DATE May 17, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Daniel Okrent talks about being the first
ombudsman of The New York Times
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Daniel Okrent was the first ombudsman of The New York Times. As the
ombudsman it was his job to represent readers of the newspaper who complained
that certain articles in the paper were unfair or inaccurate and to represent
people who were written about and thought they weren't given a far shake. In
his column every other week, Okrent discussed readers' concerns, gave his own
opinions and included the responses of the editors and reporters in question.
The ombudsman position was created by Bill Keller on his first day as
executive editor. Keller replaced Howell Raines who had been forced out after
the Jayson Blair scandal. Okrent agreed to hold the ombudsman position for 18
months, beginning in December 2003. His columns, reconsiderations and a few
retractions are collected in his new book, "Public Editor #1."
The New York Times a while ago was referred to as "the gray lady," but now
it's kind of ground zero of the cultural wars when it comes to the press.
There are Web sites devoted to attacking The New York Times for his perceived
Why do you think The New York Times has been at the center of the cultural
Mr. DANIEL OKRENT: Well, I think that by common consent it's the most
important news medium in the English-speaking world, certainly the most
important one in the US. It's the one that sets the agenda really for all of
the news organizations. If something appears on the front page of The New
York Times, you are likely to see it on the front page of many other
newspapers. You're likely to see it leading the evening news on television
and radio as well. The Times has had this position for many, many years, and
as the journalism business gets more fractured, I think that its dominance is
even greater than it was in the past.
GROSS: So what were the hot button issues for the Web sites, if you wrote
about this issue, you knew that the conservative Web sites that hate the Times
would be buzzing about it?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, I--first, before going into the conservative Web sites, I
want to say that the same thing happened with liberal Web sites, perhaps not
quite as often but with equal passion and at times vituperation. Everybody
wants something from the Times. I think the conservatives want something
different from what liberals wanted, but everyone is watching all the time.
The guaranteed hot button issue was anything having to do with the
Israel-Palestinian conflict. There was not a word that appeared in the Times
in my 18 months there, nor I'm sure in the years since, about the
Israel-Palestinian conflict that wasn't poured over, combed over, chewed,
swallowed, and then cause for response from anyone who cared about the issue.
People care very deeply about that issue. Secondarily, I like to say that if
you're thinking of becoming the public editor of The New York Times, don't do
it during a presidential election campaign.
GROSS: Thanks for the advice.
Mr. OKRENT: There wasn't a word about Kerry or about Bush that didn't
undergo the same kind of full-body physical, and that was on a daily basis, so
that if a picture ran on the front page on one day showing a smiling, jubilant
Bush looking confident standing in front of a cheering crowd, then I would
hear from Kerry voters, Kerry supporters, who said that the Times was clearly
trying to do Bush's campaign work for them. Now they didn't notice, or they
weren't bothered by the fact, that a similar picture of Kerry had appeared on
the front page the day before.
GROSS: Now, one of your most controversial pieces was headlined "Is the New
York Times a liberal newspaper?" Tell us what your answer to that question
Mr. OKRENT: Well, the first sentence of the piece was, `Of course, it is.'
And if you ask me now whether it was a wise thing to write, I'd say, `Of
course, it wasn't.' Not the position, I still believe that the Times then and
the Times today is a reflection of the experience and world view of the people
who work there and that on the social issues, and I stress the social
issues--abortion, gay marriage, gun control--I do believe that a generally
liberal attitude does get conveyed through the paper. Things are accepted as
normative. That doesn't mean that the paper however was politically liberal.
I think that there is a difference, and the mistake that I made with that
headline and the first line of the piece is that it made it very easy for
critics of the paper on the right to excerpt those, not indicate the context,
and use them for their own purposes. That's my own fault. Like everybody
else who writes for a living, I want people to read what I write, and I think
I went a little bit too much for the crowd's applause on that one.
GROSS: You point out that a believer in creationism, their views would not be
corroborated in Science Times, which is the weekly science supplement of The
New York Times. So, is...
Mr. OKRENT: I don't think that's a bad--I'm not suggesting that it should
Mr. OKRENT: That sentence was simply an indication of how somebody who might
believe in creation theory would come to the New York Times. I'm not
suggesting that the Times should change anything that it does about evolution
because it believes, I believe, and I think it's factually proven that
evolution is the way that we got to be who we are. What you are required to
do is wonder, think about and try to at least empathize with those who have a
different view. How do they come to this view? Why do they believe this
view? Do we need to represent that it is a fact, their view? No. Do we need
to explain why they feel this way? I think we do.
