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W. S. Merwin: The 'Sirius' Side Of Poetry
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
The Pulitzer Prize for poetry was awarded yesterday to W.S. Merwin for his
book, âThe Shadow Of Sirius.â Thatâs S-I-R-I-U-S.
The citation describes it as a collection of luminous, often tender poems that
focus on the profound power of memory. This is Merwinâs second Pulitzer. When
he first won, in 1971, he was best known for his poems against the war in
A couple of years ago, in an LA Times review of his collection, âThe Book of
Fables,â Amy Gerstler described Merwin as, quote, âa post-Presbyterian, Zen
poet and channeler of ancient paradoxes. He strikes a balance between the world
we know with our senses and those occult regions we are only intermittently
privy to,â unquote.
Merwin was born in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He now lives in
Hawaii, where heâs active in environmental issues. I spoke with him last
December, after âThe Shadow of Siriusâ was published. We started with a reading
of his poem, âA Likeness.â
Mr.Â W.S. MERWIN (Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry): Almost to your birthday
and as I am getting dressed alone in the house a button comes off and once I
find a needle with an eye big enough for me to try to thread it and at last
have sewed the button on I open an old picture of you, who always did such
things by magic
One photograph found after you died of you at twenty beautiful in a way I would
never see for that was nine years before I was born but the picture has faded
suddenly Spots have marred it Maybe it is past repair I have only what I
GROSS: I love that last line, I have only what I remember, that you have this
photograph of your mother â I assume itâs your mother â and the photograph is
marred, and you only have what you remember.
You know, memory is always such an issue for me. You know, do you struggle to
chronicle your life, to keep the photographs, to document it, to keep journals,
to hold on to all the memories, or do you accept that you have only what you
Mr.Â MERWIN: I think we do both. I think we always do both, and what we think of
as the present really is the past. It is made out of the past. The present is â
the present is an absolutely transparent moment, as only great saints ever see
But the present, what we think of as the present, is made up of the past, and
the past is always - one moment, itâs what happened three minutes ago, and one
minute, itâs what happened 30 years ago. And they flow into each other in ways
that we canât predict and that we keep discovering in dreams, which keep
bringing up feelings and moments, some of which we never actually saw. But
those moments themselves bring up the feelings that we had forgotten we had,
and itâs all memory.
So I think the idea that memory is somehow sentimental or nostalgic, the
nostalgia itself is - the etymology of nostalgia is homecoming, and homecoming
is what we all believe in. I mean, if we didnât believe in homecoming, we
wouldnât be able to bear the day.
GROSS: As you get older, do you spend more time thinking about your early
memories, your childhood, your formative years?
Mr.Â MERWIN: I do. I think this is one of the benefits of getting older, that
one has that perspective on things farther away. One is so caught up in middle
years and the idea of accomplishing something, when in fact the full
accomplishment is always with one.
GROSS: Several of the poems in your book are about your parents. This is one of
them. Itâs called âA Single Autumn.â Would you introduce it for us and read it?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Yes. This is something I think Iâd thought about quite often. And
my parents died very close together. I thought they werenât very close
together, but actually one of their great gifts to me was that neither of them
turned out to be afraid of dying at all. And in quite different ways, they died
without any expression of anxiety or of dread or of clutching at anything else.
And thatâs a great gift to be given, that feeling of no fear, and I think I
inherited it from them very early.
But after my mother died - I was away in Europe when she died â and when I came
back, the original, the first funeral - I had â well, it was already over. And
I moved right into the house, against the advice of many friends, and spent
something like a month or six weeks there - and giving away their belongings to
their friends and getting to know their friends and then finally giving away
the furniture and things to my sister. And being there in a totally empty
house, before I just left it and went back to New York. This is about that time
of being alone in that empty house, when if it hit me hard, I was all by
myself, and it didnât matter. And if it didnât, I went through all of the
feelings and no feelings that one has at that time - noticing that, you know,
that there were many things that we would never â bits of conversation that we
would never finish.
