The Thirteenth: Television Poetry

staff | April 13, 2008

Thirteen blogger: The Thirteenth (Vickie Karp, Director of Creative Services)

Hundreds of years ago, way, way before television, Basho and other poets wrote renga–the syllabic group-blog of its day. An ancient Japanese poetry form better known as a shared poem, the renga is an ongoing conversation in verse, in which each poet adds a few lines and passes it on. Not quite like any conversation you or I have ever had, you count the syllables per line–fives and sevens–with slight variations allowed if your accountant knows how to phrase it to the IRS.

Now, in honor of National Poetry Month, PBS, and viewers like you, the Thirteenth launches “Television–A Renga.” After all, dear reader, it’s not about the tote bag. Our renga on television continues virtually forever, so do send me one if you like. I’ll read as many as I can without getting depressed, and select a few for appearance in The Thirteenth over the coming months. Or a nameless intern will take a break from writing his or her screenplay, read some, and help post them. Don’t be afraid to be serious or really good. It happens. But do keep it to a few lines of fives and sevens on Thirteen, public television, and television in general.

I’m still hoping to hear from Indrek Tart in Siberia, who once sent me a fan letter in Russian Cyrillic. At least I think it was a fan letter. Indrek, if you see this, please send your contribution to the television renga asap.

Television: A Renga — Help Desk

According to Jonah Lehrer, author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” your brains and your feelings are vitally connected, so not to worry if you get a little emotional. Even Mussolini wrote a romance novel. Dorothy Parker, in her review, merely said “You Duce, you!”

The Jews of New York makes a complete five-syllable line. Pledge, tote bag, Jews of New York makes a strikingly dull seven. Great Performances. Five. Long live Sunday Arts. Five. Cable and network pale by comparison? Too many syllables.

But if all three million of you decide to use these suggestions, the renga will get a little repetitive. How about your favorite sea creature from Nature or your fictional account of how Charlie Rose got his black eye? Oh, wait, I see the prescient Garrison Keillor has captured that moment in time without even reading my directions, so make that a sea creature and hurry.

We also have David Lehman, famous editor of The Best American Poetry series and author of dozens of books including the just-released Poetry Forum (and excellent blog!). We have our own Hugh Siegel who can watch Sesame Street in both English and Spanish, the magnificent Isaiah Sheffer, whom you know from Selected Shorts on NPR and who is Artistic Director at Symphony Space in NYC, and the redoubtable Roy Blount, Jr., of NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and author of more than 20 books.

And Fran Richey, author of the beautiful and just-released poetry book, The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son At War wrote some perfect lines about the Hudson River and then went on book tour before I could tell her there are no television sets, at least not any working television sets, in the Hudson River. So she’ll turn up later with some lines on tv. I’ve asked Thirteen’s program guide illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist Arnie Levin to contribute, but he’s tired after drawing last month’s suspenders for Neal Shapiro.

Free Advice–writing about Jane Austen does not make you Jane Austen, but feel the fear and do it anyway. Have I forgotten anything? Oh yes, here’s the poem …

Television Renga – The World Premiere


Charlie Rose appeared
One night with a big shiner
And did not explain

Who or what hit him
Thinking this too trivial
For public TV

And allowed women
To think him heroic but
In fact he fell down.

— Garrison Keillor, April 2008


The Foresight Saga

With foresight I fell in love
with Fleur before she blossomed;

a masterpiece of
Susan Hampshire’s blonde good looks
on television.

-David Lehman, April 2008


March of the Penguins, good flick,
But how do penguins do it?

“Nature” is brutal
But sometimes also cozy
With kangaroo love

The movie failed to show this.
As television would have.

– Isaiah Sheffer, April 2008


Two Haiku for Talking Heads

In the races, race
And gender are introduced:
“Hi, Color.” “Hi, Sex.”

Meanwhile pundits, aides,
Ads and candidates are all
Running together.

– Roy Blount, Jr., April 2008


Let us revisit
Days we spent at Brideshead with
Jerems Irony.

Let’s clap, too, for John Gielgud,
Who always made me feel good.

— David Lehman, April 2008


Elmo, well, you know,
like Cookie you are to me
Just lookie. You see?

You’re just a Sésamo,
and it’s all the things you know:
letras y números.

Get me off this couch,
big star that you are, Oscar.
You’re really not a . . ..

No place is as neat.
It’s my way or the calle,
when I’m on that street.

— Hugh Siegel, April 2008


I ask you to pause
And think about your channels
And your destiny.

Meaning. Structure. Poise.
Can’t we all use more of them …
And yes, a tote bag?

— T.T., April 2008

Come back May 13th, when The Thirteenth returns with more of the renga, Arnie Levin’s illustration for the perfect public tv dinner, an exclusive interview with Proust entitled “What Proust Would Have Said About Public Television, Had He Lived.” And Martin Low, so glad you liked the suspenders.