GROSS: When you use the word `liberal' and talk about creationism and
evolution, is science now liberal?
Mr. OKRENT: No.
GROSS: Is the scientific point of view not considered liberal?
Mr. OKRENT: No. I think, if I were your ombudsman right now, I would say
that you're unfairly conflating some of the things that appear in the same
column. No, science is not liberal. I believe science is fact, and I believe
that creationism is nonsense. And I don't think that one has to pay
particular attention to nonsense. You have to pay attention to why people may
believe nonsense, however.
GROSS: OK. Now, say the questions that I just asked you that you thought
were going too far and conflating two things, say that was happening within
The New York Times and you wanted to criticize me for it. Would you be
sending me an e-mail? What would you be doing to let me know that you thought
I wasn't really doing a very good job there?
Mr. OKRENT: Generally, I would begin with an e-mail, and I would ask you or
perhaps your editor, I would point out what the problem was with what you had
said, with what you had written and get your side of the story, and then I
would be persuaded or not persuaded by your side of the story and then come to
a conclusion the best that I could.
GROSS: Now if you had written me that e-mail and then was awaiting my
response, my first reaction would be like, `Oh, no, on top of all the
deadlines, on top of all the work I have to do, now I have to write a response
to the ombudsman.'
Mr. OKRENT: Sounds like you've been working for The New York Times. You've
learned the routine.
GROSS: Is that the kind of reaction you got all the time--oh, that's all I
need is like more work.
Mr. OKRENT: That was one of the reactions. And I also got the reaction,
`Oh, this gives me the opportunity to explain myself to my critics.'
Mr. OKRENT: And I got the reaction, `Who the hell are you and why don't you
shut up and get out of my life? You know nothing about newspapering.'
Mr. OKRENT: There are 1200 journalists at The New York Times, and I think
they had 1200 different ways of dealing with me.
GROSS: Now you--it was during your tenure as ombudsman that Judith Miller was
subpoenaed for refusing to name her source in the disclosure of Valerie
Plame's identity, and she was subpoenaed even though she never actually wrote
a story about that. She refused to disclose her source. She spent 85 days in
prison and then her lawyers worked out a deal with her source, and she ended
up testifying, giving limited testimony. You first wrote in your ombudsman
column, `I believe that she is right to resist the subpoena. Her apparent
willingness to go to jail to protect her sources is admirable and the Times is
right to defend her unflinchingly.' You later wrote, `Miller was not right to
resist the prosecutor's subpoena to the extent that she did, and the Times
unflinching defense could have benefited from a flinch or two.' What happened
to change your mind?
Mr. OKRENT: Events unrolled, and this is one of the nice things about being
able to do a book. And I get to take back my mistakes and my misstatements.
I didn't know the full story, and none of us knew the full story until the
fall of 2005, when Miller went to jail and then came out of jail. I had not
realized how little her editors knew about what she had done, and I was not
aware at the time of the kind of alternative legal defense that might have
GROSS: So, in retrospect now, what do you think the Times should have done
when she refused to disclose her source?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, first, her editors should have known who her source was.
Her editors should have known ever detail about the conversation she had had
with the source. They apparently did not, relying instead on the lawyers.
This is what seems to be the case. That was, I think, an abnegation of the
editor's responsibility. Beyond that, in terms of a legal strategy, you know,
I really feel that when you use the First Amendment to protect yourself--the
First Amendment is a wonderful thing--it does mean--it usually means--it often
means that you've run out of other arguments. I would have preferred and I
think now the Times would have preferred to follow the policy that The
Washington Post pursued when its reporters Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus
were similarly subpoenaed. Instead of bringing in a First Amendment lawyer
with a First Amendment defense, they brought in criminal lawyers, and they
were able to work out an arrangement that was satisfactory. Knowing what I do
about those two reporters, Kessler and Pincus, I'm sure it's a deal that was
one that protected sources. They wouldn't do it any other way.
GROSS: Now, you criticize the editors at the Times for not knowing who her
sources were and therefore for not being able to make the best decision about
how to handle the subpoena. There are new rules in effect I believe now at
the Times for what editors need to know when an anonymous source is quoted.
What are those rules now?