And so this is a poem about that, called âA Single Autumn.â
The year my parents died on that summer on that fall three months and three
days apart I moved into the house where they had lived their last years It had
never been theirs and was still theirs in that way for a while
Echoes in every room without a sound all the things that we had never been able
to say I could not remember
Doll collection in a china cabinet plates stacked on shelves lace on drop-leaf
tables a dried branch of bittersweet before a hall mirror were all planning to
The glass doors of the house remained closed The days had turned cold and out
in the tall hickories the blaze of autumn had begun on its own I could do
GROSS: I love that last line: I could do anything.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And I think â what were some of the things that you wouldnât have done
when your parents were alive living in that house?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Well you know, all the inhibitions one has with parents, and my
father was a very â when he was younger was a very repressive, capricious,
punitive, incomprehensible, distant person, and I freed myself from that,
insofar as one ever frees oneself of any such influence, fairly early.
But one was always aware of the things that would trouble either of them, and
all of those things were gone. I mean, I could say or do or think or go or meet
or talk to anything, anybody, the way I wanted to. I was as free there as I was
anywhere in the world, and it was a sort of desolate freedom, of course.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: When you were going through your parentsâ possessions and figuring out
what to give away, what to keep, what to throw away, what did you decide to
Mr.Â MERWIN: Not very much. My father was a minister, and he asked me to burn
all his sermons. That was â I mean, they were terrible sermons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What made them terrible? Why do you describe them as terrible?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Oh, he never finished a sentence, you know, andâ¦
GROSS: Well you never finish â you never even have periods in your poems.
Thatâs really funny.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â MERWIN: No, these are all dashes, like Emily Dickinson. And they were very
unoriginal, you know, and he just obviously didnât want them kept.
GROSS: Did you want to keep them for yourself, or did you obey the wishes?
Mr.Â MERWIN: I did want to keep some, and I wanted to keep various
correspondences that my mother had there that were marked burn this. So I
burned them, and sometimes I feel like the Eric Brod, you know, the way Eric
Brod must have felt very pleased that he kept Kafkaâs papers, in spite of
Kafkaâs wishes. I sometimes wish that Iâd just read through them and kept the
ones I wanted to, but I didnât.
You know, itâs at that moment youâre very eager to do what they wanted to. But
I kept strange things. I kept things that my mother was growing in the garden.
I potted them up and took them back to the apartment and grew them in New York.
One or two last bits of clothing that were hanging in the closet. Very little,
They werenât people who had much money, and there was nothing of great value
there. And oh, odds and ends, a few small things from my grandfather, I mean
the pen knife from my grandfather, little tiny things like that that wouldnât
meant nothing to anybody else.
And ah, the other thing that I kept from the house - I gave my sister all the
furniture. We divided everything up quite equitably - and I kept all of the
papers. So there were diaries and day books and account books and all sorts of
stuff that I used later.
GROSS: When you say used, you mean used in poems?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Yes, used in poems and used in trying to â in writing unframed
originals: oh her, she was an orphan. It was her father â her father had worked
for the Pennsylvania railroad, and he had passes for all the railroads that
existed in the very beginning of the 20th century and that had ceased to exist.
It was wonderful taking out of his book of passes and seeing all of the non-
existent railroads that he could ride free on.
GROSS: That sounds wonderful. Do you still have that?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Oh yeah, I still have them, yes.
GROSS: Weâre listening back to an interview with W.S. Merwin. Yesterday, he won
the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his collection, âThe Shadow of Sirius.â More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: W.S. Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry yesterday for his
collection, âThe Shadow of Sirius.â Weâre listening back to the interview I
recorded with him last December, after the publication of that book.
Your father was a minister. What were you taught about God? What did you
believe about God when you were young?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Oh, I had to learn the catechism, but it was mostly proscriptive,
things you couldnât do. We â there was no card-playing in the house and no
dancing and not much of anything that was fun, and it gradually all shelled
off. He got better about it as I got older, and then he became a chaplain in
the Second World War, went overseas.
