Intro from Jay Allison: Many of us were not yet conceived when Norman Corwin's words reverberated through the air, carrying the weight of their time, and hope for the future. But they have echoed down to us. We who choose to work in radio are certain to encounter them along our way, and when we do, our very sentences may be altered, as perhaps this one has been. His spoken poetry of wartime echoes especially loudly now, in the autumn of 2001. "Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend." From Norman Corwin's Prayer from "On a Note of Triumph," 1945 Studs Terkel, who was our guest on Transom, said of Corwin: "The great moment of radio writing came with Norman Corwin, in the late '30s, the '40s, and the early '50s. Norman Corwin elevated the word. He did scores of programs, one better than the other. But he wrote for the ear. And he was the master of it; I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Corwin as the Bard of Radio. He had a tremendous influence on my own work. The way he used words, the way they sounded." Carol Wasserman, one of our Transom Editors, on hearing that Corwin had agreed to visit us and take our questions, said: "I am still trying to recover from the dizzying idea of hosting Norman Corwin. Could there be a more historic convergence? He is virtually unknown, now, outside of the small circle of true believers, but this old warrior will be restored to legendary status once he is gone. And beyond the reach of all the young producers and writers who need to know what he did and how he performed such consistent miracles."
Read & Listen to “The Prayer”
Norman Corwin on War, Poetry, and Radio
I believe in promise, just promise. Once we give up the sense of promise, we’re finished. I think that the future beckons us, that there’s a lot of work to be done. Right now, there’s cleaning up to do. The business of purging this world of the menace of sneaky cowardly, vicious, savage terror. I’m talking about anthrax and all of the goodies that appeal to the terrorist. But any species that can weigh the very earth he’s standing on, that can receive and analyze light coming from a galaxy a billion light years distant from us, any species that can produce a Beethoven and a Mozart and a Shakespeare, and the extraordinary accomplishments of our species, scientifically and in medicine and in the humanities, there’s illimitable opportunity for promises to be delivered and met.
My kind of radio is that which takes into account the intelligence of my audience. I do not believe in talking down. I also brought to the microphone my concerns; my feeling about society; my feeling about war and peace; my feeling about man as a species that is developing and for which we cherish hopes, frequently dashed, as they are at the moment. Certainly long delayed. We’re speaking not too long after the terrible event of September 11, 2001.
A Good Occasion
Through your career you could say that war has been a steady beat. You’ve seen so many big and small. Has war been a good occasion for radio, in the sense that it’s made radio grow?
A good occasion for radio is a good way of putting it. I think it has been a great occasion for radio. I really believe that had the great poets of yore been around today, or men of their caliber, they would opt for radio because radio is a medium that sets up the listener as a collaborator. Whereas television, which is by far the richer and more potent medium today, is very literal. Radio demands, requires the collaboration, just as a good book does: the collaboration being between the writer and the reader. Here it is between the writer and the listener.
Of all of the forms that you’ve worked with, is there any one in particular that you feel has been perhaps the greatest glory for radio during your career?
Yes, I think those forms which were rhetorical. In which there was an admixture of the colloquial with heightened language. By heightened I don’t mean purple. I mean language which is completely understandable, because I certainly do not believe in obscurantism; language which is easily communicated and understood, but which has a care. And it deals with metaphor; it deals with poetic substances. One must be necessarily vague in describing one’s approach to writing. I don’t have that keen a memory for my own work, but I can give you a line or two, here and there. There was, in the coda of “On a Note of Triumph,” a program I wrote for the day of victory in Europe, in World War Two [a line that was a] sort of a prayer, not a formal prayer, not a down-on-your-knees prayer, that closed the piece. One of the concluding lines was, “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit from postponing it pretend.” Now, that line had some feedback, in that the late Eric Severeid in writing his autobiography used not so wild a dream, with accreditation as the title of his autobiography. It’s had other compliments paid to it by usage in quotation. That is a line, packed with hope, with a wish, with a philosophy. Yet it’s not obscure I think, I don’t think it needs a translator.
