Criminally tucked away on BBC Four is a wonderful programme on poetry and landscape, A Poet's Guide to Britain. There have been two episodes so far, the first on William Wordsworth and the second on Sylvia Plath, and both are available to watch (if you're in the UK) from the Beeb.
Both episodes so far have followed a similar format: the poet Owen Sheers considers the biographical background and literary context to a landscape poem. The two poems he has picked so far, and his handling of them, have been imaginatively offbeat: a poem on London by Wordsworth, 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802', and a poem on Yorkshire moorland by Sylvia Plath, 'Wuthering Heights'. We expect Lakeland poems from one and gothic psychology from the other and so what Sheers gives us is a distinctive slant, a new way of looking, at two much worked-over lives and over-read poems. Both episodes had a definite thesis and this was illuminated by discussion with an established poet (Simon Armitage on Wordsworth and Jo Shapcott on Plath) and with an up and coming poet (Adam O'Riordan on Wordsworth and Claire Pollard on Plath) providing a neat thirty minute bite of really worthwhile, entertaining literary criticism. All the appearing poets read relevant poems of their own too which firmly locates 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' and 'Wuthering Heights' in a contemporary context.
Being TV it went beyond being beautifully shot, which it is, to having rather too much over-visualised padding including some very annoying words flying across the screen when Plath's poems were read, some times utilizing archive of Sylvia Plath's voice which really does make the hairs stand up on your neck. Plath's distinct poetic voice and strong Bostonian actual voice do not need subtitles. But amongst the annoying waffle were some rare - for modern TV - genuine moments of intellectual engagement when our poet presenter lifted himself from housewives' choice (think a cross between Ted Hughes and Ben Fogle) and looked the camera in the eye and told us what he really thought without embellishment or sound bite or visual trickery and these critical nuggets lifted A Poet's Guide to Britain to way above the ordinary about-a-poet programme. What we get really is a poet's guide to British literary landscape.
Both programmes so far in the series pull off the challenge of being accessible without being patronising. If you love these poets I am sure you will get something from viewing these episodes, and if you have always wondered what the fuss was about, then this is a truly watchable place to start. And as a last inducement the Plath programme is great for those interested in the Brontes who have not had the chance to visit Haworth or the Pennine moors. I look forward to the remaining four in the series.