And so in my early adolescence, I was freed of all that and managed to sort of
get along with it much better in later years. But he was pretty remote. He
didnât know how to be a father.
GROSS: Did he know that you became a poet, and did he think poetry was
Mr.Â MERWIN: No, he didnât. He thought it was fine. And when I felt that I was,
in effect, a pacifist at the end of World War II, and I was put in the psycho-
ward in the Chelsea House Naval Hospitalâ¦
GROSS: You were? You were?
Mr.Â MERWIN: I was, yeah.
GROSS: You were put in the mental ward for being a pacifist?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Yeah because I had enlisted, you see, when I was 17, and all this
conjutation(ph) about it had come later, and I finally asked to be put in the
brig because I said Iâve made a terrible mistake, and I shouldnât have ever
enlisted. I donât really believe in what weâre doing.
And so I was instead put in a psycho-ward, and I was pretty lucky, I guess. But
he came to the Chelsea Hospital and talked to the chaplain there and came to
see me as a visitor and said you must follow your own conviction. I thought
thatâs pretty good, you know? Heâs never said that before.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What year was this that you were put in the psycho-ward?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Oh, when was it, â46 I guess?
GROSS: So what was your treatment?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Oh, it was â they tried to scare me, I guess, but it was â
otherwise it was basically rather humane. I was locked up. I was in a big ward,
and there were some people who had real trouble, I mean hallucinations and DTs
from alcoholism, and brain damage from active duty and all mixed in together. I
made some good friends in the ward room I never saw again.
GROSS: Did being locked up in a psychiatric ward make you question your own
sanity? Were you able to be confident the whole time that you were locked up
under false pretenses, and you were perfectly sane, you were just dissenting?
Mr.Â MERWIN: Oh, I realized that, that it was because of dissenting. But I
didnât question â I mean, the more I thought about it, I thought I canât allow
myself to be trained to kill on orders, to take life on orders.
I mean, I really took the idea of not killing seriously. And I thought whatever
Iâm told, killing is still my responsibility if I do it. I canât say itâs
because I was ordered to because no, I donât really believe that.
I donât believe I would kill on orders. I donât believe I would take life
because somebody told me to, and these are people who are doing for reasons of
their own and for reasons, some of which I donât know, and the people Iâm
supposed to kill are people whom I donât know.
I can imagine circumstances in which I might do it. I can imagine being in the
resistance or something like that, where I would do it, but it would be extreme
circumstances in which I could feel that I was taking that responsibility on
myself, just as we do when we kill a mosquito or a gnat.
I donât think we have a right to take life, any life. I think we take it
knowing that we do and knowing that we have no right to do it, and weâre
responsible for it.
GROSS: I donât know how you feel about talking about this, but how do you feel
about getting older - youâre in your early 80s now â and dealing with the
dimming of some of the senses and a body that isnât as strong as it was? I
donât know if you have a lot of pain â you know, physical ailments associated
with that, but you have to accept a certain amount of physical diminishment as
you age. How are you at accepting that or dealing with it?
Mr.Â MERWIN: The one thing so far that I find a little difficult is that my â
having always had wonderful eyes, my eyes arenât as good as they used to be,
and so I have to get used to that.
But I have a great guide in this matter. I had a magnificent creature,
incredible character, a black chow who, at the age of eight, went blind,
totally blind. And you had to tell people about that because she always knew
And she would guide me if the light got â if I was out somewhere taking her for
a walk and forgot a flashlight, and it got dark. Sheâd take me home, and I
thought, you know, the way she confronted absolutely everything, without fear,
without panic, without anything of the kind, this is one of the great guiding
spirits of my life.
And so as my eyes get worse, I think of Mookoo(ph) more and more often. And
thatâs a very pleasant thing to do because I think how would Mookoo have dealt
with this situation, and you know very well how she would have done it.
GROSS: We have time for one more poem, and Iâd like to ask you to close with a
poem called âRain Light.â If you can introduce it for us first?
