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Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky on Houses

Pinsky joins Fresh Air to read his poem "House Hour."

02:06

Other segments from the episode on April 21, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 21, 1997: Commentary on houses; Review of four new poetry collections; Interview with Robert Fagles; Commentary on found recordings of a family's interactions.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Reviews
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

Robert Pinsky, who's been named our new poet laureate, hasn't assumed his post yet. But in celebration of National Poetry Month, we've asked him to read his new poem "House Hour."

Book critic Maureen Corrigan follows with a look at his work, as well as a look at some recent books by other contemporary poets.

ROBERT PINSKY, POET: House Hour.

Now the pale honey of a kitchen light
Burns at an upstairs window
The sash across
Milky daylight moon
Skies scored by phone lines
Houses in rows patient as cows
Dormers and gables of an immigrant street in a small city
The wind-worn afternoon shading into night.

Hundreds of times before I have felt it
In some district of shingle and downspout
At just this hour
The renter walking home from the bus
Carrying a crisp bag
Maybe a store visible at the corner
Neon at dusk
Macaroni mist fogging the glass
Unwilled, seductive as music, brief as dusk itself
The forgotten mirror brushed for dozens of years
By the same gray light
The same shadows of soffit and beam end
A reef of old snow glowing along the walk
If I am hollow or if I am heavy with longing, the same
The same ponderous houses of siding
Fir framing, horsehair plaster
Fired bricks in a certain light changing nothing
But touching those separate hours of the past
And now at this one time of day
Touching this one
Last spokes of light silvering the attic dust.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, REVIEWER: That was our new poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, reading from his poem "House Hour."

Being a poet laureate in this country is a tricky sort of job. You're supposed to represent the priestly calling of poetry while you're also supposed to do a lot of Miss America-type PR work to make poetry more popular.

I think, however, that Pinsky will navigate the pitfalls of the situation just fine. An acclaimed critic and translator of Dante, Pinsky knows how to make poetry accessible to new audiences without sacrificing its magical complexity.

His own vibrant poems, now collected in the paperback edition of "The Figured Wheel," often take the approachable form of narratives, where he ruminates on his childhood in Longbranch, New Jersey, his Jewishness, and the ghostly memories that cling to mundane objects and places.

In his stunning poem, "Shirt," Pinsky considers a shirt he's bought and thinks of Korean sweatshops, and then in a flash, he's back in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. He recalls eyewitness reports of how a young man helped a girl to step up the window sill, then held her out away from the masonry wall and let her drop, and then another, as if he were helping them up to enter a streetcar and not eternity.

Pinsky tends towards the melancholy in his poems, which I think is a good protective quality for a poet laureate to have. But Poland's Nobel-prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborksa has to be one of the wryest bards ever to hold that honor.

"View with a Grain of Sand," a paperback collection of 100 poems translated from the Polish, gives readers a sweeping view of Szymborksa's work over the past five decades. In it I discovered a jolly poem from the 1960s entitled "Rubens' Women," in which Szymborksa unforgettably addresses the painter's models as "fatty dishes of love."

More representative, though, of Szymborksa's quiet philosophic humor is a 1993 poem called "No Title Required." It begins:

It has come to this
I'm sitting under a tree beside a river on a sunny morning.
It's a significant event and won't go down in history.
Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
Its Friday before Saturday, its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real than those
That a marshal's field glasses might scan.

Two American poets have written book-length narrative poems on just those very kind of intimate events that official history ignores. Sonia Sanchez's book, "Does Your House Have Lions?" is a series of short, insistent lyrics that describe her gay brother's pilgrimage to New York and his death there of AIDS.

The lyrics are spoken in the voices of Sanchez and her family, and while individual lines are sometimes contrived, cumulatively, this multi-chorused poem swells into a tormented requiem.

Louise Gluck's amazing book "Meadowlands" interweaves Homer's "Odyssey" with the story of the breakdown of a modern marriage. In precise, shimmering language, Gluck writes of love and abandonment and of emotional coldness as a means of remaining separate from what one loves deeply.

The psychological insights that distinguish Gluck's poetry and that of her contemporaries would be foreign to Homer. But the tortuous poetical quest for just the right word in a culture that often devalues all language is, in its way, just as courageous an undertaking as steering between Scylla and Charybdis (ph).