Mr. OKRENT: Any responsible editor must know the name of the anonymous
source for anything that's printed. If it isn't the editor who directly
supervises the reporter involved, it moves up the chain until finally it gets
to the executive editor, Bill Keller, and he needs to know. Now even he has
the privilege of saying, `I'm going to give you a waiver on this one.' He told
me through my 18 months there that he had never used that one. And, in fact,
I think they've been much more careful about anonymous quotes because when a
reporter is compelled to tell an editor who the source is, that will require
the reporter to be much more careful and much more sparing in the use of such
sources. So I think it's a very positive development.
GROSS: The policy at the Times now is to explain why a source was given
anonymity. What are some of the typical explanations that we read now in the
Mr. OKRENT: Well, you know, I think they still have a way to go on that.
The best ones will say something like, `According to a congressional official
who is opposed to the president's policy,' `According to an administration
staff member who differs with the president's position on the issue' or such.
What I would like to see it say, `According to a congressional staff member
who couldn't be identified because his boss insists that only his boss' name
get into print' or `According to an administration staff member who wouldn't
be identified because the administration would fire him if we were identified'
and so on. I think that more candor could come into this, but they're moving
in the right direction.
GROSS: What do you think about...
Mr. OKRENT: My favorite one is `and she was--the source was granted
anonymity because she didn't want her name in the newspaper.'
GROSS: There was actually an anonymous source, an explanation very similar to
what you just described, in a piece about clashes between the CIA and the
Pentagon. It said, `Senate aides who were granted anonymity because the
discussions were confidential.' What do you think of that as an explanation
Mr. OKRENT: I think it stinks. It's a shame. You know, I know the reporter
who wrote that piece. I think he's one of their finest reporters and a very,
very ethical guy, and he slipped up and the desk slipped up and the top editor
slipped up and the newsdesk slipped up that day. That's no explanation at
all. That's the equivalent of saying, `He was granted anonymity because he
didn't want his name in the newspaper.'
GROSS: I was wondering if, like, he wrote it that way because he worked out a
deal with the Senate aides that they are--their reason for remaining anonymous
had to be very neutral in order for them to grant the confidentiality in the
Mr. OKRENT: Well, it's a bad deal. I also don't know what the quote
was--what it was that they were saying, which...(unintelligible).
GROSS: Oh, you mean like how important it was, right?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, yeah. I think that there are two rules that I think that
any journalist should apply to the use of anonymous sources. First, is there
no other way of knowing this information and is this information essential?
If it's not, don't use an anonymous source.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Okrent, the former ombudsman at The New York Times.
His new book is called "Public Editor #1." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Okrent. He was the New
York Times' first ombudsman, and now he has a new book of his collected
columns called "Public Editor #1."
One of the things that you took on was The New York Times coverage of weapons
of mass destruction, and you wrote, `To anyone who read the paper between
September 2002 and June 03, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed or
was acquiring a frightening arsenal of WMD seemed unmistakable.' Judith Miller
is the reporter who's been most criticized for the coverage in the Times that
reported that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What
specifically would you argue that she did wrong in her reporting.
Mr. OKRENT: I think Miller's greatest error was becoming captive to her
sources, primarily, or largely, Ahmed Chalabi, but there were various others,
and that's this huge, huge journalistic crime, when you put things in the
newspaper, not because you have fully vetted them and made certain they're
true by checking against information from other people who may not have the
same self-interest. When you go with somebody who says something because he
has his own position to advance and present it without question, then you are
not only captive to your sources but you have imprisoned your readers as well.
GROSS: You write about objectivity, and you point out papers have more
analysis now. And you say, `Some of the very best journalists in the country
keep what they know off the page because they've been tied up by an imprecise
definition of objectivity.' How would you define objectivity and what are some
of those imprecise definitions that you're referring to?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, the idea of objectivity in journalism dates back to the
first couple of decades of the 20th century. And what it really meant is put
forward by people, like Charles Mertz who was an editor at the Times and
Walter Lippmann and a few others, was scientific method that you go about your
reporting by following certain procedures that are reproducible so that if
someone else did the same thing, they would find out the same. That's
objective as it was first construed. What it then came to mean is fairness,
and I think fairness and balance--fairness is an absolute requirement in all
journalism. Balance, however, gets to be misinterpreted. That gets back to
what we were discussing before, that if you give the case for evolution, are
you therefore required to give the case against evolution, no. Because
sometimes in the pursuit of balance, you get imbalance, because sometimes
somethings are absolutely true, and that doesn't require balance.
