Skip to main content

Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky

Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky reads a poem that he has turned to at this time.

08:49

Other segments from the episode on September 21, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 21, 2001: Interview with Liz Thompson; Interview with Robert Pinsky; Interview with Bruce Goldstein; Interview with Robert Haas; Review of the film "Together."

Transcript

DATE September 21, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Liz Thompson
discusses a memorial being held for an artist from her group who
was killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11th
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The World Trade Center may have symbolized business and finance, but it was
also the home of the arts group the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Their
offices in the partly collapsed Building Five were destroyed. They produced
free music and dance performances in the World Trade Center Plaza. The
Council also provided studio space in Tower One for 25 artists. One of those
artists, Michael Richards, died in the attack. His studio was on the 92nd
floor. The Council has organized a memorial for him, which will be held this
evening.

Earlier today, I called Liz Thompson, the executive director of the Lower
Manhattan Cultural Center. She told me why she liked being based at the World
Trade Center.

Ms. LIZ THOMPSON (Executive Director, Lower Manhattan Cultural Center): Well,
it was bizarre. I mean, for an artist's studio, the artists would go up to
these high floors and their clothes sometimes carrying the scent of their, you
know, paints or materials. And next to them would be somebody in a pin-striped
suit with a briefcase. There were just a lot of unusual juxtapositions. And
there was great beauty. There was great beauty looking out of those windows.
It was an extraordinary experience.

GROSS: And a lot of artists painted the view from the windows? Is that
right, 'cause I think a lot of them painted cityscapes?

Ms. THOMPSON: We had two programs going simultaneously. One program was
called Cityscapes, and that was an outgrowth of the original intention of the
program and that was to have artists use the views from the windows. And
there are many exquisite paintings and watercolors and drawings made.
Simultaneously, there was another program that we then called Worldviews which
dealt with the questions raised by artists being in the building, by the very
iconic nature of the building, by the shape of the architecture, how the
architecture shaped people's emotions and how people from various cultural
backgrounds related to this building.

GROSS: How many of the artists in your program were in their studios at the
time of the attack?

Ms. THOMPSON: There were two artists, one cityscape artist, Vanessa, who got
out alive, miraculously, and Michael Richards, who did not.

GROSS: And you're holding a memorial for him today.

Ms. THOMPSON: We are holding a memorial service for him tonight.

GROSS: Liz, where were you at the time of the attack?

Ms. THOMPSON: I had breakfast that morning with Jeffrey Wharton(ph), who is
the man who was running the Trade Centers for Silverstein Properties, the new
owners. And we were on Windows on the World.

GROSS: That's the restaurant on the very top.

Ms. THOMPSON: That's the restaurant on the very top. And we were talking
about the relationship of this program and would we have space in the
building? And he assured me that we would. We always used unused space.
They obviously couldn't give us space if somebody was willing to pay the prime
rate for it. And Jeff, thank God, I think is one of those people who works on
a fast watch because he said, `Liz, I don't want to hurry you, but I have an
appointment.' And I looked at his watch. I didn't have mine on. And it was
9:00.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. THOMPSON: So we went downstairs, and I guess from the timings I've heard
that he was running late on his watch. And we got off the elevator and we
were standing in the lobby talking about commissioning an artist to do some
text-based work for the holiday season, that it needed to be ecumenical and
inclusive and along the balcony of the mezzanine, which wrapped downstairs.
And about, I don't really know, a few minutes, a few sentences into our
conversation, we heard this sound, and it was a strange vacuous sound in the
lobby. I can't explain. It was like a change in the air. And we saw glass
falling outside and the people who were out by the windows running. So Jeff
headed for the basement, and I went down with him, and then I saw somebody
running towards me and smoke, and I turned my head. I saw an exit and I just
went out.

GROSS: Outside?

Ms. THOMPSON: Outside. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky.

GROSS: How far away were you when the buildings fell?

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, by that time I had, again miraculously, looked up on the
street and saw somebody I knew from years ago with his children. He had just
picked them up downtown, and he had a home nearby. And so he took me there.
And so I was in his home. We were watching television. So I got away very
quickly. I was extremely fortunate. Some members of my staff--two members of
my staff were in Building Five, the top floor. And the debris started hitting
that building. They got away. Someone else was across the street. He ran,
also in a daze. And then we had been doing a free performance series, Evening
Stars, down on the Plaza. And our trailer was next to Building One, right at
the base of it. And our stage crew was there at 8:00 in the morning preparing
for check rehearsal that night. They just had this showered upon them, and
also I think their getting away was very, very difficult, but they were all
right.