MOSS-COANE: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and contributes book reviews to Newsday, The New York Daily News, The Nation, and The Washington Post.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan, Philadelphia; Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book by our new poet laureate Robert Pinsky, "The Figured Wheel" (Noonday)." She also reviews other poetry books: "View with a Grain of Sand" by Wislawa Szymborksa (Harcourt Brace); "Meadowlands" by Louise Gluck" (Ecco); "Does Your House Have Lions?" by Sonia Sanchez".
Spec: Books; Poetry; Reviews

Please note, this is not the final feed of record.
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Office of the General Counsel at (202) 414-2040.
End-Story: Reviews
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042102np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Robert Fagles
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:17

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Homer's "The Odyssey" has been around for more than 2,000 years and it keeps getting retranslated and updated. The latest is by Princeton University Professor Robert Fagles, who has said every generation needs a new translation of Homer.

"The Odyssey" tells the story of Odysseus's 10-year voyage home to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Along the way, he has to deal with obstacles that try his moral endurance and test his survival skills.

"The Odyssey" has a revered place in the literary canon, but for all the reverence about it, it's also a great adventure/love story and explores the very contemporary theme of a son in search of his long-lost father. Robert Fagles translated Homer's other epic tale, "The Iliad" in 1990.

I asked him, when translating something as important as "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey" how much he has to be true to the original Greek and how much liberty he thinks he's entitled to take with the text.

ROBERT FAGLES, CLASSICS PROFESSOR, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, TRANSLATOR, "THE ILIAD" AND "THE ODYSSEY": Let me just say something about how one goes about the work. On the one hand, there's the Greek text and the commentaries and the lexicons. And you try and master as much of that as you can. And on the other hand, there are the great things of 20th century writing, too.

In other words, I try to stay as close to Homer's "Odyssey" as I do to James Joyce's "Ulysses." The two are of almost equal importance because the whole problem: is how do I try to capture that great piece of work, some 2700 years old, and bring it over into an English that is molded by some real masters -- and mistresses?

MOSS-COANE: Right.

FAGLES: And that becomes the problem. How do you bring these two things together, the language which we're speaking now and the language which Homer spoke way back when.

That's I think the problem, and it's a two-way street. I'm always asking myself: if Homer were living in the '90s, how would he say this or that or the other thing?

It's a two-way street because if Homer were living in the '90s, he might not say this or that or the other thing. So, bringing him into my own idiom is a kind of limitation.

On the other hand, Homer's so large that he can give my idiom a good stretching. That's why I describe it as a back and forth, a two-way street.

MOSS-COANE: Is it helpful to think of "The Odyssey" as a kind of performance or, as you say in the postscript to the book, a musical event? And does that help you find the rhythm of his language and to take that language and modernize it?

FAGLES: I think, if this doesn't sound like too -- well, it isn't a claim for my own work, it's just a notion -- if an English Homer doesn't sing, it's not a Homer.

MOSS-COANE: Hmm.

FAGLES: There has to be some verbal music in it, and that's established by what you do with the weave of the vowels, what you do with the cadence of your English.

At the same time, it has to be a vehicle for many kinds of speech. There is another kind of performance. "The Odyssey" is 70 percent director's chorus. Characters are talking all over the place, and they're talking in different ways, and they're talking to each other, at each other, with each other.

In other words, within a great epic structure, it's a dramatic piece. Very dramatic. So that's part of the performance, too, and something I think you have to try and conquer.

MOSS-COANE: Well, do you work out loud, then?

FAGLES: All the time, and that's why I...

MOSS-COANE: Muttering to yourself.

FAGLES: That's why I work within closed doors, because otherwise I might get locked up.

MOSS-COANE: Well, you brought some Greek for us.

FAGLES: Yes.

MOSS-COANE: And perhaps we can just hear the Greek, and then I'd like to have you read from the beginning of your translation.

FAGLES: I'd love to. I'd love to.

This is the way the poem begins. It's the invocation.

SOUND OF FAGLES READING FROM "THE ODYSSEY" IN THE ORIGINAL GREEK

FAGLES: Which means something like this in English:

Sing to me of the man, Muse
The man of twists and turns
Driven time and again off course
Once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.

Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds
Many pains he suffered, heart sick on the open sea
Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove
The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all
The blind fools
They devoured the cattle of the sun
And the sun god blotted out the day of their return
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus
Start from where you will
Sing for our time, too.

MOSS-COANE: And that's Robert Fagles reading from the beginning of his translation of Homer's "The Odyssey."

