As generations of bored student have known all too well, poetry cannot be forced to life like some grudging Frankenstein.
“[Teachers] harp too much on the metaphors and the similes and the rhetoric,” actor Roscoe Lee Browne once told a reporter for the Oakland Tribune. “It’s good to point those things out, for academic purposes, but you [also] need to let the poem breathe and grow.”
Browne should know: He and fellow actor Anthony Zerbe have been resuscitating the words of such Poetry 101 staples as Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings since the late ’70s, when the two created Behind the Broken Words, their critically acclaimed dramatic presentation of works by famous poets. Initially, the performers’ aim in presenting 20th-century classics was, partly, to establish their own names as actors; today, though, both Emmy-award winners boast resumes as weighty as a freshman English anthology. Browne, who has collected a pair of Oscar nominations for his narration in the films Babe and The Ra Expeditions, gained acclaim for his work on such beloved TV shows as Barney Miller, A Different World and The Cosby Show. And Zerbe, a Broadway veteran with more than 25 feature films to his credit (including Cool Hand Luke), will also appear in the upcoming Clint Eastwood movie True Crime.
Three years ago, however, the two men decided to revive Behind the Broken Words — to a surprisingly warm reception.
In an interview with the Dayton Daily News, Browne articulated his pleasure in discovering that kids in the ’90s are still willing to tune in to the words of the “modern” masters.
“I think they get it … they understand it, and they respond as quickly as people who are older. It is wonderful when they react to poets whom they have never, ever looked at — because they are so busy with their computers. … It sounds almost like braggadocio, but they send letters to us by e-mail, and they go to bookstores and pick up these poets so they can read more, and that’s a very good thing. And when they go backstage, their enthusiasm for poetry is unbounded — it’s wonderful.”
Zerbe and Browne also perform short theatrical pieces by such poets as Derek Wolcott, Jean Giraudoux and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The evening begins with e.e. cummings’ comedic “The Very Latest School in Art,” which features Zerbe as an artist who chooses to paint in the dark, lest he confuse art and reality. Another dramatic highlight is “Between the World and Me,” Browne’s moving interpretation of a Richard Wright poem in which a man is tarred and feathered.
Students who generally balk at reading classics might notice little difference between the work of, say, Irish master William Butler Yeats (who died in 1939) and senior Beat bard Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both of whom are represented in Broken Words. But soaking up a wide variety of styles at once can loosen a skeptic’s blanket resistance toward all poets — sometimes turning even staunchly verse-phobic people into poetry lovers, asserts Professor Susan Weinberg of the Appalachian State creative writing department.
“It adds another dimension to poetry. … It’s not just words on the page, but poetry coming to life. It shows that poetry is not monolithic. People say, ‘I don’t like poetry.’ But Beat poetry might speak in a way that older stuff does not. With a [performance like Behind the Broken Words], they may find one person who speaks to them.”
And watching gifted performers like Zerbe and Browne also benefits an altogether separate group of students, notes Weinberg: future poets who hope one day to stalk the stage themselves — delivering their own words.
“There’s so much emphasis on the performance of poetry today,” she says. “Here, you are watching people already gifted in interpretation. Seeing a lot of poetry in a public setting [helps] students [get] ideas on performing their own poetry.”
@boxtext: Behind the Broken Words, featuring Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne, comes to Appalachian State University’s Valborg Theatre on Monday, March 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6 for ASU students and children under 12, $12 for seniors and ASU faculty/staff, and $15 for others. To order tickets, or for more information, call the Farthing Auditorium box office at (800) 841-ARTS (or, in the Boone area, 262-4046).
On Saturday, March 27, the performance comes to the Diana Wortham Theatre in downtown Asheville’s Pack Place. The show starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are $18-$22 for adults, $16-$20 for seniors and students. For tickets and information, call 257-4530.