CHICAGO — The words on the page reveal themselves first with a title and then a phrase at a time.
“I, too, dislike it:
“There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”
That’s how “Poetry,” Marianne Moore’s early 20th century poem about the venerable art form, is presented via a wholly new art form, the YouTube video.
The voice reading those words, the hands holding the battered copy of the “Norton Anthology of Poetry” containing them, belong to John Green, the best-selling author of “The Fault in Our Stars” and other works in the young-adult canon.
In another video from the same, new series, you can see — but mostly hear — actor Shailene Woodley read Kahlil Gibran’s “On Love,” a poem that she says “really showed me the truth of what love could be.”
The idea of bringing together the ancient written format that so many learn to dislike in school and the modern video one that so many use to divert themselves from, say, schoolwork originated with Green and his wife, the art curator Sarah Urist Green.
“My wife Sarah and I both love poetry,” Green says. “We both subscribe to the notion that poetry does not have enough readers. We were just at home one evening, talking about how amazing it would be if there were a cool YouTube show about poetry.”
They got together with Chicago’s Poetry Foundation and the result of the collaboration, which debuted last week, is the ambitious Ours Poetica, a YouTube channel and series that will present one poet or actor or other person reading a poem they like three times a week for the next year.
There was a launch event at the foundation’s Chicago building Sept. 12 featuring Green and the poets Paige Lewis, who is the series’ curator, and Kaveh Akbar, plus screenings and discussion of some of the videos.
But the essence of the series is in the videos. They are beautifully constructed little moments that give you a flash of the reader and why the work is important to that reader.
Green, for instance, says that reading the poem “Poetry” in high school — in that very same Norton Anthology he brought before the camera — was deeply influential. “There’s a line in it about ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,’ and for me that’s what fiction writing is,” he says.
But then the focus shifts wholly to the poem. You see the book, the hands, the work on its page inside the book. Some nifty post-shooting magic blanks out all but one phrase at a time, and as it is read, the poem reveals itself, gaining momentum like a ball rolling downhill.
And then the hands close the book.
“We want to emphasize the text,” Green says. “We want to make the videos as kind of as clean and beautiful as possible and just have it be the voice and the text.”
From a poet’s perspective, this presentation is significant, Lewis says. “I think that a lot of the YouTube poetry videos online right now focus more on the reader themselves and their performance of the poem. And I know that poets spend a lot of time deciding how their poem will appear on the page — like a stanzas arrangement or the end of the line or the use of white space. All of that is very intentional.”
The collaboration will carry through the first year.
But there is potential to continue if the series is well received, the people involved say. And there’s certainly no shortage of material.
“You can publish five poem videos a day and never, ever run out of amazing poems to share,” says John Green.
And there is no shortage of potential listeners, either. “My experience at least is that when you encounter contemporary poetry in all of its diversity, you find that there is a lot for you. And so we really want to reach the people who love poetry, but don’t know it yet.”