The annals of American history offer little in the way of documentarian-poets. But luckily for us today — and especially for those of us who enjoy American poetry of the mid-2oth century — one of the country’s few such hyphenates lived an uncommonly productive life. Though known primarily as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance, Richard O. Moore also had a career in independent and public media, beginning in 1949 with the very first broadcast of Berkeley’s KPFA. In the early 1950s he moved to San Francisco’s newly founded KQED, one of the country’s first public television stations. After a stint at Columbia studying Wittgenstein, Moore returned to KQED in 1961, whereupon he began producing a wide variety of documentaries.
As subject matter, poetry may not naturally lend itself to television. But given Moore’s connections to major American poets on both coasts and elsewhere besides, if anyone could make it work, he could. It certainly helped that so many of those poets had compelling personalities, not least Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the stars of one episode of Moore’s 1965 documentary series USA: Poetry. “The footage he captured is nothing short of miraculous, a national treasure type time capsule of another, more literary age,” says the web side of Santa Cruz’s Bad Animal Books, which has gathered a selection of episodes together on one page. “Moore provided a rare glimpse of some of the finest American poets of the twentieth century at the summit of their powers,” a lineup also including Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, Ed Sanders, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder.
Moore’s documentary portraits unfailingly include readings of the subjects’ work, but they don’t stop there. They also offer glimpses into these poets’ lives, professional, domestic, and otherwise, showing us the cities, towns, homes, bookstores, and libraries they inhabit. A few of these subjects, like Sanders, Snyder, and the especially venerable Ferlinghetti continue to inhabit them, though most have by now shuffled off this mortal coil. William Carlos Williams had already done so by the time of USA: Poetry‘s episode about him, and so in addition to footage illustrating the bard of Paterson’s verse and letters (sights that may remind modern-day viewers of Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s tribute to the workaday American poet), Moore features Williams’ son William E. Williams. Though Williams fils didn’t follow Williams père into poetry, he did follow him into medicine, which constituted not just the poet’s day job but —as we hear read aloud — “my food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.