Mr.Â MERWIN: I shall. Itâs again a poem in the third and the last section of the
book, and itâs about â what is it about? Itâs about the very thing you were
talking about. I mean, what happens as you face the fact that the entire world
is slipping, literally dissolving around you, around us?
You know, we have that feeling about our civilization and about our species and
everything else. Itâs all endangered. And indeed it is, and we either face that
as a recognition as thatâs our moment, or we sort of groan and dread it, which
is a waste of time.
But this is not a rational poem at all. Itâs called âRain Light,â early, early
morning rain, which is something that I love very much.
All day the stars watch from long ago My mother said I am going now When you
are alone you will be all right Whether or not you know, you will know
Look at the old house in the dawn rain All the flowers are forms of water The
sun reminds them through a white cloud touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born
See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning
GROSS: W.S. Merwin, thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some
of your poems. Thank you.
Mr.Â MERWIN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: W.S. Merwin, recorded last December after the publication of his
collection of poems, âThe Shadow of Sirius.â Yesterday, that book won the
Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
The Pulitzer Prize for music went to Steve Reich for his composition, âDouble
Sextet.â Hereâs an excerpt of the final movement, performed by the ensemble
Eighth Blackbird, which commissioned the piece. Iâm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of song, âDouble Sextetâ)
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Neil Young Faces A 'Fork In The Road'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. A concept album about fuel efficient cars
may not sound like the most promising idea for lively music, but itâs what Neil
Young has done with his new collection of songs called âFork In The Road.â Rock
critic Ken Tucker says the concept worked.
(Soundbite of song, âWhen Worlds Collideâ)
Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Musician): (Singing) Taking a trip across the USA, gonna meet a
lot of people along the way, from far and wide. Floating along on the Rio
KEN TUCKER: Neil Young begins âFork In The Roadâ singing about how heâs touring
the country, playing music and driving, or playing driving music in every
sense. The bulk of âFork In The Roadâ was written in late 2008 during and
between concert tour days. The music has that deceptively dashed-off quality
thatâs characteristic of younger-than-Neil hip-hop performers, punk-inspired
rockers, and the rare musicians of Neil Youngâs generation who havenât settled
into complacent craftsmanship.
(Soundbite of song, âJust Singing A Songâ)
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) You can play my guitar, see where it goes. Send this song
to a distant star, while the rhythm explodes. Just singing a song wonât change
the world. You can drive my car, see how it rolls, feel a new energy as it
quietly grows. Just singing a song wonât change the world.
TUCKER: Directly addressing that Neil Young generation I just mentioned, Young
composes a tune with a refrain, Just singing a song wonât change the world.â In
Youngâs current view from the highway, his 1959 Lincoln Continental retooled to
run on alternative energy, peace and love has given way to pollution and the
(Soundbite of song, âFuel Lineâ)
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Her engines running and the fuel is clean. She only uses
it âcause sheâs a machine. She donât use much though, just to cruise around
town. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Keep
filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. The awesome power of
electricity, stored for you in a giant battery. She runs so quiet, sheâs just
like a ghost. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line.
Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Fill her up.
TUCKER: Using blues structures and rock rhythm, Young manages to make almost
poetry out of a lumpy couplet like, The awesome power of the electricity,
stored for you in a giant battery. What sells this stuff is the inescapable
feeling that Neil Young really does think the humble battery is, well, awesome.
(Soundbite of song, âJohnny Magicâ)
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Johnny Magic has a way with metal, had a way with
machines, one day in a garage far away he met destiny. In the form of a heavy
metal Continental, she was born to run on a proud highway.
