Podcast • November 1, 2013

Nicholson Baker Writes a Protest Song

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies. Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013 Nicholson Baker‘s voice has a blushing transparency ...
Fred Field photo/ The New York Times/Redux in The New York Review of Books, 11.21.13

Fred Field photo/ The New York Times/Redux in The New York Review of Books, 11.21.13

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies.

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

Nicholson Baker‘s voice has a blushing transparency that will make you lean in here. He’s made a brilliant career out of a writer’s stray wit and the sparkling streams of one man’s mind. “His sentences have more pixel density than those of any living novelist,” Dwight Garner beams in the Times. Like his model John Updike, Baker is a champion noticer. In our conversations, and in his porniad House of Holes, he’s also magnetized by sex and very funny, too. But he’s political, as Updike declined to be. Baker gave us a brave and studious case for pacifism in Human Smoke, his pointillistic history of World War 2. And now in Traveling Sprinkler he emerges, through his fictional hero Paul Chowder, as a song-writer and (about time!) a fantasy radio guy and a podcaster.

Nick Baker introduced Paul Chowder four years ago in The Anthologist as a “confessional poet of a sort,” an often blocked writer of an introduction to a compiliation called Only Rhyme. In Traveling Sprinkler — lawn hardware making its circuitous path around the green landscape of his obsessions — Paul Chowder turns out to be less melodic than Cole Porter, less memorable than Tracy Chapman or Leonard Cohen. But the disarmed and endearing voice of Nicholson Baker is giving us the sense of a necessary human experiment (for all of us) and an homage to the triumphs of the masters:

It’s hard to sing, because when you sing as a writer you have lots of little squirrely black shapes on the page to hide behind. It’s of course very open and confessional but you have that nice scrim; you’re behind this shield of the 26 letters. But when you sing the words with your own voice with all of its own imprecisions and its desire to lose the pitch and all that stuff, it is so naked and so frightening… Music is so instantly graspable, and yet so mysterious. It’s so subtle and complicated; a slight change in harmony, a choice of doubling up a particular instrument, of adding a little reverb — all these things can change the texture of a moment so much. Yet all of them are entirely beyond speech. There’s no way you can codify or even talk about them verbally. So they’re in that way puzzling but also entertaining. All you’re trying to do if you’re writing a song is make something beautiful in some way — at least something that some one can tap his or her foot to — maybe dance around the room or sing along with, that someone will respond in a positive way…

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

You can try this out and home. And you can look for inspiration to Nicholson Baker’s Protest Songs on YouTube.

October 27, 2013

JFK on poetry and power: a cub reporter’s account

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned out to be his last public performance in Massachusetts. At ...

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned out to be his last public performance in Massachusetts. At the Boston Globe I was a cub reporter just a year out of Yale when I got my first presidential assignment.
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Launches New Library

Kennedy at Amherst Honors Poet Frost

By CHRISTOPHER LYDON

AMHERST—President Kennedy paid tribute here Saturday to the late Robert Frost and his work, a contribution, he said, “not to our size, but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs, but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension.”

For the President, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Amherst, and took part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the college’s new $3.5 million Robert Frost Library, it was an unusual day of departure from the problems of politics and policy.

“This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost,” he told the special degree convocation, “offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians, as well as by others.”

Main themes of his speech were the role of art in the life of the nation and the redeeming influence of poetry on power.

“Our national strength matters,” he told his audience of 2700 In Amherst’s Indoor Athletic Field and hundreds more who watched him from other buildings over closed-circuit : television, “but the spirit which Informs and control sour strength matters just as much.”

“This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

Mr. Kennedy, who was a close friend of Frost in the last few years o! the poet’s life, accepted Frost’s proclaimed
vision of “poetry as a means of saving power from itself.”

“When power leads man towards arrogance,” Mr. Kennedy said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and the diversity of his existence, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic truths, which must serve as touchstones of our judgment.”

Mr. Kennedy made it clear later in the morning’s ceremonies that he saw in Frost’s poetry, not an antithesis to power, but a complement.

In his remarks at the groundbreaking, the President regaled the thousands who stood around him, with recollections about Frost’s “hard-boiled” approach to life and his hopes for the United States.