GROSS: What's next for you? What are you doing? Are you trying to keep the
organization together and keep the people together and relocate, or...

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, we're healing and working at a feverish pace at the same
time. I have an extraordinary staff. I have a staff of 15 people who come
from all different points of view, all different backgrounds,
Lebanese-American and Asian-American, Haitian-American, Irish-American. We
have a staff that consists of really diverse group of people. And we have
always gained strength from each other's differences. And the whole staff has
a passionate sense of commitment to serving the needs of people who are
working as cultural workers, as artists who are dedicated to seeing this world
in a light that enhances who we are as human beings. And they were dedicated
to that before, and they're even more dedicated to it now.

GROSS: You're having a memorial this evening for Michael Richards, the artist
from your group who was killed in the attack. Your group is about art and
performance. Are you having any performers or bringing any art to the
memorial?

Ms. THOMPSON: No, this is about Michael. This is about Michael. This is
about his work. He came from a wonderful, loving family, a kind and gentle
group of people that have given me support in this time. I don't think many
of his family members will be there. His father is still stricken with grief.
But this memorial this evening is for people to come and stand shoulder to
shoulder and remember Michael, to hear words about Michael. We will have a
few songs sung, a hymn. It's a time for people to stand together and lovingly
remember Michael.

GROSS: Well, Liz, I'm so sorry about the loss of Michael Richards. I'm
grateful that everyone else in your group pulled through, and I wish you the
best in the uncertain future. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. THOMPSON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Liz Thompson is the executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural
Council. Coming up, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky reads a couple of
poems he's turning to. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Former US Poet Laureat Robert Pinsky reads two poems he
gained comfort from after the September 11th terrorist attacks
TERRY GROSS, host:

In our continuing attempt to find the words to express the inexpressible, we
called Robert Pinsky, who was the United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to
2000. He originated the Favorite Poem Project and edited the book "America's
Favorite Poems." We called him at his home in Boston.

Mr. ROBERT PINSKY (Former United States Poet Laureate): This is a poem that
a friend sent me. It's Mark Strand's translation of a poem by the Brazilian
poet Carlos Drummond De Andrade, and it's a poem that catches the feeling that
normal life has been broached so that it's remote. It's like iniquity to have
a normal life with normal concerns. The poem is called "Souvenir of the
Ancient World."

`Clara(ph) strolled in the garden with the children. The sky was green over
the grass. The water was golden under the bridges. Other elements were blue
and rose and orange. A policeman smiled. Bicycles passed. A girl stepped on
to the lawn to catch a bird. The whole world, Germany, China, all was quiet
around Clara. The children looked at the sky. It was not forbidden. Mouth,
nose, eyes were open. There was no danger. But Clara feared with the flu,
the heat, the insects. Clara feared missing the 11:00 trolley, waiting for
letters slow to arrive, not always being able to wear a new dress. But she
strolled in the garden in the morning. They had gardens. They had mornings
in those days.'

GROSS: That's a great poem. Can you say more about where the poet is from?

Mr. PINSKY: De Andrade's a great national poet of Brazil. He's the only
poet I know of who has not just his picture on a bank note but a whole poem.
One of the common pieces of currency in Brazil has a whole poem by De Andrade
on it.

GROSS: Robert, to what extent have you been going about, you know, normal
life, and how much has what you've been doing just day to day really been
changed?

Mr. PINSKY: Well, I was on what I thought was a two-day trip to Los Angeles.
I went out on Sunday on United Flight 175, in fact. And I was supposed to
come back home to Boston on Tuesday. And I got up in the morning at around 5
to catch an early flight and turned on the television to get the weather in
Boston and I saw the image of the towers smoking. It was actually before the
second plane hit the second tower, which happened while I was watching
television. And then I had four days of, like many, many people in the
country who were traveling, suspended animation, waiting to get home,
separated from my family and seeing these images of horror unfolding. And I
was just--all the different degrees and kinds of disruption from the very
worst to being stuck someplace that you don't want to be, that was the context
of life for quite a while, and I feel in a way as if it still is.

GROSS: Well, the funny thing is you're about to fly again because you're in
the middle of a speaking and reading tour.