TUCKER: On a first listen, the music can sound repetitive. But pretty soon I
realized that the pleasure I was getting from listening over and over lay in
the fact that this is a jam album. Young and long-time collaborators such as
the multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith blast out lots of noise in the manner of
other underrated Neil Young albums, like 1974âs âOn The Beach.â And its
politics are better articulated than they were on more recent records like the
2006 âLiving With War.â
(Soundbite of song, âFork In The Roadâ)
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Got a pot belly, it's not too big. Gets in my way when I'm
driving my rig. Driving this country in a big old rig, things Iâve seen mean a
TUCKER: In that title song, Young slips back and forth between the characters
of a truck driver and a, quote, âbig rock star.â As the rock star, he sings, My
sales have tanked but I still got you, thanks. Whether talking about gas tanks
or stock market tanks, Young has made a first-rate album for the new economic
policy, how it affects him, you, and the citizens he sees on the road. And as
he advises, never take your eyes off the road.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Neil
Youngâs new CD, âFork In The Road.â Coming up, we listen back to an interview
with writer J.G. Ballard. He died yesterday at the age of 78. This is FRESH
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J.G. Ballard And âThe Psychology Of The Future
TERRY GROSS, host:
The writer J.G. Ballard died of cancer Sunday at the age of 78. In his New York
Times obituary, Bruce Weber described Ballard has having an imagination
attracted to catastrophic events and a melancholy view of the human soul as
been corrupted by the modern world. Ballard was often described as a science
fiction writer. He described science fiction as stories about the here and now,
because we are living inside an enormous science fiction novel. Ballardâs 1973
novel âCrash,â about a deviant sub-culture that has fetishized car crashes, was
adapted into a film by David Cronenberg. Ballardâs semi-autobiographical novel,
âEmpire Of The Sun,â was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg. It was based
on Ballardâs experience coming of age in a prisoner of war camp during World
War II. Ballard was born in Shanghai, where his father managed a British firm.
In 1943, his family and other foreigners were detained by the Japanese. Japan
had invaded China six years earlier. I spoke with Ballard in 1988.
GROSS: You had very extraordinary experiences as a child. You were living in
Shanghai, and â with your parents â in a British community, and became a
prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. I was surprised to find
out that unlike your book and the movie based on your book, you were imprisoned
with your parents. In your book youâre separated and youâre imprisoned alone.
Mr. J.G. BALLARD (Writer): Yes. I never made any secret of that. I mean âEmpire
Of The Sunâ is a novel.
Mr. BALLARD: Itâs semi-autobiographical. Itâs partly based on my own first-hand
experiences, and part of it, being a novel, is invented. But there are â there
are many points of contact. I mean Iâm the same age as the boy Jim. I was born
in Shanghai like him, I lived in that house, went to that school, had those
parents. I was in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China. I was there in
Shanghai when, the morning after Pearl Harbor, they seized Shanghai. And I was
interned in the same camp.
But - and itâs a big difference - my parents were with me. So Iâd say that - I
mean people have said to me, we know itâs a novel, but why, you know, why did
you leave your parents out? And I think the reason is that it was
psychologically truer to my own experiences to present my â my alter-ego, as it
were, the boy Jim in the book, as, you know - to present him alone, because I
think I was alone. I think a sort estrangement took place between myself and my
parents during the camp years. And the book is truer to the psychology of my
GROSS: Well, you know, you get the impression of a â of a child who is, you
know, fairly repressed, you know, and coming up in a prosperous family,
suddenly being - having to survive on his wits in this camp and becoming very,
very resourceful, learning how to steal and trade to get extra food, to get
books, to get other items that would be of interest or of value. Did you go
through that yourself?
Mr. BALLARD: Yes, I did. I mean some of those - a lot of the boyâs experiences
in âEmpire Of The Sunâ are taken straight from my own life. I used to run
errands for the American merchant seamen who were in the camp and who had a
hoard of Readerâs Digests, which were, you know - Iâd do anything to get a hold
GROSS: Whatâs an example of one of the things you did to get a hold of them?
Mr. BALLARD: Well Iâd, you know, run general errands for them. I mean things
like crawling through the wire and setting up these pheasant traps, collecting
bits of wood for the little fires that people would light, the general dogs
buddying around the place. I mean I wasnât constantly scavenging. I donât want
to give that impression, but I mean this is a big camp, 2,000 people, the size
of a small town, and it was really a huge slum. And as in all slums, itâs the
teenage boys who run wild. And you know, I ran wild.