GROSS: Let me give our listeners an example of a balancing statement that you
didn't think worked. And this was in an article that was headlined "Critics
see Reagan legacy tainted by AIDS, civil rights and union policies," and this
was an article that pointed out the criticisms that were made of Reagan's, you
know, acknowledgement in spending on AIDS, and it included this statement:
"Gary Bower, Reagan's domestic policy adviser for the last two years of his
administration, countered that spending on AIDS research rose under Mr.
Reagan." Now, what's wrong with this as a balancing statement?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, there was no spending on AIDS research before Mr. Reagan
because there was no AIDS before Mr. Reagan, so it sounds like, `Oh, well,
maybe Reagan wasn't so bad on this issue' or `Reagan was good on this issue,'
when in fact, it is absolutely irrelevant to it, and the reporters who
included that in the piece, two of the finest reporters in
Washington...(unintelligible)...they knew afterwards, you know, when I pointed
this out, `Oh, God...(unintelligible)...we shouldn't have run that comment' or
`If we ran that comment, we should have had a comment upon the comment.' But
you're on deadline, the man has just died, you're trying to put together the
story that may show another side of things, and the paper failed. The
reporters failed, the first level of editors, the second level of editors, the
third set of editors, someone along the way should have seen that this is
false balance. This is actually what Bower said, either conscious deception
or sheer nonsense.
GROSS: Now is this something you noticed yourself or did a reader point this
out to you?
Mr. OKRENT: I believe that that was actually pointed out to me by another
reporter at the Times as I recall.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, I'm certainly not going to tell you who he was.
GROSS: No, but I mean, that's a kind of awkward thing. I'm sure, like,
reporters who wanted to call attention to a mistake like that didn't really
want to like hurt the reporter who they're criticizing, and they probably
didn't want to mention that it was them who called attention to it either.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, you know, there's both the good and bad of that. The bad
is that, yeah, sometimes they might have wanted to hurt a reporter. It's a
very competitive place. On the other hand, a lot of the people who came to me
from the staff, pointing out things that could have been better in the
newspaper or things that were done a bit wrong in the newspaper, care
desperately about the newspaper's quality. I think that that was the primary
motivator. When we do things wrong, maybe you can help us catch the mistakes,
catch the missteps and make certain that we do it better in the future. When
one reporter at a newspaper makes a mistake, and it becomes publicly known,
that hurts every reporter at the newspaper. You know, the weapon that people
came after me with, from the day I got on that job, or came after the Times,
was `You're the paper who gave us Jayson Blair.' And what Jayson Blair did
soiled the reputation of every one of the other 1200 journalists who worked
GROSS: Which leads to the question of morale. I don't know if that's
anything you had to address in any way at the paper, but surely you probably
observed morale while you were there, and you know, you were there--it was
after the Jayson Blair scandal. Howell Raines resigned. There were a lot of
really angry reporters who felt that Howell Raines had made things too
competitive at the paper and that he--I think, for various reasons, many of
which I probably don't know--that a lot of reporters didn't like the way
Howell Raines managed the paper. And then there was the Times coverage of
weapons of mass destruction. We later learned that those WMDs didn't--weren't
in Iraq. There was the way the Times handled the subpoena of Judith Miller.
There were many things that were challenged inside and outside the paper. So
what were some of your observations about morale at the paper, if you feel
that that's something that you could talk about.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, sure. First, I think morale at the Times historically is
never terribly high. It's a very competitive place. It's filled with very,
very smart people, very high accomplishment people who find themselves in a
ferocious competition to get onto page one. There are always editors to
complain about. There's always ownership to complain about. The stock market
to complain about. So there are all sorts of reasons to be unhappy, even when
things are going great. Then when you add to it Jayson Blair, Howell Raines,
Judy Miller and a variety of things related to those three names, yeah, morale
can really take a beating.