“He once said that America is the country you leave only when you want to go out and lick another country. He was not particularly belligerent in his relations, his human relations, but felt very strongly that the United States should be a country of power and force, and use that power and force wisely.”

frost-smThe President added with a broad grin, “He once said to me not to let the Harvard in me get to be too important. So we have followed that advice.”

Archibald MacLeish, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet joined President Kennedy in receiving an honorary doctor of laws and. in honoring Frost.

MacLeish spoke on the mystery of Frost’s theme, and the legacy of the poet, which goes beyond the quantity of his reputation and the number of people who knew his name or recognized him on the street.

MacLeish said that only “months after his death, the ‘public image,’ as the industry would call it, has begun to change like the elms in Autumn, leaving enormous branches black and clean against the sky.”

Borrowing a line from Amherst’s poetess, Emily Dickinson, MacLeish called Frost “too intrinsic for renown—intrinsic for renown to touch. , Something in the fame resists the fame, as burning maple logs—rock maple anyway—resist the blaze.”

When Frost talked of what honor meant to him, he spoke of leaving behind him: “a few poems it would be hard to get rid of.”

“Poems are speaking voices,” MacLeish explained. “A poem that ls hard to get rid of is a voice that is hard to get rid of. And a voice that Is hard to get rid of, is a man.

“What Frost wanted for himself in the midst of all that praise was what Keats had wanted for himself in the midst of no praise at all: To be among the English poets at his death—the poets of the English tongue.”

He added later: “To be among the English poets is to BE—to go on being. Frost wanted to go on being. And he has.”

A large part of President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst were devoted to the responsibility of private colleges to the country.

His invitation to speak at Amherst Saturday had come from the chairman of Amherst’s Board of Trustees, John J. McCloy.

“When the chairman of our Disarmament Agency Committee,” the President said, “who has labored so long and hard—Governor Stevenson’s assistant during the very difficult days at the United Nations during the Cuban crisis, a public servant of so many years-asks oil invites the President of the United States, there is only one response. So I am glad to be here.”

Citing Amherst’s long tradition of public service, Kennedy reminded his audience, “privilege is here, and with
privilege goes responsibility.

“There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty,” Mr. Kennedy stated, “and unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life—unless they are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy the understanding, the compassion—unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions on which our democracy is based are bound to be fallible.”

By the time the President and the officers of the college went outside for the groundbreaking, a warm sun bathed the campus of Ivy dressed red brick, where Robert Frost taught and lecture off and on from 1917 until his death.

Podcast • October 5, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two

James Douglass is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency ...

jasdouglass 300 James Douglass is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill the president and stop his turn toward peace, toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and exiting the war in Vietnam.

The very thought is appalling and should be unbelievable — of an anti-democratic insurrection that could go unacknowledged and unpunished in the United States for 50 years. But James Douglass is not alone in his suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the president and son of his Attorney General, has called the Douglass version the best book on the subject. In a remarkably under-noticed public conversation in Dallas last January — hosted by Charlie Rose of PBS, but not broadcast — RFK Jr. recounted his father’s view that the Warren Commmission inquiry on JFK’s assassination “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Further, he said, the Kennedy family long ago rejected the official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin.” His father was “fairly convinced,” said RFK Jr., that others were involved. “Organized crime, Cubans?” Charlie Rose asked. “Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. answered.

In this second half of our long conversation James Douglass is recounting disparate voices — of a Trappist monk, a dissident film-maker, and JFK’s White House counsellor — that contributed to his reconstruction of the narrative. Douglass is building obviously on Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991), both celebrated and pilloried, which made it the story, in effect, of a military coup. Is it fair, I ask Douglass, to think of his book as “Oliver Stone with Footnotes”? Not really, Douglass says. He is indebted to Stone for endorsing his work, but mainly for the film that prompted Congress to liberate a flood of evidence that Oliver Stone hadn’t seen when he made his movie.

Douglass seems to me over-correct or perhaps coy in protecting the confidence of the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s alter-ego and wordsmith. Six months before Sorensen died three years ago, he initiated contacts with Douglass, “spoke supportively” of his book, and shared views of the assassination story that he did not want to voice in public. “Why not?” I ask. Because, Douglass says, the speechwriter credited with the noblest lines of Kennedy’s “peace speech” at American University in 1963, wanted to focus on Kennedy’s legacy, as if his murder five months later were not the centerpiece of our awful inheritance. We are still confounded by the silences in this saga.