GROSS: It must be really something to come of age, to undergo puberty while â
while living in a prisoner of war camp.
Mr. BALLARD: Yes. I mean - I wonât say that anything wonderful and mysterious
happened to me, though, you know, one ran around with a pack of pretty wild
girls at the same time. But, yes, it was. I mean it was â it was a huge nuclear
family. I mean this is the bizarre thing. There are 300 children and we all ran
wild together. I mean itâs a strange thing to say, but in many ways I had quite
a good time there.
GROSS: Thatâs certainly the impression you get from the book and the movie that
â that â that there were a lot of things that you were, a lot of freedom that
you had in your own way, because anything wentâ¦
Mr. BALLARD: Yes, wellâ¦
Mr. BALLARD: Well, we were out of control of our parents. This is the â the big
â the big thing. I mean in an ordinary family the parents have a certain amount
of leverage on the â on their â on their kids. They, you know, their pocket
money, their treats, little bits of candy or presents. You know, the parents
can say, well, what do you want for Christmas? And all, you know, this helps to
maintain their authority over their children. Now, in our camp there were no
treats. There was no candy. There were no Christmas presents. The food ration,
such as it was, was, you know, delivered once a day.
And you know, the parents did nothing to â to provide for their children in
that sense, though of course many parents starved themselves to feed their
children. You know, I donât want to give the impression that the children were
totally on their own. They werenât. But there werenât those levers to pull. So
particularly the teenage boys like myself did â did â did run wild and got up
to amazing pranks when I look back.
GROSS: I want to ask you one more thing about the younger part of your life.
When you got out of the prisoner of war camp, in which you explained your
parents basically had no control over you and you ran wild with the rest of the
â the kids and the teenagers. When you went back to England and you started
going to school in England, was it possible for any of the adults to discipline
you after that? Did you have any, you know, respect for the authority figures
like parents and teachers afterwards?
Mr. BALLARD: Not much. No. No, to be honest. I â I came to England, you see,
for the first time in 1946 at the age of nearly 16 and went to a British
boarding school, which is rather like a camp, or rather like a prison camp in
many ways. Rather like the camp Iâve been in, only, you know, to be honest, the
food was even worse.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BALLARD: And I found it weird and very, very strange. I found England - to
be fair, I found England very strange. I wasnât prepared for it. I mean Iâd
come from a very hot landscape of rice paddies and monsoons and summer floods.
I arrived to this dark grey northern country with a light - I mean it seemed to
be sort of - always seemed to be early evening, it always seemed to be raining.
And everybody seemed â I mean England was exhausted by the war.
The country was, you know, physically half destroyed by the German bombing. I
felt - I felt a stranger there and still do in many respects. It was a very
dark, closed sort of, you know, repressed kind of world. And going to school
there and then to university was â it was all very mysterious. Took a long â
you know, the English class system was so complicated, I couldnât understand
it. Still donât in many ways. So it was a difficult time, but I mean I wasnât
unhappy, but it was like sort of, you know, a young American going to live in
Japan, letâs say, in the 1930s. You know, youâre an outsider. Thereâs no hope
of understanding the complicated social relationships and all the little
rituals and all the rest of it. It takes years toâ¦
GROSS: But you say, itâs not like you moved someplace else.
Mr. BALLARD: Well, you see, in 1949 my father stayed on in - in Shanghai, after
the war. But in 1949 the Communists took over the whole of China, and in fact
my father was caught by the Communists in Shanghai. And he was there for about
a year until he was finally able to get out. And I knew by 1949 that I would
never go back to China, that I had to make my home in England. Then I got
married and had children, and I had always, I mean I always dreamed of going
abroad, still do. But you know, inertia takes over. And I am English. I mean I
canât pretend that Iâm not.
GROSS: There is a book of yours that I really must ask you about. This is a
novel that you wrote - I think was in 1973 - called âCrash.â And the book kind
of was about someone who was almost erotically obsessed with car crashes and
with the wounds inflicted by car crashes. And this character has fantasies of
blood and mucus and sperm mingling on the dashboard of a car after a crash.