And I think that it's worth noting that when I wrote about weapons of mass
destruction, I first had not intended to, because that reporting took place
before I started on the job. I then decided that what was not in the
newspaper, which is to say, an explanation of the bad reporting that the paper
had done, was part of my job. And one of the ways I reached that position was
that many, many, many staff members encouraged me to write about it. Many
people who worked at that paper were ashamed, embarrassed, chagrinned over its
huge failures during the walk-up to the beginning of the Iraq war. And they
wanted these mistakes aired. And I thought that that was part of my job. So
that, do I think that my presence or my successor's presence as public
editor--as they called the ombudsman at the Times because the Times is more
pretentious than other papers, it has to have its own name for it--do I think
that people in that position improve morale? Not necessarily, but you can go
a long way to helping morale go forward if you do things that put the paper on
the right track or on the track that the staff as a whole would like to see it
GROSS: Well, Daniel Okrent, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. OKRENT: It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Daniel Okrent was the first ombudsman at The New York Times. His
columns and reconsiderations are collected in his new book, "Public Editor
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: A new CD box set collects recordings of some of the greatest poets of
the 20th century reading their own work. Coming up, former US poet laureate
Billy Collins chooses some of his favorite tracks and talks about the poems.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Billy Collins, currently New York state poet laureate,
talks about poems he's chosen from CD box set called "Poetry on
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Tennyson, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and
Charles Bukowski are some of the poets included in a new CD box set called
"Poetry on Record." It features 98 poets reading their own work on recordings
made between 1888 and 2006.
We asked one of our favorite living poets, Billy Collins, to choose some of
his favorite selections from the box and talk with us about the poems.
Collins served as the US poet laureate from 2001 to 2003 and is the current
New York state poet laureate. His latest collection of poems is called "The
Trouble with Poetry."
Billy Collins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, we asked you to choose some
poems to play from this new poetry box set. And I'm glad that you decided to
start with William Butler Yeats reading his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"
because he starts with a really interesting introduction in which he talks
among other things about his style of reading poetry. What made his style of
reading so unique?
Mr. BILLY COLLINS: It's very--his introduction, which we'll hear, I imagine
is very revealing because he insists that he spent a lot of time writing to a
certain rhythm. And probably just spent a lot of time writing the poem period
and that he's not going to sacrifice any of that rhythm in the reading. And
it's interesting to see that he's 72 years old when he reads this poem out
loud, and he wrote it when he was 23. So it's almost 50 years intervene
between the composition and recording of the poem. And he reads in a style
that's sort of a high chant. It's like the bardic singing. It's not writing
anymore. It's almost like a Gregorian type of chanting.
GROSS: Did he always read that way, do you know?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, I've heard other poems by him, and he always reads in
this very held vowel chanting, Celtic style. And that really, not just began
modern recordings of poetry, but sort of set the bar and the tone for other
poets. The poems by Pound, by Ezra Pound, that are on these CDs, it actually
sounds like Pound is at a party doing an impression of Yeats. As many of them
followed that kind of high declamatory style.
GROSS: The poem we're going to hear Yeats read is "The Lake Isle of
Innisfree." What do you like about this poem?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, it's a perfectly organized poem. He--it's a desire for
this kind of magic island where he can retreat to and live alone in the
bee-loud glade. And the first stanza talks about the practical things he
needs like bean rows, and he's going to have a garden and he's going to build
a cabin. And then later stanzas talk about the spiritual, the less tangible
resources that he'll have on this island. And it has just a beautiful ending.
It's like a perfectly formed poem.
GROSS: OK. Well, here's Yeats reading "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" in 1937,
two years before his death.
(Soundbite of poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree")
Mr. WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS: I'm going to read my poem with great emphasis upon
the rhythm. And that may seem strange if you are not used to it. I will not
read them as if they were cold. I am going to begin with a poem of mine
called "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" because if you know anything about me, you
will expect me to begin with it. It is the only poem of mine which is very
When I was a young lad in the town of Sligo, I went
coddle...(unintelligible)...and wanted to live in a hut on an island in lac de
luc called Innisfree which means heathered island. I wrote the poem in London
when I was about 23. One day in the strand, I heard a little tinkle of water
and saw in a shop window a little jet of water balancing a ball on top. It
was an advertisement I think of cooling drink. But it set me thinking of
Sligo and deep water.
(Reading) "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree and a small cabin
build there, of clay and wattles made. Nine bean rows will I have there, a
hive for the honey bee and live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping
from the veils of the morning to where the crickets sing. There midnight's
all a glimmer and noon a purple glow and evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping
with low sounds by the shore. While I stand on the roadway or on the
pavements gray, I hear it in the deep heart's core."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: OK. That was William Butler Yeats reading and introducing his poem
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree." He reads, it's like an incantation.