Strange to say, the most memorable witness to the mystery of JFK in Jim Douglass’s telling is the monk and venerated author Thomas Merton, observing Kennedy from afar a year before the president was killed. In the remoteness of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, two years older than the Catholic president, was watching Kennedy carefully and not without sympathy: “… he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd,” Merton wrote in 1962. But facing the “suicidal moral evil” of nuclear war, Merton measured Kennedy without great confidence either.

I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.

Thomas Merton in a letter to his friend W. H. Ferry, quoted by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 11.

Merton’s prophecy provides the framework of the Douglass narrative which I read and reread, and find inconclusive but compelling. Douglass is not casting John Kennedy for sainthood but he is telling the story as holy tragedy, in which JFK with enormous courage accepted a miracle knowing that the price might be his life.

Is there an under-50 reader or listener, I wonder, who feels with my generation that we’ve all been orphaned by our enforced ignorance around the crash of John Kennedy’s vision?

Podcast • October 2, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable. Part One.

James Douglass is bracing us to reimagine John F. Kennedy around the 50th anniversary of his “rendezvous with death.” He’s encouraging us to face what has seemed to me a central question — not so much the “Who Killed JFK?” bumper-sticker, but more “Why can’t ...

jasdouglass 300James Douglass is bracing us to reimagine John F. Kennedy around the 50th anniversary of his “rendezvous with death.” He’s encouraging us to face what has seemed to me a central question — not so much the “Who Killed JFK?” bumper-sticker, but more “Why can’t we know?” The answer, Jim Douglas says, is “unspeakable.” He’s adopting a code-word that the late Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton applied to the eternal enemy, “the void,” darkness iself, “systematic evil that goes beyond the imagination.” Douglass’s “unspeakable” is the multifarious modern Satan which took the form of a movement in the upper reaches of Kennedy’s own national security state to kill the president as he made a radical and inspired turn toward peace. He has written a conspiracy book with a scholar’s footnotes and a theological subtext. And a robust Oliver Stone endorsement.

Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable is a meticulous compilation of Kennedy and assassination studies. I came to it late, five years after publication, on the recommendation of friends sharing a precious secret. It’s a shocker that has the air, throughout, of a deeply serious inquiry. Jim Douglass has his own temperate, good-humored air. Born in Canada, he’s lived many years in Birmingham, Alabama as a Catholic Worker peace activist and soup-kitchen friend of the down-and-out, all the while teaching himself how to research and write history.

unspeakable coverThe story, like the book title, has two main axes. Jim Douglass’s JFK is far from the oversold man of “vigah,” the reckless bounder of Camelot. He’s been a sickly, often bedridden child, seared by war in the Pacific, mortally threatened by Addison’s disease. He was “dying all his life,” as Douglass puts it in conversation. “He had a raven on his shoulder.” Over-familiar with the last rites of his church, JFK came to politics and daily life for the “fullest experience possible… able to live on the edge because he was ready to lose it all.” He is making a profound turn in the last year of his life and presidency. Trapped and embarrassed by the CIA’s blundering invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in April, 1961, then shaken to the core by the near-catastrophic Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962, Kennedy was deep in back-channel dialogs with Nikita Khrushchev by 1963, closer in spirit to the Russian chief than either felt to their own military men. In the definitive American University “peace speech” of June, 1963, Kennedy was searching for a politcal path to ending the Cold War, and astonishingly negotiated and passed a nuclear test ban treaty that same summer. All the while, Douglass writes, JFK was continually reciting a favorite poem, Alan Seeger‘s “I have a rendezvous with Death,” to his wife and his 5-year-old daughter Caroline, who once stunned Kennedy’s national security council by reciting the poem start to finish in mid-meeting. Kennedy himself left behind hand-written notes to himself, quoting Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God — and I see a storm coming; If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.” This is the man awakening that Jeffrey Sachs celebrated with me at the JFK Library last Spring, but Jeff Sachs declined to connect Kennedy’s turn, or that American University speech, with Kennedy’s undoing. As Jim Douglas remarked to me, “Jeff Sachs wrote JFK without the Unspeakable.”

