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TV Critic’s Corner

Verse case scenarios with ‘Poetry in America’

A still image from the series “Poetry in America.”Poetry in America / WGBH

So, it's Friday night. I'm still housesitting for Matthew Gilbert and have the whole TV column to myself, and (as you're well aware) it's National Poetry Month. I'm thinking this might be the perfect time to throw ourselves a proper rager. Stock up on party supplies and come on by, folks: There's a new episode of "Poetry in America" on WGBH 2 tonight.

We'll be starting late (11 p.m.) because poetry — the proverbial Friday night public TV show of literary genres — is for those who live by night. And usually by some variety of financial assistance.

Ahh, poetry jokes! So fun and easy to make. But I only tease because I love. I read (and write) the stuff myself, but most importantly, I depend upon its strange refraction of reality to assure me that not every question is anchored by an answer. File under: Self-help.


And despite regular proclamations of its death or degradation as well as justifications for its very existence from within and without the community (such as it is), poetry survives — though even its staunch defenders are fractured into warring factions. Should poetry look like the zero-carb fortune cookies of Rupi Kaur? Or, as poet Matthew Zapruder suggests, should poetry capture  a "constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming"? And, to paraphrase one of my freshmen: "Why are we even reading this?"

Hosted by Harvard professor Elisa New and presented by WGBH-TV, this 12-part series tackles the question of what good poetry is by questioning whether 12 poems are any good. Each episode puts works from a range of writers — from Langston Hughes ("Harlem") and W.H. Auden ("Musee de Beaux Arts") to Emily Dickinson ( "I cannot dance opon my Toes —") and Nas ("New York State of Mind") — in the hands of a wide range of experts, artists, political figures, scientists, athletes, and whatever Bono qualifies as.


Tonight, Bono and former US poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera go deep into two works from the legendary Allen Ginsberg: the "Hymmnn" from Kaddish, and the white-knuckled antiwar chant "Hum Bom" — a poem best heard at full volume. Not too loud, though. I really don't want to have to explain to Matthew why the police were here.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com.