What do Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neil and hip-hop artist Nas have in common? Turns out that they are poetry aficionados who love reflecting on words, images and meaning.
They are among the many celebrities and accomplished Americans who are featured on GBH’s Poetry in America, which starts its third season Sunday, January 23 at 5pm on GBH 2.
Episodes focus on unforgettable poems, which guests read and discuss with Host Elisa New, the series creator, host and director, who is also the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University.
“Poetry is a very powerful art form,” says New. “It can deliver right into our hearts a very distinct feeling of our shared humanness. Poetry is highly emotional — it activates our memory, our visual imagination and all our senses.”
Poetry in America first aired in 2018, developed from New’s lecture hall series for Harvard undergraduates. “I loved teaching students who thought they didn’t like poetry. I loved the challenge of trying to convert them.”
When Harvard started offering classes online, she jumped at the opportunity. “They gave me a video crew, which was transformative. I was supposed to be making an online course, but I realized I had started to make a television show.”
When a mutual friend introduced New to GBH’s Brigid Sullivan, she knew the idea was a winner. “Lisa's gentle coaxing through the poem with a chorus of speakers — all very distinguished people — was a hook,” Sullivan says. “I knew we could create a lasting archive and bring poetry to more audiences.”
New episodes, filmed across the country, feature Walt Whitman’s accounts of the Civil War, Richard Blanco’s memories of his Cuban American family’s vacations and Evie Schockley’s unpacking of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Guests include Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, poet Tracy K. Smith and actors David Strathairn and LisaGay Hamilton.
You can go back to a poem again and again and oddly not be bored by it,” says New. “Poems open up over time. When you come to love a poem, you remember all the other times you read it, and it becomes part of your personal history.”
New, who is also the Director of the Center for Public Humanities at Arizona State University, says Season 3 will feature works by A.R. Ammons, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Alberto Ríos and more.
Streamed and seen on television by millions of viewers, Poetry in America is featured on 96% of U.S. public television stations. Each episode showcases archival materials, vibrant animation and footage shot at the locations it evokes.
“This program is the essence of our public media mission,” says Sullivan, who is the executive producer of the program for GBH. “We are proud to be bringing poetry into living rooms and classrooms around the world.”
Poetry is especially important now, she adds.
“In every poem, there is a universal truth,” she says. “Poetry helps unite people, and it helps them find common ground. That’s beautiful and important, especially in this time of divisiveness.”
Check out Seasons 1 and 2 here.