Why bad poetry videos suck

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The fact that I love the Wendell Berry poem makes this unimaginative video all the more painful to watch. It adds nothing to my understanding of the poem, and instead works to reduce it to a few, too-pretty images. And since it will be seen by tens of thousands on PBS, it sets a very bad example. YouTube is already infested with home-made versions of this poetry video, I guess because too many poetry fans would rather put poems on a pedestal and worship them as idols than take the risk of engaging them in dialogue. Add in the redundant images of the poem’s text while the poet reads it to us, and the over-all effect is of a poetry video that talks down to its audience. In a misguided effort to make poetry accessible, it has pretty much destroyed the poem.

(Please note, however, that the Bill Moyers interview, taped to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the publication of Berry’s landmark collection of essays The Unsettling of America, and due to be broadcast beginning October 4, sounds very worthwhile indeed. All the more irritating, then, that they would promote it with such a lousy poetry video.)


  1. Reply
    Angella Kassube 1 October, 2013

    I think this is not a bad example of video poetry. But maybe it is not video poetry. Maybe it is television. Either way it is a simple approach that is more like a poetry reading and I think it is meant to be that way. I think it is appropriate for the situation and the context. The text is not redundant because Berry’s voice is somewhat difficult to understand and by hearing the words and also seeing them it is easier to grasp the poem and interpret it myself. How many times have I been at a poetry reading and I wished I had the text in front of me; using a visual of the text from a book is nice. The images are very beautiful, yes, but I don’t think distracting. The images are quiet and they allow me to hear the poem. I don’t feel patronized and it has not destroyed the poem. It is open and lets the listener/viewer into the poem and into Berry sitting there reading the poem.

    • Reply
      Dave Bonta 1 October, 2013

      Oh it’s definitely not videopoetry, but I’m not claiming that it needs to be, only that it should add something. And it doesn’t, for me. In which case I would much prefer just to watch the poet reading.

      My reaction may have something to do with the fact that I grew up without television and have seldom been around it since (I’m 47), so possibly I’m not inured to this kind of thing the way I should be.

  2. Reply
    Erica Goss 1 October, 2013

    I agree with Dave that this video is rather boring. I agree with Angella that the words help because the recording of Berry’s voice is a little blurry, and maybe he’s not the best reader. But overall, I think I’ve become used to a very high quality of video poem, one that excites and stimulates and shows me the poem in a way I hadn’t experienced before. This one is quiet and doesn’t try to do anything spectacular. There is a place for both approaches.

    • Reply
      Dave Bonta 1 October, 2013

      I agree that he’s not a terrific reader. I guess one point about which reasonable people can disagree is this: how important is it to understand all of a poem on first listen (or all of a poetry video on first viewing)? I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of being slightly lost, slightly bewildered (etymologically, the state of being in a wilderness). That’s one of the things that makes poetry addictive to me as a reader.

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