Mr. PINSKY: Yeah. I have obligations. I've said I'm going to show up
certain places. And after thinking about it a while, I thought I am going to
show up at them.

GROSS: So how do you feel about going back in the air again?

Mr. PINSKY: I guess I'm with those who say it's never been safer to be in an
airplane because everyone is so conscious of security. I came back to Boston
by way of Cleveland, got home Sunday night, and I was reassured to have a nail
file confiscated when they went through my briefcase at security. I thought
that was wonderful. So I'm aware that my family and friends would rather not
know anybody who was flying, but I know a lot of people who have business
reasons or personal reasons to fly. I'm not nervous about it.

GROSS: Robert, would you read another poem for us?

Mr. PINSKY: This is a very dark poem, and it's one of the mysteries of
poetry, I guess, maybe of art, that there's a kind of comfort in having
absolute loss and things that are completely dire articulated. This is Edwin
Arlington Robinson's poem, "The House on the Hill."

`The House on the Hill. They are all gone away. The house is shut and still.
There's nothing more to say. Through broken walls and gray, the winds flow
bleak and shrill. They are all gone away. Nor is there one today to speak
some good or ill. There is nothing more to say. Why is it then we stray
around that shrunken sill? They are all gone away. And our poor fancy play
for them is wasted skill. There is nothing more to say. There is ruin and
decay in the house on the hill. They are all gone away. There is nothing
more to say.'

GROSS: How did you first find that poem?

Mr. PINSKY: It's probably been known for many years. I remember my wife
once wrote a paper about it when she was in college, and my friend, a fiction
writer, Leslie Epstein, sent me and some other friends a group of things he
had read that seemed relevant to him. And that reminded me of this Robinson
poem, which is a very beautiful, though very bleak poem.

GROSS: Have you been feeling more like writing poetry or just reading it?

Mr. PINSKY: I have not felt like writing. I have written prose sort of to
myself. Like many of us, I was reassured by work. I wrote a book review
while I was stranded in my hotel in Los Angeles. I wrote a review of Alan
Dugan's wonderful new book of "New Incomplete Poems."

I would love to be the kind of person who responds immediately with eloquence
or penetration. I'm not. I tend to write about things after they've happened
by quite a long time, and I tend to sneak up on things rather than approach
them directly. So it would be deeply uncharacteristic for me to take the
emotions I'm feeling and articulate them. In some ways, I suppose I'm an easy
talker and glib. In other ways, I'm not comfortable with the first or second
or third thought about a thing. I'm not comfortable with the idea that poetry
is therapeutic. I think it's something--its comforts are more oblique and
complicated like that. You know, poetry is often a lot more like the moon
than like the sun. You know, it's kind of reflective and partial and deeply
idiosyncratic. You know, each persons is different. And I think poetry,
being a vocal art in each person's voice, emphasizes that. It's not like a
brass band, nothing against brass bands. I thought when the brass band at
Buckingham Palace, the Coldstream Guards, when they played "The Star Spangled
Banner," I was quite moved by it. But that and the immediacy of television
are different and have a different role than the role of poetry.

GROSS: Well, Robert Pinsky, I wish you the best, and good travels on your
reading tour. And I thank you very much for choosing some poems for us today.

Mr. PINSKY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Pinsky is our former poet laureate. His latest collection of
poems is called "Jersey Rain."

I want to play you a song that's been going through my mind. It's a song I
always considered corny and melodramatic, until the great singer/songwriter
and guitarist Richard Thompson performed it on FRESH AIR. Here it is.

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Singer/Songwriter, Guitarist): (Singing) When you walk
through a storm, hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark. At
the end of the road, there's a golden mile and the sweet silver song of the
lark.

Walk on, through the wind. Walk on, through the rain. Though your dreams be
tossed and blown, walk on. Walk on, with hope in your heart and you'll never
walk alone. You'll never walk alone.

GROSS: Richard Thompson recorded in our studio in 1994. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Film Forum repertory director Bruce Goldstein talks
about the New York movie industry and recommends old movies with
a New York City connection
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The weekend is coming, but it's not bringing the sense of relief and
relaxation that it did only a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, many people
are trying to slowly re-establish something resembling normal life and will be
going to the movies this weekend to at least briefly take their minds off the
catastrophe and our uncertain future.

Earlier today, I called Bruce Goldstein, the director of repertory programming
at the Film Forum, a movie theater in downtown Manhattan.