Itâs a very upsetting book. I would love to know what was on your mind when you
Mr. BALLARD: Something pretty nasty, I think, if I look back. But it was a
serious novel. I mean it wasnât just a sensational horror story. I mean I was
very conscious in the â70s of the way in which, you know, what I call the media
landscape - particularly, you know, TV and mass advertising - was beginning to,
you know, create the world that we inhabited. And it seemed to me this TV
landscape we all live in, or the media landscape we all live in, is hungry for
sensation. And we saw then the way in which violence was beginning to be,
beginning to take the sort of place that sex had occupied up until, say, the
Then attitudes towards sex liberalized and people needed a new thrill. And what
I began to see - I mean movies a got a lot more violent. Television itself
began to show endless scenes of civil war newsreels from the Congo and
Bangladesh, and then of course Vietnam - very, very graphic scenes of violence
were shown but neutralized by the TV screen. I mean people saw incredible
horrors on their living room screens while they were eating their suppers, but
they werenât touched by the violence. And it seemed to me that I wanted to look
at the way that sort of violence was beginning to enter into peopleâs
And âCrashâ took an extreme example of this, because car crashes, of course, in
movies and so on, play a key role. So I, you know, I try to be honest about it
and let my own imagination rip.
GROSS: Well, I think I read that after you wrote âCrash,â that you were in a
car crash yourself and in fact one in which your car rolled over a couple of
times. Is that right?
Mr. BALLARD: Yeah, that was a little extreme case of nature imitating art.
GROSS: Well, did your book about this person who had eroticized car crashes
affect the way you experienced your car crash at all? Iâm not saying that you,
you know, you got into it - but I mean you must have thought about what it
meant that youâd written this book. You had spent all this time seeing things
through the eyes of the character and then youâre in this terrible car crash
Mr. BALLARD: Yes, and I often thought if I died in the car crash people would
have say, ah, yes, Ballard was finding, you know, sort of the ultimate sex
death that heâd been writing and dreaming about. Actually by a miracle I wasnât
hurt at all. The car rolled over on a divided carriage-way and obliterated a
whole lot of street lamps and sign indicators. The roof was crushed down and I
couldnât get out, actually. It was a miracle that it didnât burst into flames,
because people were running around the car, rocking it and shouting: petrol,
petrol, gasoline, gasoline.
But, you know, you know, some guardian angel kept watch over me that evening.
But I mean, when one writes a novel oneâs, you know, oneâs working in - with
metaphors, with materials of the imagination. The crashes are kind of extreme
metaphor to deal with an extreme possibility.
GROSS: J.G. Ballard, recorded in 1988. He died of cancer Sunday at the age of
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Gordon Ramsay: Television's Gourmet Guru
TERRY GROSS, host:
The British chef Gordon Ramsay has won 16 Michelin stars and owns restaurants
from London to Tokyo, New York to Dubai. He is also a television icon at home
and in the U.S., where he has two shows, âHellâs Kitchen,â currently in itâs
fifth season on Fox, and âKitchen Nightmares,â based on his hit British
program, âRamsayâs Kitchen Nightmares.â The complete first season of that
original show is now out on DVD from Acorn Media.
And our critic at large John Powers says that the larger-than-life Ramsey
dishes up much more than the usual reality TV star.
JOHN POWERS: When I was first starting out as a writer, movie directors were
superstars and everybody wanted to be a film critic. I remember teasing my
paperâs restaurant critic that writing about food was the lowest adult job in
journalism. Turns out, Iâve had to eat those words. These days, movies are
increasingly kid stuff, and food has become a national obsession.
The new superstars are chefs. None is bigger than Gordon Ramsay, the Scottish
born cook who may not be the worldâs greatest chef, though his restaurants do
rank third in total number of Michelin stars. But heâs undeniably the worldâs
greatest TV chef. Ramsay doesnât inhabit the backwaters of basic cable or the
niche programming of the Food Network. He has two compulsively watchable prime
time reality programs on Fox, both of them remakes of shows that were already
hits in the UK.