Mr. COLLINS: It is.
GROSS: It's almost eerie sounding.
Mr. COLLINS: It's a little scary. I mean, especially the introduction you
feel like, you know, the audience might be cowering. And his refusal to read
it any other way.
GROSS: Exactly. Exactly.
Mr. COLLINS: And when he's reading, even when he's reading the poem, he
sounds like he's saying `If you don't come in here I'm going to tan your
hide.' You know, it sounds like a kind of threatening voice. But he's, you
know, he's rolling his Rs. And he's got the--he holds every consonant and
vowel count, you know, in that kind of declamatory style. Dylan Thomas does
it. Ginsberg does it to a certain degree. It is this sort of emphasis on
every unit in the poem gets some stress. It sounds like he really--he means
what he is saying.
GROSS: Yeah. I'm glad you said all this because listening to him I felt
like, `Oh, if he knew that I hadn't read that much of him, he would be really
angry with me,' you know. And I feel like not a good student listening to
Mr. COLLINS: He does sound like a stern school master. And it's interesting
that he's lived long enough to know that that's his signature poem. That if
you'd know any of his poems, you're going to know that one. And it's also
interesting that in the introduction tells us that high sounding, very moving
poetry can have very low origins. I mean, he heard an advertisement for a
fizzy drink, I think, and that got him thinking about water and that got him
thinking about the lake isle. It would be like Robert Frost saying that he
wrote `Stopping by woods on a snowy evening' after seeing a Pepsi commercial.
You know, it just--you don't know where the source of some of these poems are.
GROSS: My guest is former US poet laureate Billy Collins. We're listening to
and talking about selections from the new CD box set "Poetry on Record."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Collins. He's the former
US poet laureate, the current New York state poet laureate. And we've asked
him to choose some poems from the new CD box set called "Poetry on Record: 98
Poets Read Their Work." And the next poet that we're going to hear from is
William Carlos Williams.
And, Billy, what I think you have to say about this poem is going to take a
lot longer than the poem itself. It's a really short poem.
Mr. COLLINS: It's got--yeah, don't blink. It'll be over in a second.
GROSS: Tell us about this poem and its importance.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, it's thought of as a kind of poem that's the best example
of American images and where the poet simply presents an image of an object or
a collage of objects. It's almost like handing you a snapshot and not saying
anything about it and just giving you the picture. And that's why it's a
little bewildering because it is so short, and there's no editorializing or
there's no person in it really.
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is William Carlos Williams reading "The Red
(Soundbite of poem "The Red Wheelbarrow")
Mr. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS: "The Red Wheelbarrow."
(Reading) "So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater
beside the white chicken."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's it. That's the poem. I think we should hear it one more time.
Mr. COLLINS: OK.
(Soundbite of poem "The Red Wheelbarrow")
Mr. WILLIAMS: "The Red Wheelbarrow."
(Reading) "So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater
beside the white chicken."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Billy, do you think that that's typical in any way of Williams' poems?
Mr. COLLINS: Some of them. Some of them are longer and a little more, you
know, lyrical. But he does have a set of these strictly photographic poems.
One thing that that poem brings up, and it's over so quickly, is that there
are, to listen to a poem, especially read by the poet, involves gaining
something and losing something. I mean, you gain the kind of personality and
the intimacy of the voice as a certain reality to that person, a vocal
reality, especially if the poem is literally spoken from the grave. So far
the poets we've read are all deceased. So there's that kind of intimacy and
liveliness that is brought back into the poem.
But one of the other things that's lost is you can't see the poem anymore.
And poems do have a shape, a definite contour and body on the page. A poem, I
would say, kind of floats in a pool of silence on the page, and all the white
space around it sort of indicates that silence. But stanza breaks and line
breaks are not audible, so we can't appreciate that whole physicality of the
poem. And that's a very important aspect because poets are really, in
addition to being singers, you might say they're also cabinet makers or
architects. They're building stanzas and lines, and giving the poem this
certain sculptural shape. So we do miss that.
GROSS: Well, let's move on to another poem from this box set that we've asked
you to choose from. And next we have Robert Hayden reading his poem "Those
Winter Sundays." Tell us who Robert Hayden was.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, Robert Hayden was an African-American poet. He was
consultant to the Library of Congress or poet laureate as we call it these
days. He was not terribly popular with the African-American community, you
might say, in that he didn't tend to write about subjects that were racial.