Bruce, I consider the Film Forum an important part of New York's--you know,
Manhattan's cultural life because you show repertory movies with respect for
the movies and the audience--nice theater, comfortable, interesting films.
How does it feel to be showing movies now?

Mr. BRUCE GOLDSTEIN (Film Forum): Well, I think it's a very important thing
we're doing, just showing--doing what we do and just showing movies. I think
people who live in New York really want to think about something else for at
least an hour or two, and I really--we started feeling that on Friday. We
closed our offices immediately on Tuesday and we were closed through Thursday.
It didn't seem right to open on Thursday, even, especially since the theater
was right--is on Houston Street, which is the staging area for the relief
effort. And it was very grim downtown.

But starting on Friday, things came to life again and people have been
calling. They want to come see the movies, especially the films I'm showing
right now because, you know, Film Forum is--actually has two programming
policies. One is the first run side, which Karen Cooper runs. She's the
director of the theater. And I run the repertory side. And a lot of people
want to come see the old movies. And it just happens that I'm in the
middle--actually, towards the end of an eight-week festival devoted to the
NYPD, which has a new resonance, I guess. And they're older movies and people
want to see the older movies.

GROSS: How do those movies look different to you now than they did before
September 11th?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, that's very interesting. I went to see a movie the
other day called "The Tattooed Stranger." It's a bit of a film noir sleeper.
It's actually kind of an independent film made in New York released by RKO, a
Hollywood studio, but a real independent feel to it. And it's about the
homicide of a single woman. And the entire NYC homicide squad is looking for
the killer. And it seems so quaint to me and the audience.

The other thing I notice is that it's really hard to watch anything right now
without being reminded of last week. I showed a film from 1914, mind
you--1914 called "The Line-Up At Police Headquarters" the other day. You had
thought that that would be a nice diversion, you know, simpler times and
everything. But there was a scene in which the crooks hijack a sea plane.
And I'm seeing this in every movie. Every movie I've seen in the last few
days at the theater is some reminder of last week. I think it's impossible to
avoid that and I think people are on edge right now and they will be for a
long time. And a lot of things will set them off.

Yesterday I showed a film called "The Bowery" about two competing fire
brigades in the 1890s. And then the battleship Maine is blown up. And, of
course, that was the Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center disaster of its
day. So we were reminded of last week. It was a very innocent comedy, but
still it set me thinking, at least.

GROSS: I noticed today you're showing "The Warriors."

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Very grim.

GROSS: And this is a film about gangs--street gangs in New York who are
trying to get to their home turf, but every step of the way there's an alien
gang that they have to fight. And it's a really grim movie in which the
subways are hell and the streets are hell.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, but--yeah.

GROSS: How do you feel about showing that one today?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, I--I thought about canceling it, but I decided that it
would be less chaotic to just try to keep to our schedule. Now there were
other films that were canceled because of the catastrophe--"Cruising" and "Bad
Lieutenant" were originally scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. And our big
problem last week was shipping to Manhattan was curtailed and I was--the
entire series, I thought, was in jeopardy. I didn't think shipping would be
back to normal for weeks, but it actually came back on Friday. I got a print
on Friday. So I was trying to figure out, using the prints that were in the
theater, which films to replace the canceled films with.

And some of the titles that I had were "Cruising," "Bad Lieutenant," "Night
Falls On Manhattan," and I nixed all of them because I didn't want to show a
film called "Night Falls On Manhattan." I didn't want to show "Cruising"
because it was too violent and too dark a view of Manhattan. "Bad Lieutenant"
the same. I wanted to replace them with lighter fare, so I'm gonna reschedule
"Shaft" and "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and--but I didn't want to screw around
with the schedule I already had. I want people to know that we're back in
business and the rest of the schedule is firm.

GROSS: What was it like the first night you opened the theater a week ago?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: It was very quiet and the neighborhood still looked like a
war zone. And there's still a lot of reminders, of course, but's it's a lot
less grim than it was last week. Up to Thursday--through Thursday there were
barricades on Houston Street all along Houston Street. The air, also, was
pretty bad last week and it's better now. But even yesterday I was walking
from the theater and looking south and you could the huge clouds of dust
coming from the site up the street. So it--you never forget it. Also, there
are little makeshift shrines all over the neighborhood. Our--the fire station
that shares the block with Film Forum lost 11 men. And that became a shrine.
It has become a shrine, I mean.