The other axis of Douglass’s narrative is the secret apparatus of the national security state after World War 2. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the forced retirement of CIA chief Allen Dulles, Douglass pictures JFK at sword-points with his spies and special-operations team, also with famous hawks like General Curtis LeMay among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismayed that Kennedy hadn’t attacked the Russian bases in Cuba and itching, several of them, to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It’s Douglass’ argument, with a lot of circumstantial evidence behind it, that well into 1963, the security chiefs dug in to protect their power and their worldview. Practiced and proficient in covert coups and “plausible deniability,” they snuffed out John Kennedy with masked forces and much the same sang froid they’d directed against Iran’s young democracy in 1953 and against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in January, 1961, just days before JFK’s inauguration. “Who Killed JFK?” has always been the wrong question, James Douglass is telling us, because it comes to focus on the shooters.

The question of what killed John Kennedy and why he was killed focuses instead on the evidence we have that the shooters are almost irrelevant. But the system is very relevant… The relation above all of JFK to his government is at the heart of it. The nature of the question will take us so far into what Thomas Merton called ‘the unspeakable’ that we’ll almost feel we’re lost in darkness as we’re seeing the light.

James Douglass in Birmingham with Chris Lydon in Boston, September, 2013.

This is the second, not the last, of our Kennedy conversations on the 50th anniversary of his death, and there will be other angles of inquiry. But doesn’t it feel better to open with a writer who challenges so much received opinion and our deepest sentiments about the man and our government?

September 24, 2013

Linda Ronstadt riffing on the best-ever singers and songs

When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, ...

linda ronstadt 300

When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse…

Linda Ronstadt in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

This is fun. Linda Ronstadt, the multi-platinum queen of crossover singing — country and folk rock to Puccini’s “La Boheme” to Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway to flamenco to Mexican wedding songs to the Great American Songbook and duets with Sinatra — throws out the line in her memoir Simple Dreams that the American popular song is the greatest gift this country ever presented to the world. So for a Coolidge Corner movie house packed with loving boomers, we’re just riffing here about singers and songs — the personal favorites, the masterpieces, the ones we called “pop” and “love songs” that may last as long as Schubert and Brahms. It is touching to hear this modest star say that she was never competitive, didn’t chase hits, but realized at midlife that she’d always aspired to raise the best material she could find to the distinction of “art songs.” So, doubtless, did Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, Marvin Gaye, Frank Loesser, Sarah Vaughan… Judgment takes a while, even among the principals — as in Ira Gershwin’s famous line that “we never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” But Linda Ronstadt was a sport when I asked: could we close with a fast baker’s dozen of pearls in the pop music of our times — songs we could send to Mars to show what’s possible.

13. Someone to Watch over Me, from the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle.

12. Little Girl Blue, from Rodgers and Hart, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone

11. Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the song Sinatra couldn’t handle but Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane immortalized.  

10. What’s New? by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. This is the Linda Ronstadt version with Nelson Riddle. And then there’s Coltrane.

9. The Londonderry Air, the melody of “Danny Boy,” which my mother sang every day of our young lives to the words: “Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom.” “The most beautiful melody ever,” as Linda said, but it’s Irish! at least till Ben Webster found it and wouldn’t let it go.  

8. George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” the Sarah Vaughan version with Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes.

7. A Frank Loesser threesome: Marlon Brando singing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” in the movie Guys and Dolls.  ”Never never will I marry,” a Linda choice.  Betty Carter and Ray Charles singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my pick, and “one of my favorites of all time ever, ever, ever,” Linda said.  

6. Al Hibbler singing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing till you hear from Me.”  

5. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen’s song.  

4. Estrella Morente, singing “En el alto del cerro de palomares.”  

3. Lola Bertran singing Paloma Negra.

2. Trio Calavera, singing “almost anything.”  

1. Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going On?”  ”O my God, I kissed Marvin Gaye one night… He was vocalist extraordinaire,” Linda said, at the crossroads of jazz, R’n'B and pop.  ”And he was a good kisser. No question, this is an art song!”

Podcast • September 9, 2013

David Bromwich on Democracy and War with Syria

There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an obviously intelligent and fairly balanced person as Obama seemed to ...