[Editor's Note: See/hear "The Prayer" below]
I would like to disclaim the notion that I am at all times a serious and intense documentarian. I like to fool around, I like kidding, I like brash verse. In fact, the very first original program that I wrote for CBS was the, “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.” It was a piece that I wrote because that particular program fell on Christmas day. It’s the only long piece of mine from which I remember the opening lines, which won’t carry you very far, so don’t go away: “Did you hear about The Plot to Overthrow Christmas? Well, gather ye now from Maine to the Isthmus of Panama. And listen to the story of the utter inglorious and gory goings-on in Hell. Now it happened in Hades, ladies and gentlemen, it happened down there that the thieves held a meeting. The thieves held a meeting for the purpose of defeating Christmas.”
The Best Casting Agent
You, you are a scene setter. It seems to me that one of the secrets of radio, that you’ve mastered, and of storytelling, is that you give somebody something they are already imagining in their own mind, and inhabiting almost physically.
Well, I long ago convinced myself that the listener is the best casting agent, and casting director and wardrobe master in the world. He, on radio, dresses the set, he furnishes the face to the voice.
From Every Pore
And it’ll never be the wrong face to the wrong voice. It always seemed that this stuff just poured out of you. It seemed to be effortless in so many different styles, so many different levels of diction. Does this stuff just pour out of you?
It did pour out of me, but it wasn’t effortless. It poured out of me because I was sweating from every pore. I would very often be up all night. You see, I committed myself. I find it difficult to turn down an offer to be heard. Whether it’s on an anniversary, whether it’s on the ending of a war, whatever the subject. I am ham enough to enjoy communicating to people, to an audience — whether it be somebody sitting beside me, or listeners listening to this program. I was challenged in a way, not as a dare, but [in] an offer, to write, direct and produce twenty-six programs in twenty-six weeks. No program having anything to do with the program that preceded or would follow it (where sometimes you can rely on characters to carry you through on a continuing story). No, My pieces were as diverse as the occupations in the Yellow Pages.
I came along at CBS at a time when its vice-president in charge of programs, and William S. Paley himself, who was at the helm, were out to invite people that they considered promising, and they believed in encouraging them. Let me tell you a little anecdote about that that illustrates this. When I proposed a certain program using poetic materials to a man named Bill Lewis, who was then head of programs for CBS, he liked it. He gave me a little budget to prepare a sample program and liked what he heard, and said, “How would you like to come on, Sundays, right after the Fellow Art Concerts?” I thought that would be great. (I was a freshman out of Boston, which is a fine city, but it’s still provincial compared to New York.) He said, “Why don’t we call it Words Without Music.” I didn’t think that was a very good title; it was a limiting title. But it was at least accurate because there was no budget for music. I said, “Oh, that’s fine.” Then he came up with a suggestion that no agent, had I been represented by one, would have dared to propose to him. He said, “Why don’t we call this Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music? That’s a proprietary title and it was then unknown for any writer in radio. And here he was making that offer. That was, I later found out, because he believed in encouraging talent. He encouraged me by giving me an opportunity to put on the air, to write, direct, and produce whatever came into my head.
Tell Us, Tell Us, Tell Us
In the instance of the program that I cited earlier, “On a Note of Triumph,” the one that I wrote at the end of the war in Europe, they simply asked me if I would drop the series that I was then doing to prepare for what then seemed the imminent end of that war in Europe, the defeat of the Nazis. At no time did they say, “Well, tell us what your approach will be. Tell us whom you’ll cast. Tell us, what the budget will be. Let us see the first twenty minutes of it.” The first they heard of that program was when it was broadcast. Now what network, or even large independent station, would operate that way today? There would be a committee. There would be five or six officials, looking it over, and editors, and program managers, and the marketing managers to make sure there would be nothing that would lose any listeners.