GROSS: Have you been wanting to watch movies or to work?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Oh, I definitely wanted to work. The first few days we all
wanted to volunteer, but they didn't really want volunteers. And now I
realize the most important thing is just to get on--do what we do.

GROSS: Reopen the theater.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Reopen the theater. And I think people want it to get back to
normal. I mean, we're still in mourning and I think we're always gonna be a
little bit in mourning from now on, I'm sure of it; but I think it's important
that we just keep going. And, you know, we were all very depressed last week,
the whole country was, the whole world was. But I took a train ride out to my
mother's on Long Island. I looked out at the skyline. I said, `Well, it's
still there. New York is still there. Downtown is still there.' And the
life downtown is returning. The restaurants are full. We're regaining our
audience. We were down 50 percent the first week, but the last few nights
have been pretty good. So we're hopeful.

GROSS: If people want to stay home this weekend and pay homage to New York by
watching a good movie that has Manhattan at its center, are there movies that
you'd recommend?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Oh, there are so many, hundreds. You know, I've done five or
six film festivals devoted to New York City, NY--the current NYPD. I did one
called NYC Noir two years ago--60, 70 movies. I did one called The Silent
City in which I just showed silent films shot in Manhattan. And I did one a
couple of years ago called Madcap Manhattan--basically, a comedy series set in
Manhattan.

I'm gonna recommend some great New York comedies, starting with "It Should
Happen to You," with Judy Holliday--George Culcor's film with Judy Holliday
and Jack Lemmon in his debut. There's one on--called "Speedy" with Hal Lloyd,
one of the great New York comedies. I don't think it's out on tape yet, but
it will be within the year, I believe. "The Apartment," of course, more of a
bittersweet film, but one of the great New York films. Billy Wilder's "The
Apartment" with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. One of my favorites, "Easy
Living" with Jean Arthur; "Nothing Sacred" with Carole Lombard and Frederic
March; "My Man Godfrey" with Carole Lombard and William Powell; "The Awful
Truth" with Cary Grant and Irene Dunn; "The Cameraman" with Buster Keaton, one
of the great silents shot on location in New York; of course, "The Producers."

There's so many of them. "1000 Clowns," which I want to pay tribute to
because the play on Broadway is closing because of last week's disaster. Oh,
so many, so many. "Blessed Event," an early precode comedy(ph) with Lee Tracy
and Dick Powell; "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Oh, the list goes on and on. And,
of course, the Comden-Green films. "The Bandwagon" is a great New York film.
"On the Town," of course, and all the great New York musicals.

GROSS: Hmm. Why don't you mention a couple?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: We might want to pay tribute to Broadway this week, also.
And there are a lot of great movie musicals that were adapted from Broadway.
"The Music Man" is a particular favorite with Robert Preston. That's out
on--now out on a beautiful DVD. That's one that springs to mind. "Annie Get
Your Gun" is now out. It had been unavailable for decades and now it's back
on a beautifully restored video and DVD. There are many of them.

GROSS: You're going ahead with your schedule of New York movies about the New
York police. Hollywood is pulling some of its movies, movies that have
terrorist attacks in them, even movies, I think, that have firefighters in
them. I'm wondering what you think about Hollywood's reaction; whether you
think it's a good idea or a bad idea to be pulling movies now.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: I think it's a good idea to be pulling movies about terrorists
and buildings being blown up and things like that. I do think it's a good
idea. But as far as pulling--me pulling older films, I think that's kind of
silly, in a way. When we look at movies--old movies are filled with things
that are no longer politically correct, you know, but they're historical and
we have to look at them as something that was created in the past. And I
don't think we should be censoring history.

GROSS: Have you ever felt over the past couple of weeks that you've been in
a movie?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, no, because in a movie there's a beginning, a middle and
a happy ending or--on the most part. And we don't see the happy ending yet.

GROSS: We don't even see the ending.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: No, exactly. When I look at World War II, it's a beginning, a
middle and a--well, not really a happy ending because they dropped a bomb on
an entire--two entire cities, so it's not really a happy ending. But there is
an ending. And, to me, that's the way it seems, you know, growing up postwar,
being, you know, a baby boomer. It seems like a story, but this is not a
story. We're part of it. In that respect, I guess, we're part of a movie.

GROSS: Well, Bruce, I'm really glad you're well. I'm glad your theater's
intact and, you know, good luck to you and thank you very much for talking
with us.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bruce Goldstein is the director of repertory programming at the Film
Forum in downtown Manhattan.

