Literary Treasures: The Poetvision Video Series

The following is a guest post by David Sutton, producer of the Poetvision video series (1988-1990). It is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Screen capture from title sequence of the Poetvision video series.

Screen capture from the title sequence of the Poetvision video series.

The Poetvision series was a videotaped recording of twelve American poets made by Rohm and Haas Company (a specialty chemical company subsequently acquired by Dow Chemical in 2009) in conjunction with the School District of Philadelphia as a means of engaging high school students with poetry. The tapes were produced from 1988 to 1990. The videotaping took place in a number of locations, including poets’ homes, the company’s videotape studio, and high school classrooms. When possible, Philadelphia high school students attended the tapings so they could experience them directly and ask questions of the poets. Of the twelve poets, five were or became Library of Congress Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry (Robert Penn Warren, Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Stanley Kunitz, and Louise Glück) and one (Louise Glück) has been recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Eight of the Poetvision episodes are currently available through the Library of Congress’s digital collections. The poets featured in each episode, as well as the location in which each episode was taped, are listed below, with direct links to the programs that are available online:

Poet Taping Location
Louise Glück (1943- ) Rohm and Haas studio, Philadelphia
Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) with R.W.B. Lewis (1917-2002) Poet’s home, Fairfield, CT
Denise Levertov (1923-1997) Rohm and Haas studio, Philadelphia
Michael S. Harper (1938-2016) Rohm and Haas studio, Philadelphia
Rita Dove (1952- ) Rohm and Haas studio, Philadelphia
Sam Hamill (1943-2018) and Ken Kraft (1949-2018) Rohm and Haas studio, Philadelphia
Robert Hass (1941- ) Rohm and Haas studio, Philadelphia
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) Poet’s apartment, New York, New York
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) Central High School, Philadelphia
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) Poet’s apartment, New York, New York
Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) Frankford High School, Philadelphia
Cecilia Vicuña (1948-) Exit Art cultural center, New York, New York

This remarkable journey started with a marketing paper that I wrote while attending the Wharton School’s Management Program. My topic was unusual in that it completely lacked any pecuniary ambition. The objective was to build a larger audience for the ancient art of poetry among urban high schools, presenting students with videos of contemporary American poets without any consideration for generating income from this activity.

In making Poetvision a reality, I was lucky in two major ways. One, my employer had an unusually strong commitment to amelioration of the Philadelphia community. This was due to the company’s ownership, which, though public, a controlling block of stock was owned by the founding Haas family, and their philanthropy was directed to Philadelphia. This meant that the company actively looked for ways to improve the lives of residents of the city of Philadelphia through the United Way, the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia, and many other charitable venues. Two, Rohm and Haas had a state-of-the-art video production studio, which was managed by Alan Friedlander, a graduate of Temple University’s Film School. Besides being a gifted video artist, Alan had numerous contacts in the Philadelphia area with exceptionally talented camera operators, editors, animators, and sound, lighting, and set design experts. I was very aware of this internal capability, as I had used it on multiple occasions to produce product promotions as well as The Afro-American Journey, a dramatic celebration of and education about the African American experience, which was created and performed by Ardie Stuart Brown and her sister, Patricia Stuart Brown.

I proposed the idea of producing a series of videotapes featuring living American poets to my boss, who reviewed it with Delbert (Del) Payne, our manager of Corporate Social Investment. Del had a personal relationship with Constance Clayton, who was the very prominent and charismatic Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools at the time. Del offered to Dr. Clayton that Rohm and Haas would produce the Poetvision series as a teaching resource for the School District if, and only if, the School District was interested and would be involved as a partner in the project’s production. Thankfully, Dr. Clayton enthusiastically welcomed the offer and assigned a curriculum specialist to consult with me and our video team.

My notion of the content of the Poetvision videotapings evolved over time. I reached out to Robert Penn Warren, who had recently been appointed as the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the Library of Congress. At the time, I thought that the videos would need to be formatted like an 80’s MTV music video to break through to high schoolers. Mr. Warren kindly and generously responded to my letter about Poetvision as follows: “I am sure that the taping of poems, well read, is a useful thing. And I can well imagine that seeing the speaker, on a videotape, might be useful, giving some feeling of immediacy. But I strongly feel that any attempt to dress up the occasion, and any attempt to create a visual and ‘dramatic’ atmosphere for the poem, would be a frightful mistake.” Thus, admonished by a giant in the field, I modified the plan for the series.

Although I had written and avidly read poetry since my teens and had earned Masters in English Literature from the College of William & Mary and Columbia University, I was not very versed in contemporary American poets. I wrote to Helen Vendler, who was a leading critic of and advocate for poetry at Harvard, to solicit her advice. While she was encouraging about the project, she advised that I seek out Stephen Berg, a Philadelphia-based poet, and the founder and publisher of the American Poetry Review as a valuable and local resource. Steve happily became our project consultant and paved the way for us to secure such a brilliant and diverse group of poets to videotape.

Poets were encouraged to read their own work as well as poems that had inspired or influenced them. This was to broaden students’ exposure to poetry and to highlight that poets do not write in a vacuum but have vital connections to those who wrote before them. Booklets of each videotaped performance were produced to accompany the tapes and provide an opportunity for students and teachers to read the poems on their own. Copies of the series were made available to a number of high schools and universities in addition to the School District of Philadelphia, especially in communities where Rohm and Haas had plants or research labs. These include Deer Park, Texas, Ambler, Pennsylvania, Bensalem, Pennsylvania, Louisville, Kentucky, Marlborough, Massachusetts, Haywood, California, Knoxville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, Columbia University and Harvard University. It was a great journey (many of the tapings were the last or only recordings of individual poets), and it started with a homework assignment.

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