Modernist nostalgia with Voices and Visions

A large part my interest in books and writing stems from two early influences. The first was the Norton Anthology of English Literature, an aged copy of which was given to me by my paternal grandmother when I was about 13 years old. The second influence was Voices and Visions, a documentary series on American poets produced in the late 1980s by a South Carolina PBS affiliate. VHS copies of each episode always seemed to be on hand at the local branch of the Fort Vancouver Public Library. Something about the about those videos suggested to me, even then, that they would see very little use.

It’s difficult to separate the reasons why Voices and Visions appealed to me as a young teenager and the reasons why I still enjoy the series today. Perhaps I felt something hypnotic and seductive in the way each poem was visualized: a line or a stanza appearing on the screen with a picture of the corresponding image, then followed by some critical eminence like Frank Kermode or Hugh Kenner patiently but confidently explicating thornier issues such as meaning or intention or the history of the art form.

Watching the series now, what strikes me most is how many people were still alive who knew the great modernist poets during their prime. You get the eerie impression that Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore had died just recently. In hindsight, this must have had a strong impact on the writers I would later identify with—and not an altogether positive one. I felt more engaged with people who had died thirty or forty years ago than I did with anyone in contemporary culture.

I leave it to the reader to enumerate reasons why nostalgia for the early 20th century is misguided. But after the all the reckonings and reassessments,  there is something persistently magnetic about the Modernist era, a time when literature and the world at large were, for better and for worse, running on the same course. Voices and Visions captures the spirit wonderfully.

You can watch all thirteen episodes for free on the series’ website here.

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