Coming up, former poet laureate Robert Hass. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Robert Hass discusses poetry and reads a poem
TERRY GROSS, host:

We wanted to know if there were any poems Robert Hass was turning to. He was
America's poet laureate from 1995 to '97. He's also translated poetry and
edited the book "Best American Poetry 2001." We called him at his home and he
told me that he had been asked to speak at a memorial service attended by
12,000 people at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches.
I asked him what he said.

Professor ROBERT HASS (University of California-Berkeley): You know, I think
I said that we were a community of--that took its meaning from teaching and
learning and it seemed like the lessons of the last week are ones that I don't
know if they can be taught. The courage and resourcefulness of the policemen,
the firemen and the ambulance drivers and doctors and nurses are one of the
most powerful things about the week, and I don't know if there's any way we
can teach people to respond that way. You know, one hopes that one would.
That was one thing.

And another was the way in which it just brought us up against the mystery of
our lives, the way death does, you know; people going about their business.
One friend of a friend described on the Internet his being saved by, at the
last minute, deciding not to go into a meeting because he passed a bakery two
blocks away where he smelled cinnamon rolls, which he resisted the scent of.
And then when he got to the World Trade Center and was about to go into the
building, he thought, `Oh, what the hell,' and turned around and wandered back
toward the scent of cinnamon buns.

One, you know, reads the stories about everybody--the person who just was
phoning a wife and the person who was just starting to trade bonds and the
person who was just booting up their computer, suddenly gone. So finding a
language for that.

And I had just seen in The New Yorker the translation of a poem of Czeslaw
Milosz that I had done with him. He is just 90 years old in September, his
90th birthday. So this is a poem written when he was 89 that I thought spoke
to this, you know, mystery of what--who we are, what our lives are. It--so I
read that poem. It's called "In a Parish."

GROSS: Can you read it for us?

Prof. HASS: Sure. (Reading) `Were I not frail and half broken inside, I
wouldn't be thinking of them who are like me, half broken inside. I would not
climb the cemetery hill by the church to get rid of my self-pity. Crazy
Sophies, Michaels who lose every battle, self-destructive Agathas lie under
crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who is going to express
them, their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation in hospital muck
and the smell of urine with their weak and contorted limbs and eternity close
by? Improper, indecent, like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like an elephant
trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island. Our stupidity and
childishness do nothing to set us for the sobriety of last things. They had
no time to grasp anything of their individual lives, any principium
individuacionis(ph), nor do I grasp it. And what can I do, enclosed all my
life in a nutshell, trying in vain to become something completely different
from what I was? Thus, we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners,
with the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names. Instead
of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds, they rise then thousands of
Sophies, Michaels, Matthews, Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews, so that at last
they know why and for what reason.' Czeslaw Milosz.

GROSS: That's a beautiful poem. I bet it had really different meaning for
you while you were translating it than it did after the attacks of last week.

Prof. HASS: You know, I don't think it did. I think in a way, it's the power
of poetry at any given time that it has its nose up against mortality so that
it, you know, gets intensified when events roll up against it, so that we hear
it more clearly. But when I was actually working on the language, it seemed
to speak powerfully to our condition; still does.

GROSS: You know, this may be something you don't care to talk about, but I
wonder if your dreams have been affected by the attacks and your concerns
about the future and your worries about the dead.

Prof. HASS: Yeah. I went to sleep, I guess, two nights in succession and
the second I was asleep, I was digging in ashes. Just--I went straight to the
dream of trying to save those people under there. I'm sure it was just the
seeing of the image of the collapse of the tower; such a terrible thing. And
then there was the--what everybody seemed to be going through, you know,
trying to locate friends or family who might have been in harm's way. Then
the kinds of--the sort of second set of alarms about how the country was going

to respond and the way--and all the uses of language that happen when drums of
war start beating. But I think I was feeling--there's that--other great lines
about psychological pain and loss of Emily Dickinson's, you know. She says
`after great pain a formal feeling comes, the nerves sit ceremonious like
tombs.' I think I felt that for a couple of days.

GROSS: You said that you've been writing. Was that any writing that you
could share, or is it still...

Prof. HASS: No, it's still...

GROSS: ...not ready.

Prof. HASS: No, it's not that it's not ready, it's that it's worse than my
maunderings to you now.