The Dinosaur Lives
Some day I hope that there will be enough of an audience so that radio, as you and I know it, can be revitalized, can return. It exists in small measure now. That kind of radio has retreated to the high ground, [in] work that is done by dramatists who are broadcast by NPR, by PRI. Public radio is the high ground. My last six programs, done with the help and inspiration of Mary Beth Kirchner, were broadcast nationally and they enjoyed the kind of freedom that I had in the days of Bill Paley and Bill Lewis. They had pretty good audiences. I was surprised by the number of people who spent money to acquire cassettes of some of those programs. So it is not as though we’re talking about an extinct form of broadcasting.
What we didn’t hear before was the extent to which talk radio has become a miasma. I’m thinking now of Limbaugh, of Howard Stern, of [the] self-appointed oracles who pontificate. I’m thinking of the newscasters who no longer are just newscasters but speak editorially. That we didn’t have, or when we had it, it was properly labeled. Edward R. Murrow properly labeled his programs; he wasn’t deceiving anybody. Today there’s a plethora of a kind of radio that is very inexpensive to produce, talking heads. We are not commemorating and celebrating the great events. Our own history is full of enough great events to have celebrations several times a year. By celebrations I mean program[s] with some kind of poetic potency.
I have to say that one of the programs that was very productive in my career – good for me, and also recognized as good for CBS, and good for radio – was on the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the American Bill of Rights. That happened in 1941. It was a program that had been suggested to the four networks by President Roosevelt. He said, “Why don’t you people get together, simultaneously broadcast a commemoration of that day?” The networks had never combined before. I was lucky enough to be invited to write, produce and direct it. It was accidental, an accident of the calendar. But what drama surrounded that, because the date of the anniversary was December 15, 1941. That followed, by only eight days, the attack on Pearl Harbor.
More Important Than Ever
The program wasn’t finished. I was on a train going from New York to Los Angeles, where a big cast, a stupendous cast of stars, of the order of Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles were already locked into the production. They had been invited and they accepted. When the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, I wasn’t sure whether the program would be canceled. During the train trip across the country, on the Sunday of Pearl Harbor, I learned that we were at war. When the train reached Kansas City, there was a forty-five minute stopover, which is routine then. I went to a telephone to try to contact my people in Washington, to ask if [the program] was still on. Of course, I couldn’t get through on the telephone; the lines were tied up. I sent a telegram. The next morning, when the train reached Albuquerque, I was paged. There was a telegram for me from Washington. They had asked the president, “Is this program… should we cancel it?” The president said, “No, that program is now more important than ever. Go ahead with it.”
I wonder if what we’re looking for, if what we can hope to have from radio at a time like this, is some of the poetry, and a reminder of some of the principle of being an American, that you were able to put into radio. How do we do it? If somebody using the language of radio nowadays were to come to you and say, “Norman, how do we do a memorable program that remains poetry and not rhetoric, that is about principle, but not ideology?” What would you advise them to do?
I’d advise them to come to me. It’s a good idea to begin with. And I would break the remaining unbroken arm to do a good job, to fill that. You know, Mary Beth, who is so close to my recent work, took note of something that I wrote at the request of Studs Terkel recently. He’s doing a book on hope. If it’s not an imposition, maybe the couple of minutes that it would take to speak this, might be partly answering, or wholly answering your question:
Hope may at times be deceitful. But if so, it’s the most agreeable form of deception. Even if it serves only as an emollient, hope does us a big favor. Ask anybody who suffers chronic pain whether anodyne is among the respectables of life.
There are many gradations and forms of hope, many missions assigned to it, all quoting a benefit of some kind. The invalid hopes for health, the beggar for wealth, the captive for freedom, the investor for dividends, the student for honors.
Hope has been called meager in medicine. Called the poor man’s bread. But its spore can be found in palaces, too, especially on heads that wear crowns uneasily.
