Show • December 17, 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 that will make you lean in here. He’s made a brilliant … Read More

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 inTraveling 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. InTraveling 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.


Show • 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. His talk at the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College was 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.

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


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.

Show • October 5, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two

Author JamesDouglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, 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.

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?

Show • October 2, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable. Part One.

James Douglas’s 50-year take on the death of JFK is a conspiracy theory with a scholar’s footnotes and a theological subtext. And a robust Oliver Stone endorsement. I can’t get it out of my head.

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?