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you for talking with us, for reading for
us; and I wish you the best. Thank you very much.

Prof. HASS: And you, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Hass was a poet laureate from 1995 to '97. Coming up, film
critic John Powers on how what we want from movies may have changed, at least
for now. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film "Together"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Our film critic John Powers has been thinking about what we want from movies
and wondering if that's changed in the light of September 11th.

JOHN POWERS:

As the terrorist attacks unfolded last week, you constantly heard people say
that it was like a movie. Yet the comparison cuts the other way, too. Many
of our movies are themselves a kind of attack, loud, sensational and morally
bankrupt. That's why, within hours of the assault, Hollywood had to start
revamping its release schedule, pushing back pictures like Arnold
Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage," whose title says it all. They knew that
America woke up that morning and realized that mass destruction was no longer
quite so entertaining.

Of course, we still yearn to see made-up stories, but the people I've been
meeting now want something different. They keep asking if I can recommend
something warm, something with a feel for what it means to be human. The
movie I send them to is "Together," a funny, touching Swedish film about an
Abba era Stockholm commune. It's actually about the desire for utopia.

Like the film, the commune is named Together, and it's populated with a wide
range of types. There's the sensible leader, Goran, who believes that a
commune is like porridge, everyone mushed together into a life-giving hole.
And then there's his sexually frustrated girlfriend, Lena. There's the
Communist Erik, who warns the others they'll be shot after the revolution.
There's Anna, who's discovered she's a lesbian and so dumped her sardonic
boyfriend Lasse, who's himself adored by the gay house member Klas, who comes
complete with a pageboy. And then there are their two kids, Mane and Tet.
They all believe in leftist politics, vegetarianism and sexual openness. They
don't have a TV, they disapprove of Christmas presents and they dance for joy
when they hear of the death of the Spanish dictator, Franco.

Their little paradise starts to change when Goran's suburban sister Elisabeth
walks out on her violent husband and comes to the commune with her two
children, the normally named Stefan and Eva. This ordinary trio arrives to
find Anna and Lasse in the kitchen, both with their pants down, arguing
whether it's obscene or natural to walk around that way. But if the newcomers
find this strange or disorienting, their arrival also unsettles the commune,
altering the group's delicate equilibrium. Gender roles shift, people lose
their illusions, hypocrisies lay themselves bare. Soon everybody seems rather
childish.

"Together" was written and directed by Lukas Moodysson, who, three years ago,
did "Show Me Love," a gentle film about two teen-age girls falling for each
other in a provincial Swedish town. Moodysson's not a great stylist, nor does
he have the daring approach to character of, say, Mike Lee. But he has a gift
for capturing behavior, and his delicate comic touch makes "Together" very
funny, sometimes painfully so. In one scene, Lena sleeps with the Communist
Erik, then goes back to tell her boyfriend Goran exactly how wonderful it was.
She's had her first orgasm. Goran just lies there, pretending to seem happy
for her.

Moodysson's especially great with the kids. Much of "Together's" action is
viewed through their eyes, and they start rebelling against the dream world
the grown-ups are creating. They have to picket for the right to eat meat.
Near the end, 13-year-old Eva says simply, `All adults are idiots.' And her
young boyfriend replies simply, `I know.' But Moodysson's too smart to make
that the ultimate verdict. For while the adults in the movie are often silly
or selfish, they're also actively grappling with the big questions of life.
How do you find community without giving up your sense of self? How do you
follow noble ideals that clash with your personal feelings? How do you live
decently in a world that often isn't decent?

While the commune's philosophy can become as self-parodic as its poster of Che
Guevara, the movie makes it clear that even in their excesses the communards
are blessed with the desire for utopia. They're honorable people trying to
find a way to transcend the outside world they inherited, a world filled with
troubles, mindless consumerism, personal loneliness, the second-class status
of women, the colonization of the mind by mass culture. And in certain lovely
moments, moments that can't last on this Earth, this rag-tight group actually
does find transcendence. It offers a giddy vision of how good life could be.

GROSS: John Powers is executive editor of LA Weekly.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with John Coltrane's recording "Dear
Lord." Sunday is the 75th anniversary of Coltrane's birth.

(Soundbite from "Dear Lord")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:07

Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."

08:23

You can't 'Trust' this novel. And that's a very good thing

Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust, is about the power of money in the stock market, and its potential, as a character says, "to bend and align reality" to its own purposes.

42:05

British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue