moyers, an election-year series; Healing and the Mind; and, most recently, What Can We Do About Violence?

A survey of television critics by the official journal of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences placed Moyers among the ten journalists who have had the most significant influence on television news. He is widely respected for his work at PBS, CBS News, and NBC News.

Moyers served as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps in the Kennedy Administration and Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1963-1967; he left the White House to become publisher of Newsday. For 12 years, he was a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and now serves as president of The Florence and John Schumann Foundation.

Five of Moyers's books based on his television series have become bestsellers, including Listening to America, The Power of Myth, and Healing and the Mind.

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, Moyers began his varied career as a cub reporter on the Marshall News Messenger at age 16. He and his wife, Judith Davidson Moyers, have three grown children.

Eighteen poets in the book and the PBS series:

Claribel Alegría
Jimmy Santiago Baca
Coleman Barks
Robert Bly
Marilyn Chin
Lucille Clifton
Victor Hernández Cruz
Carolyn Forché
Michael S. Harper
Robert Hass
Linda McCarriston
Sandra McPherson
David Mura
Naomi Shihab Nye
Adrienne Rich
Gary Snyder
Sekou Sundiata
Daisy Zamora

Sixteen additional poets only in the book:

Donald Hall
Rita Dove
Joy Harjo
Garrett Kaoru Hongo
Jane Kenyon
Galway Kinnell
Stanley Kunitz
Li-Young Lee
W.S. Merwin
Mary TallMountain
Sharon Olds
Octavio Paz
William Stafford
Gerald Stern
Quincy Troupe

Educators may tape the programs and use them for instructional purposes within 1 year of broadcast. To purchase a video set of the series, contact FFH Video at 1-800-257-5126.

A free, expanded teacher's guide to the series is available by writing to: The Language of Life Teacher's Guide/ P.O. Box 245/ Little Falls, NJ 07424-0245.

Special thanks to James Haba, editor; David Grubin, contributing editor, executive producer, and producer/director; Judith Davidson Moyers, executive editor; and Robert A. Miller for his thoughtful group discussion questions.

For information about the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, visit their web site at http://www.dodgepoetry.org/index.html