The more popular of the two is âHellâs Kitchen.â Itâs one of those Darwinian
shows like âSurvivorâ or âProject Runwayâ that weekly renders one contestant
extinct. It features a collection of wannabe star chefs who are initially put
into teams. Each week Ramsey orders them to perform various tasks: make tapas
out of leftovers, or prepare breakfast for a squadron of soldiers. As the
competitors beaver away alongside their backbiting compatriots, Gordon lays on
his advice like a cross between Simon Cowell and âDeadwoodââs Al Swearingen.
Tim Gunn heâs not. His idea of saying make it work is you better make it
bleeping work, you stupid bleepity-bleep.
Ramsayâs other and better show is âKitchen Nightmares,â which is less about
competition than about running a food business. Each week Ramsay goes to a
restaurant thatâs on the verge of ruin and tries to help straighten things out
with heavy lashings of advice and disdain â and high praise when itâs earned.
If youâve never seen this show, thereâs no better introduction than the
original, uncensored British version now available on DVD. Indeed, the very
first episode is a classic.
Ramsay goes to rescue a bistro called Bonaparteâs in a small Yorkshire town
with the unlovely name of Silsden. The place is floundering and it doesnât take
our Gordon long to see why. The owner, Sue, is clueless and uninvolved. The
chi-chi menu is hilariously inappropriate for provincial customers. And to top
it all off, the 21-year-old chef, Tim, dreams of being a star TV chef like
Gordon Ramsay but he has one huge shortcoming: he canât even cook an omelet.
Here Ramsey talks about serving appetizers and puts a challenge to Tim.
(Soundbite of TV show, âRamsayâs Kitchen Nightmaresâ)
Mr. GORDON RAMSEY (Chef): Even when the kitchenâs busy, you should be looking
to get the starters out within 10 minutes of receiving the order. These poor
souls have waited half an hour for their pigeon breast with mushroom ravioli.
And thatâs not the only problem.
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: Yes.
Unidentified Man #1: Itâs burnt.
Unidentified Man #2: Right.
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) taste that thereâ¦
Unidentified Man #2: No.
Unidentified Man #1: Smell it then. You honestly canât taste that burnt?
Unidentified Man #2: Now you point it out, yeah.
POWERS: Part of what makes âKitchen Nightmaresâ so utterly fascinating is that
itâs a wonderful show about process. It teaches you how restaurants work â and
how they donât work. Week after week, we meet owners who are scared of their
staff or donât know their market, chefs who ruin expensive ingredients with
absurdly gimmicky sauces, then try to save money by keeping other food till
itâs tainted. Watching it, you realize the sheer complexity of running a good
restaurant; just keeping the orders straight seems exhausting, which is why
when Ramsay revisits these restaurants months later at the end of the episode,
theyâve often fallen back into chaos.
Of course the showâs undeniable draw is Ramsay himself, a mercurial,
charismatic figure whoâs at once charming and hot-headed, generous and vain,
sanctimonious and prone to soaring arpeggios of obscenity. Audiences love this
kind of oversized guru figure â and Ramsay is like the Dr. House of sick
restaurants. He invariably makes places better. But what gives his act its
special tang is that heâs a reminder of how much food culture has changed since
the kinder, gentler days when Julia Child first began educating home cooks and
Graham Kerr, the jaunty metro-sexual known as the Galloping Gourmet, taught
Americans to describe a wine as a sporty little traveler.
Now weâre in the heyday of TVâs bad boy chefs â Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali,
Jamie Oliver â for whom even Emerilâs bam seems positively unmanly. None is
more macho than Ramsay - a hulking one-time pro soccer player whose restaurants
may be fussy, even Frenchified, but whose personal style comes heavily sauced
Watching his shows, one sees just how much male aggression has moved from the
playing fields and into the kitchen. In the world of Gordon Ramsay, cooking is
an extreme sport.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the first season of
âRamseyâs Kitchen Nightmares,â which is now out on DVD. You can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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.