There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an obviously intelligent and fairly balanced person as Obama seemed to be would escape that curse, but I don’t think so. I think of a few counter-examples: of Jimmy Carter, who has become wiser about the world in his after-years than he was as president… And I think of John Kennedy in the last year of his presidency where so much more wisdom and rueful knowledge of the limits of power, and the limits that ought to be placed on power by itself, seemed to inhabit the man. Obama’s progression has not been like theirs. It’s been from an outside, ironic and interestingly non-attached point of view to something much more oriented to the conventional routes of American power.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

With David Bromwich, close-reader of the history unfolding before our eyes, I am looking for a bright side. We are having a national conversation, after all, about war, war powers, presidential authority, intervention. It could be a democratic moment to rejoice in. President Obama has asked the people through the Congress and the Constitution to join in a freighted decision on war and peace, and the country is responding. At the same time the president indicates he is ready to override the people’s skepticism and maybe a Congressional vote for restraint. The Nobel Peace Prize president is “Pleading for War,” in one Huffington Post headline. Mr. Obama is disappointed but not yet persuaded or moved by the anti-war consensus of the G-20 leaders, the almost-unanimous European Union, the United Nations Secretary General and the Pope. Professor Bromwich wonders, not alone and not for the first time, whether Americans have ever heard from President Obama a “consistent view” of his or our international role. “There’s something unhinged about the quality of the different voices we are hearing around the White House,” Bromwich is telling me. “I think the least you can say against President Obama right now is that he does not seem to be in control.”

It turns out, in a long conversation about the immeasurably grave Syrian question before the country, that we both have John F. Kennedy on our minds approaching the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I’m asking David Bromwich: how was it that the American crisis in civil rights made JFK a deeper, more serious person, and the near-catastrophe around Russian missiles in Cuba led Kennedy to the nuclear test ban treaty. How is it that the apparent collapse of the Arab Spring, the anxiety around what could be a nuclear Iran, have not seemed to penetrate and enliven the Obama circle in any comparable way.

I think Kennedy had an outgoing temperament and almost an appetite for action, for activity not just on the public stage but with public consequences. Not all of this was good by any means. But he had learned a lot, had become a wiser and a lonelier figure by 1963, partly because he saw what he was up against in the military. I like the story of John Frankenheimer, the director of “The Manchurian Candidate,” requesting from Kennedy to borrow rooms in the White House for the making of “Seven Days in May,” a good thriller about a military conspiracy to take over the government of the United States. And Kennedy let them have it. He went away for a couple of days and said to Frankenheimer: “These people,” meaning the military, “are crazy! The American people need to understand that.” Why is that unimaginable coming from Obama? It’s that there isn’t that feeling of first-hand engagement, of wanting to wrestle with problems. It is an unusual human characteristic, and as Kennedy’s example again shows, it carries with it some risky materials as well. But I think Obama is prudent and holds back, and takes the messages that are borne in on him. I think a Kennedy sort of personality, coming into office in 2009, 2010, 2011, would have seen Iran as a possibly soluble — and as the major — problem for the United States, because it impinges so much on dealings with Russia and China as well, and on the Middle East. And Iran had allied itself with the U.S. in the war on Afghanistan, and then found itself utterly rebuffed by Cheney and Bush after the help they gave in 2001, 2002 — put into the outer darkness, called part of ‘the axis of evil.’ Obama seemed to intend to change all that. But now, with the election of a new president in Iran, would have been the moment to recognize, as Kennedy did about the test ban: now I can get some action; it’s going to be hard, but I’ll do it… Now would be the moment to seek some sort of arrangement with Iran whereby they will never go to nuclear weapons, but they will be satisfied with their ability to use nuclear power domestically. This would have required enormous risk, and real courage, as it did for Kennedy to go after the test ban and push it through. Let’s never underestimate it; it’s one of the most remarkable presidential achievements of my lifetime. And it would take courage for Obama to do that, courage to go against Israel. But he would have to have initiative, too, and he would have to be pushing it himself. And that appetite doesn’t seem to be there.

I am puzzling about what seemed a long silence from Israel on this matter of striking Syria — a silence becoming less silent, David Bromwich observes. According to the New York Times over the weekend, 250 AIPAC lobbyists have been preparing to work the House of Representatives this week in favor of the Obama attacks. Professor Bromwich is quoting an Israeli diplomat in last Friday’s Times, to the effect that Israel sees in Syria a “playoff situation” in which one wants both sides to lose — the Assad government and the jihadist rebels. “Let them both bleed and hemorrhage to death — that’s the strategic thinking here,” said the Israeli diplomat.