You really can't tell from any of his poems what his race is. He was a
practitioner of the Bahai religion. And that the kind of serenity, not that I
know that much about it, but the kind of contemplative serenity that that
religion seems to give off was very much at odds with the more kind of vocal
people who were speaking out on racial issues.
GROSS: Well, this poem has that beautiful line about `what did I know of
loves austere and lonely offices.' Would you talk about this poem a little
Mr. COLLINS: Well, that's the--well, it's an example, maybe the most
important word in the poem is "too." He starts off by saying "Sundays, too, my
father got up early" which indicates that his father got up early every
morning, but also Sundays when they had to go to church. And that's why the
shoes are polished so they can go to church.
Offices is the poem's last word, and that's the word that kind of echoes in
our heads. And that's an amazing choice of words because he's talking about
parental love or the duties of a parent to take care and feed and clothe and
keep a child warm and fed. And how children are, by nature, not grateful
until later. That it's the rare child that sits down and says, `Thank you for
this wonderful dinner, Father, and for going to work all day and paying the
mortgage.' Children just don't say that. And so he realizes this too late.
It's also a poem in which is full of wonderful internal sound effects. And
the last thing to say perhaps is that it's a wonderful example of the
compression you find in poetry. A lot gets said in just a few lines.
GROSS: Well let's hear it. This is Robert Hayden reading his poem "Those
Winter Sundays" recorded in 1968.
(Soundbite of poem "Those Winter Sundays")
Mr. ROBERT HAYDEN: Here's is a poem that comes directly out of my boyhood in
Detroit. It's called "Those Winter Sundays."
(Reading) "Sundays, too, my father got up early and put his clothes on in the
blue black cold. Then with cracked hands that ached from laboring the weekday
weather, made bank fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering breaking. When the rooms were warm,
he'd call. And slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of
that house. Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and
polished my good shoes as well. What did I know? What did I know of loves
austere and lonely offices."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I think that's such a beautiful poem. I really love that.
Mr. COLLINS: It's a powerful--and that phrase of the chronic angers of the
house really has a chilling echo.
GROSS: That was Robert Hayden reading "Those Winter Sundays" recorded in
And my guest is the poet Billy Collins. We've asked him to choose some poems
to play and talk about from this new box set "Poetry on Record."
And, Billy, hearing that poem, I'm actually reminded of a poem that you have
in your new book, your latest book, "The Trouble with Poetry." There's a poem
in there about your mother and about how you--I guess it was in summer camp or
something. You make your mother this lanyard.
Mr. COLLINS: Right.
GROSS: And after all the things she's done for you, all the sacrifices she's
made for you, you're giving her this lanyard that you made, you know.
Mr. COLLINS: I hadn't thought of that connection.
GROSS: Yeah. You give it to her, and you think, `We're kind of even now.'
Mr. COLLINS: Yeah. She gives me, you know, clothing and food and love and a
good education, and here's the lanyard that I made. That pretty much makes us
GROSS: My guest is former US poet laureate Billy Collins. We'll talk more
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is former US poet laureate and current New York state poet
laureate, Billy Collins. We've asked him to choose his favorite selections
from a new CD box set called "Poetry on Record," featuring 98 poets reading
their own work recorded between 1888 and 2006.
Well, let's move on to another poem that you've chosen from this new box set.
This is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser called "The Ballad of Orange and Grape."
What do you like about this poem?
Mr. COLLINS: This has a--well, one reason I chose it is that I wanted
to--since we're talking about recorded poetry, Rukeyser has an accent as many
poets do, as, you know, many people do. She has a New York accent, and one
wonders if when one is reading poetry silently, does poetry have an accent?
It probably doesn't. It probably has either your accent as you read it
silently and you hear the poem kind of in the auditorium of your head or the
poem takes place beyond regional accents, and it just sounds like the voice
from nowhere. It's a little like when, you know, preachers would read
sections of the Bible and it makes it sound like God is from Alabama. You
know, you don't think of the Bible as having an accent. The other--I think an
accent kind of adds color in the reality of place, but it might kind of
distract slightly. I like this poem because it starts with something very
simple. It also has a kind of repetitious refrain that you'll see. And then
it broadens out gradually into, you know, the largest concepts imaginable.