Not every thinker trusts hope. Benjamin Franklin believes that anyone who lives on hope will die fasting. Lincoln called hope a pathological belief in the occurrence of the impossible. But we don’t have to buy those reservations. It’s sounder to go to poets for their slant. Hope almost always involves a reaching out. And to this point Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Then, a poet closer to our time, Carl Sandburg, went to the heart of it:
“… Hope is a heartspun word
The evening star, inviolable over the coal mines
The ten cent crocus bulb, blooming in a used car salesroom
The horseshoe over the door, the luckpiece in the pocket… ”
But hoping and wishing sometimes get confused. Hope is long-term, it can last a lifetime. Whereas wishes tend to be short order: blow out the candle and make a wish. I wish they’d turn down the noise in this joint. I’m driving on the 101, wish me luck.
In the context of a world in which a day in September has now been permanently stained and terror has joined the posse of the apocalyptic horsemen, pestilence, war, famine and death, hope becomes dearer than ever.
It’s risky to moan and wring hands over the threat of terror, because that means surrendering to the foulest and most insidious enemy of us all, demoralization.
Even if hope at times is a delusion, it sure as hell beats despair.
Stranger things have happened than that hope may be the seed and nursery of a tree, of a peace whose shade will one day spread wider than the shadow of war.
You could go off the road just being absorbed in the language and the poetry. Radio that makes you respond. Any advice to young people on how to make radio that makes their listeners respond?
Yes. I would urge them to become involved. Not simply to be listeners to radio, but contributors to it.
Need we say more? Well, yes...
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Roots, Dignity, Respect
More and more the stories that we do hear on public radio are not of people who are bigger than life, but of average people who are having the kinds of experiences we all can understand and connect with. That’s not on a very grand scale in terms of the language or the appeal, but is that important radio to be making? Because I think a lot of people listening to and reading this are going to think that’s the kind of radio that maybe they can produce.
Good suss to them. I think it important to feel inspired to even attempt something of that order. I think it’s what I tried to express earlier. We should not neglect our roots. Among the things not to be neglected are the expressions that have been forthright and persistent in American history, expressions in which the common person is recognized; Walt Whitman’s sense of the importance of the individual. He’s got a poem in “Leaves of Grass,” the sense of which is: the president is there in the White House for you, not you here for him. It’s a poem that expresses the value and the almost sacred obligation to recognize, to give dignity to the individual. After all, nature does. Nature respects us. There are billions of people on this globe. Think of it. No two of them have the same thumbprint.
There was one e-mail about your upcoming appearance there that really touched me. I won’t identify the writer, but she wrote, “He is virtually unknown, now, outside of the small circle of true believers, but this old warrior will be restored to legendary status once he is gone. And beyond the reach of all the young producers and writers who need to know what he did and how he performed such consistent miracles.” So I’m wondering if you have a short answer for this person?
Yes, my short answer is: what is she doing for dinner tonight?
Lord God of trajectory and blast
Whose terrible sword has laid open the serpent
So it withers in the sun for the just to see,
Sheathe now the swift avenging blade with the names
of nations writ on it,
And assist in the preparation of the ploughshare.
Lord God of fresh bread and tranquil mornings,
Who walks in the circuit of heaven among the worthy,
Deliver notice to the fallen young men
That tokens of orange juice and a whole egg appear
now before the hungry children;
That night again falls cooling on the earth as quietly
as when it leaves your hand;
That Freedom has withstood the tyrant
like a Malta in a hostile sea,
And that the soul of man is surely a Sevastopol
which goes down hard and leaps from ruin quickly.
Lord God of the topcoat and the living wage
Who has furred the fox against the time of winter
And stored provender of bees in summer’s brightest
Do bring sweet influences to bear upon the assembly
Accept the smoke of the milltown among the accredited
clouds of the sky:
Fend from the wind with a house and hedge, him
whom you made in your image,
And permit him to pick of the tree and the flock
That he may eat today without fear of tomorrow
And clothe himself with dignity in December.
Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till
their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors
and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer
for his father’s color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as
those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little
peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will
come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.