If Israel emerges alone as the sole country in the entire Middle East that is not a devastation, and that is solid-looking and modern and Western in ways that Americans identify with, then Israel and the United States can march forward hand-in-hand toward whatever future. I think that’s the short- and middle-term so-called strategic thinking that’s guiding this. I think it’s very wrong. I want Israel to survive, and I don’t think it will survive well or happily on these terms. But that’s the calculation under Netanyahu now… So they do back limited attacks on Syria, and you can bet that behind the scenes the pressure from the Israeli government is much stronger than is leaked out to the Times. And we’re going to have a siege of it, I’m pretty sure, next week.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

So, I ask, when that irresistible force meets the immovable object of resistance at the American grassroots, what happens in the U. S. House? “For anyone who perceives what’s happening,” Professor Bromwich said, “it is one of the most astonishing confrontations between influence and democratic sentiment that has ever been.”

Podcast • August 26, 2013

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist. From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is ...

enon hardingShort form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into.

Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.”

Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.

Podcast • July 16, 2013

Gerald Shea’s Song Without Words

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls. Marcel, enthralled by the chamber music, ...

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls.

Marcel, enthralled by the chamber music, appalled at the intermission chatter, in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

GSheaGerald Shea’s exquisite and affecting memoir of his deafness could be read as an extended riff on Proust’s fantasy. About halfway through his 70 years, Gerry Shea realized that he was severely deaf — that he’d been coping somehow, at a price, with an affliction he refused to notice. What he learned in stages was to observe how his brain works — how poetry and music, sign and spoken language and the “commerce of souls” actually work, perhaps for all of us. Shea is a word-master in his own right who comes almost to prefer the pure song — in the tradition of Mendelsohn, too, who wrote the little piano gems Songs Without Words and refused lyrics for them. But Gerry Shea got there the hard way — as a lawyer, not a musician.

Through the first half of his 70-years, Gerry Shea misheard almost everything. Example: the opening line of the Frank Loesser song, “I Believe in You,” came through as “You are the tear two ties of a keeper of incoming loot” — not “You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,” as writ. At Yale young Shea was a singing star but he didn’t belong in class. He took the star history lecturer Charles Garside to be saying that the emperor Charles V “indebited the minstrel stills of this automatic million,” when the professor was saying: “Charles inherited the administrative skills of his grandfather Maximilian…”

On such Jabberwocky in ears he didn’t know had been damaged by scarlet fever at age 5, Shea went from Yale to Columbia Law and then to a big job with the international firm of Debevoise Plimpton. He had mastered lip-reading and his own mode of translating the garbled nonsense in his ears — his “lyricals,” as he called them. But how in the world, you ask, did he avoid having his ears tested for all those years? The deeper riddle in our conversation is: why? And why, when severe deafness finally showed up unmistakably on a job test, he waited a year even to consider hearing aids or any other help. This is the point where the story became, for me, a heart-seizing meditation on afflictions imagined and denied, on identities chosen and clung to — stubbornly and with some cruel effects; and then the joy of letting go.

For me it was always a spiritual or perhaps intellectual problem. I thought everybody else heard what I heard, but that they could translate it and I couldn’t. At Yale, I felt in many ways, academically anyway, I probably didn’t belong there… I did live in a way in my own world of poetry. Lyricals are really an unconscious poetry. It was the life probably that I did love. Even though the problem of misunderstanding was there, I loved my universe and I still do… As soon as somebody tried to approach my private world of lyricals, I really didn’t want to let them in… I think probably because of insecurity, because of fear. Because of my knowledge of myself as perhaps an incomplete human being. Perhaps as someone who was at home with his own internal poetry. It was simply a world that I wanted to keep to myself. I was different from other people, and I was going to live that way and stay that way — except in the law, because I had somehow to earn my bread.

Relief came when hearing aids were virtually forced on him at age 35. The reward was hearing the rest of his music; the flutes, violins and piccolos; the wind in his willows, so to speak, with all due credit to the author Kenneth Grahame.