And I like the way the poem grows outward.
GROSS: This is Muriel Rukeyser recorded in 1974, reading her poem "The Ballad
of Orange and Grape."
(Soundbite of poem "The Ballad of Orange and Grape")
Ms. MURIEL RUKEYSER: "The Ballad of Orange and Grape"
(Reading) "After you finish your work, after you do your day, after you've
read your reading, after you've written your say, you go down the street to
the hotdog stand, one block down and across the way, on a blistering afternoon
in East Harlem in the 20th century. Most of the windows are boarded up, The
rats run out of the sack, sticking out of the crummy garage, one shiny long
Cadillac. At the glass door of the drug addiction center, a man who'd like to
break your back. But here's a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose
and pink, too. Frankfurters, frankfurters sizzle on the steel, while the
hotdog man leans. Nothing else on the counter but the usual two machines, the
grape one empty and the orange one empty. I face him in-between. A black boy
comes along, looks at the hotdogs, goes on walking. I watch the man as he
stands and pours in the familiar shape. Bright purple in the one marked
orange. Orange in the one marked grape. The grape drink in the machine
marked orange. An orange drink in the grape. Does the one word large and
clear, unmistakable on each machine. I ask him, how can we go on reading and
make sense out of what we read? How can they write and believe what they're
writing? The young ones across the street. While you go on pouring grape
into orange and orange into the one marked grape. How are we going to believe
what we read and we write and we hear and we say and we do? He looks at the
two machines and he smiles and he shrugs and he smiles and pours again. It
could be violence and nonviolence. It could be white and black, women and
men. It could be war and peace or any binary system. Love and hate, enemy,
friend. Yes and no. Be and not be. What we do and what we don't do. On a
corner in East Harlem, garbage, breathing, a deep smile, rape, forgetfulness,
a hot streak of murder, misery, withered hope, a man who keeps pouring grape
into orange and orange into the one marked grape. Pouring orange into grape
and grape into orange forever."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Billy Collins, how did you first hear that poem by Muriel Rukeyser, or
Mr. COLLINS: I first heard it when I was poet laureate, and I was going
through recordings of poems that had been read at the Library of Congress, was
trying to choose some for their Web site. But I had read the poem before and
I was not disappointed by her reading. It is true that some poets are not as
equally gifted in the ability to convey their poems audibly or to vocalize
them. It's like singer-songwriter. Just because you can write a good song
doesn't mean you can sing it. I think all the poems we're listening to today
are conveyed well. But that poem for me is just--it's a real poet's poem
because it seems to imply that if you don't respect language, you know,
respect this basic like `here's orange and here's grape,' that then everything
else can go wrong. You know, that social problems perhaps arise from just not
paying attention to language. And I love the way the poem goes, a little like
Yeats going from an advertisement for sparkling water. She goes from this
little hotdog stand in to the distinctions between you and me, war and peace,
being and not being. And it's typical of the product movement of something
tiny into something grand in a fairly small space.
I think another thing just, Terry, to be added to our listening to poems is
that another thing that you lose when you hear a poem instead of seeing it on
the page, in addition to its shape, is that you can't see the ending coming
up. When you read a poem on a page, you see the ending ahead. And you can
make emotional preparations for it. But in reading, in listening to a poem,
the ending can take you by surprise. It can come on very suddenly which, you
know, could add to the poem, but also could almost be too abrupt.
GROSS: That's a really good point.
Mr. COLLINS: Some people don't like to go to poetry readings because they
can't see the ending coming, and they think that each poem is going to take
and hour and a half to read. So, at least having the book in your hand, at
least you know that you are into a finite experience.
GROSS: What does that say?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, it speaks to a lack of tolerance, I guess, for--I mean
some poet readings can be excruciating.
GROSS: Billy Collins is the former US poet laureate and current New York
state poet laureate. The poems we listened to are collected on the new CD box
set "Poetry on Record."
In part two of our conversation, which we'll feature sometime soon, we'll hear
more poems from the box. And Billy Collins will read a couple of poems from
his latest book, "The Trouble with Poetry."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We close with a poem by Lord Byron, set to music and sang by Leonard Cohen,
featured on his CD "Dear Heather." I just recorded an interview with Leonard
Cohen. We'll hear it on Monday.
(Soundbite of song from CD "Dear Heather" by Leonard Cohen)
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