Can Oprah Save Poetry?

It’s really easy to hate this—the O (for Oprah) magazine poetry issue. I mean, Oprah! A huge American symbol of commercial money shallowness–or an inspiration to millions (take your pick). She lives an opulent lifestyle, hosts consumer fests every week on her show (well, maybe not anymore). At the same time, she does some really, really, good things—started a girls’ school in Africa and supports dozens of worthwhile causes with all that empire money.  And of course, she named a magazine after herself. How humble is that?

But then I heard the April issue of her O magazine was going to focus on poetry, with celebrities talking about their favorite poems and the guest editor role being taken by Maria Shriver, a very accomplished broadcast journalist, but no literary cred to speak of.

My first though: This is what I hate about National Poetry Month.

My second thought: Well, if anyone is able to make poetry not seem like an affectation done only by depressed Goths, NYC hipsters, adjunct professors and dreamy high school girls, then maybe it’s Oprah. Maybe she can.

And then I saw:

Oprah Poetry siteAnd this:

Oprah PoetryYes, friends, there’s a link to a page on “How to Write Poetry” with suggestions such as: write down a dream; write down a forbidden thought; write down an aphorism … In fact, there’s a whole section of Oprah’s site called Oprah’s Writing Center.

By now my thoughts have turned to: Why can’t she just leave poetry alone? Does the world need Oprah to explain the best sandwiches for a poetry party (apparently it’s po’ boys)?

Sure, I did learn a few things from Oprah’s poetry experiment. Demi Moore reads Tennyson. Bono is a Seamus Heany fan (predictable). General David Petraeus tries to live acording to Kipling’s “If.” Ashton Kutcher’s father wrote poetry,  and Mike Tyson draws inspiration from these anonymous lines: “Stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit / It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”

Mike, it’s time to quit.

For Robert Lowell, on His Birthday

robert lowellRobert Lowell has for years been one of my favorite poets–one of those writers who’s books stay at my bedside. The pages are dogeared and scribbled on, words underlined. I love how he paces a poem, pulling the reader along like a show horse at a demonstration, jumping rails or pits along the way. I’ve also always been bothered by how some critics dismissed him as a confessional poet because he wrote about his own life, the tragedies and depressions. Sure, that’s subject matter, but that ignores what a fine craftsman he was, one of the finest at tying tightly wound knots in his lines and beautifully evocative images. He was also a master an tossing out a direct hit in the face straight line (“I myself am hell.” or “My mind’s not right.”)

Anyway, he would have been 94 today. Here are readings of a few of his most well-known poems. The last one is a reading performed by my friend and former teacher, Rafey Habib.