When I finally got the hearing aids and I realized that the external world was making a lot more sound than I’d heard, it brought me to tears. The first time I wore my glasses with hearing aids in them… suddenly out in that field I felt as if I was not alone and I heard the sound of crickets coming from every direction. It was a beautiful, beautiful sound I hadn’t heard since I was a child, a further awakening to me as to who I was and the world I was really living in. ‘There it is again,’ as Rat says to Mole in The Wind in the Willows. ‘O, Mole, the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!’ That thin clear call has really become the heart of my life. That’s what Mendelson was talking about, the definite message of music that carries you with it. The most beautiful part of my life, clearly, is music… The heart of my life. Maybe it always was.

Gerald Shea in conversation with Chris Lydon in Marblehead, Massachusetts, July 2013.

Podcast • July 1, 2013

Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the ...
Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

Podcast • June 25, 2013

Jeff Sachs on JFK’s last year: Between Doom and Miracle

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, ...

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, June 10, 1963

jeffreysachs Jeff Sachs will remind you, first, of the loopy vertigo of the JFK years, through the “annus mirabilis” that ended in assassination. From the prophet’s vision of the Inaugural speech (“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…”) it was 100 days to the blundered mugging of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then it was 600 days to the brink of annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But at 1000 days, as if by a miracle, the president had made a resolve to “move the world” onto a plausible path to peace.

Jeffrey Sachs, the global economist of hunger, health and the human emergency, makes a striking personal turn in his fervid rediscovery of John F. Kennedy 50 years later: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Ours is a public conversation at the JFK Library in Boston, opening the semi-centennial reflections on the 35th President. It’s not exactly history or biography that Sachs is giving us, but really one hyper-kinetic and troubled public man’s ardent close-reading of another. JFK’s “peace” speech at American University 50 years ago this month is the critical Sorensen-Kennedy text. Senate ratification of Kennedy’s Test Ban Treaty with Nikita Khrushchev is the under-appreciated monument to the era. And still I’m pressing a what-if question prompted by James Douglass’s under-noticed inquiry, JFK and the Unspeakable: what if it was precisely President Kennedy’s turn to peace — to ending the Cold War, to leaving Vietnam and learning to live with Castro and Cuba — that got our 35th president killed?

jfk amuJames Douglass’s view is a version of Oliver Stone‘s in the movie JFK: that President Kennedy was targeted for death by the security establishment of his own government. What Douglass adds to Stone is the Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton, who wrote at the time that John Kennedy, like peace-makers before and since, had been marked for assassination; but also that he was summoning a miracle to stave off Armageddon.

Jeff Sachs finesses the question of a conspiracy to kill JFK, but he agrees that Thomas Merton gave us the “moral narrative” that runs under the story of Kennedy’s last year, no matter who it was that ordered his death.

We came — it’s trite to say, and impossible to fathom — we came within one shot of ending the world on several occasions. It’s unbelievable. It is a miracle that we got through this; there was no right to expect it… It’s not that JFK woke up exactly, because he was awake. But he stopped stumbling. And he absolutely said, in October: ‘I’ve got to lead.’ He took the decision of leadership. And that is part of what I’m arguing for because I don’t find that our politicians lead very much these days. You know, I voted twice for President Obama but I don’t believe he leads. So I believe this is relevant now. You have to take risks. I was very unhappy with a line in President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem two months ago — another fine address, because our president can give a wonderful address. But it’s the difference between making a wonderful address and making peace that bothers me. In that address President Obama actually said to the young people in Jerusalem: don’t expect politicians to lead; you have to demand for us to lead! John Kennedy did not say to the people on June 10, 1963: ‘I’m just going to sit there till you start demanding peace.’ He said: ‘We have to find the courage to move to peace.’ He didn’t say, ‘you have to make me do it,’ or ‘I’m going to follow what you say,’ which is what President Obama literally said in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to pick on him, but we’re not going to get peace in the Middle East until he leads. That’s the difference here. It was the decision to lead, but it was also of course this incredible deep realization that there were two people who had stared into the darkness like no one else in human history. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev felt that bond as deeply as you can with another human being. They knew that each was threatened by dark forces around them. They were beseiged by their hard-liners. In this sense that [Douglass] book is right — that Kennedy had to overcome a profound sense of pessimism and recklessness in order to get this done. If you had just gone with the military, they’d have destroyed the planet ten times over, no question about it.

Jeffrey Sachs in conversation with Chris Lydon at the JFK Library, June 2013.