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Poets tuning in to TV

Dave Chapelle on “The Chapelle Show.”
Dave Chapelle on “The Chapelle Show.”Danielle Levitt

For some poets, TV is unworthy of attention because, you know, it steals imaginations, numbs hearts, robs souls. I've met a few purist anti-tubist poets over the years and heard them dismiss what Roald Dahl called "that ridiculous machine,/ That nauseating, foul, unclean,/ Repulsive television screen!"

In the moment, I usually decide not to lobby for Stephen Colbert as the next laureate. If they're working to ignore TV, I don't want to challenge their bliss.

But the fact is at this point TV is bound up with human life in so many ways it's impossible to untangle the two. We make TV, we watch TV, it is of us and a reflection of us. It is an expression of our collective stream of consciousness, from the heights of heroic storytelling ("Breaking Bad") to the narcissistic depths of the worst reality TV, from the way news coverage defines history to the way history changes our lives. There is no escaping it, if your eyes are open. And many, many poets do have their eyes open, and they do watch or once watched TV. They sometimes have something to say about the mainstream medium that only seems antithetical to poetry.

A poetry collection called "Rabbit Ears: TV Poems" has just been released, and it gives us 130 poets grappling with TV — loving it, hating it, fetishizing it, treating it like a parent, rejecting it for failing to save them. Published by NYQ Books and cleverly edited by Joel Allegretti, the book represents a smart exploration of the many, many meanings of TV. The poets write about game shows, "American Idol," "Leave It to Beaver," Eddie Haskell, Dave Chappelle, news magazines, sports events, cartoons, "The Brady Bunch," "River Monsters," "True Blood," George Clooney, you name it — but throughout they're also writing about themselves, about race, about our culture, and about the pervasive power of TV.

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The poets also write about commercials. Allegretti has arranged the bulk of the poems in sections called "Channels," with poems about commercials — I like Aaron Belz's "Pantene" — inserted between them. In this way, the format of the book nicely matches its content.

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There is humor all over "Rabbit Ears," such as Allegretti's own "The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Unaired Episodes," which describes plots with names and themes that would have been withheld from TV in the early and mid 1960s: "William S. Burroughs is the Petries' weekend guest. Laura discovers all her spoons are missing." Sometimes the laughs are ironic, at the expense of TV or of viewer naivete; but there are a number of fan-fiction-like pieces that are both funny and celebratory. In "The Ballad of Those Left Behind," Stephen Roger Powers imagines the home lives of the people who became trapped on "Gilligan's Island." Some of the titles alone — "The Buffy Sestina," "Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera" — are enough to make you smile.

There is elegy in the book, too, for specific TV characters, for the poet's innocence, for the way TV can intrude on denial. Amy Gerstler's "The Zone" is a lovely piece about Rod Serling, time, the way American culture and youth have changed, and "The Twilight Zone." One of my favorite poems here is a riff on Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died," called "The Day Lassie Died." It's by Billy Collins — a reprint, though many of the poems in the collection are new — and it is both sweet and gently spoof-like. According to Allegretti in his preface, Collins, a former US Poet Laureate, came up with the title for the collection.

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One haunting theme that runs through "Rabbit Ears" is the need for viewers to see themselves and the realities of their lives represented on TV. In the 1950s, in particular, TV shows avoided all kinds of troublesome issues such as civil rights, the Cold War, and, well, death, leaving viewers with a sense of disconnection and worse. In "Me on TV," Abiodun Oyewole writes about the unfair history of blacks on TV, with the recurring lines, "I wanna see me on TV/ Even if I still ain't free." It's about the very basic need to see oneself existing on a rectangular screen, to be acknowledged.

Naturally, the book is filled with robust (and one or two facile) critiques of the medium — a medium that, more than most, needs to be observed carefully. It needs to be monitored and analyzed constantly, and not just by TV critics and social historians but by poets. When it comes to picking up blurry truths and tuning into different levels of understanding, poets often have invisible antennae.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.