Well, I wonder, too, and hearing the Greek and then hearing your translation of it, the rhythm feels different to me.

FAGLES: Yes.

MOSS-COANE: You have done something to the rhythm.

FAGLES: Sure.

MOSS-COANE: Tell us what you've done.

FAGLES: Well, what I've done is, first of all, I've decided that I cannot imitate Homeric hexameters, dactylic hexameters. They don't really work in English, I find, and I've never read comparable hexameters in English that do work.

MOSS-COANE: And a hexameter, just for those of us...

FAGLES: Sorry. A six-beat line.

MOSS-COANE: OK.

FAGLES: Which goes something like this.

READING IN GREEK

That's Homer's wonderful rolling six-beat line.

I try and make my English elastic. I don't want to write in iambic pentameter, a straight five-beat line, because I don't want to domesticate Homer too much. I want him to be at home in my language, but not too much. He's larger, he's stranger, he's more powerful.

So I've tried to expand the typical English line, often going to six beats, occasionally to seven, and always trying, if possible, to get that line cadenced, make it music in some way, give it a beat, give it a rhythm. It's a kind of free verse, but I have my own kinds of rules, I hope. I hope it won't sound as if it's -- what did Frost describe -- how did he describe free verse? -- as playing tennis without a net.

MOSS-COANE: Our guest if Robert Fagles, and we're talking about his new translation of Homer's "The Odyssey." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to Princeton University literature professor, Robert Fagles, and his new translation of Homer's "The Odyssey."

What's the difference, or what was the different challenge between translating "The Iliad," which came out about five, six, seven years ago, and now "The Odyssey"?

FAGLES: "The Iliad" is set at a very high pitch. You begin to roll with it and it simply won't stop. It's got a terrific pace to it, and one of the questions you ask yourself when you're working on it: how can I keep this thing from sagging? How can I keep up the momentum, the speed, often the violence -- though it's a poem that has some tenderness, too.

But "The Odyssey" has a great deal of tenderness and a great deal of variety of mood, from outspoken outburst to calm, sotto voce speech like this. And you have to capture that kind of tone, and you have to capture that great variety. So moving away from "The Iliad," set almost at one level pitch, "The Odyssey" introduces you to a whole range of musics.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I saw a reference to "The Iliad" as a kind of masculine tale and "The Odyssey" as a more feminine or feminized story. Would you agree with that characterization?

FAGLES: I think there's some -- I think there's quite a lot of truth in that, Marty. The only thing I would say is that "The Iliad" is a poem, as we often say, the poem about war, yet it's something -- it's a poem about much more than war. It's a poem about human mortality, and that's an experience that Helen and Andromache, and Thetis even, experience just as well as men do.

"The Odyssey," I'm not sure that it's a feminized poem. I think that it's a poem -- it's the most married poem we have.

MOSS-COANE: Right, right.

FAGLES: And it's a poem in which men and women get equal time, and I think that's one of its great glories, great beauties, one of the things that drew me to it.

MOSS-COANE: You believe that Homer was a real person, and other Homer scholars think that he might be an amalgam of people.

FAGLES: Yes.

MOSS-COANE: Why do you think such a person existed?

FAGLES: Well, I have a hard time thinking of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" being composed by a committee. I think there's too much unity in these poems. And I'm, I guess, an incurable romantic, and I mean something specific by that.

I'm committed to the notion of the large poetic imagination, the single poetic imagination, that can move from the world of Troy to the world of Ithaca, the world of war to the world of postwar readjustment and ultimately peace. I like that notion.

And even if it isn't true, and we may never know, it's a good convenience for the translator doing both poems, that you want the voice to be a kindred voice, just shifting his perspectives, his objectives.

MOSS-COANE: And of course, this began as a spoken story.

FAGLES: Spoken or maybe even sung. Homer has moments in "The Odyssey" where he describes what the performance was like. And there was some kind of stringed instrument that might have been strummed. And above all, Homer was playing his voice into the voices of dozens of other characters. He was the great ventriloquist. He must have been, or anyone named Homer was.

MOSS-COANE: So, it began as an oral tradition and then obviously has been written down over the ages by...

FAGLES: Two, three hundred years after it was an oral performance, it became written down, and was written down in many different forms for about 1800 years, until the first printed version came along in 1488.

MOSS-COANE: And I guess each written form, what, reflects the time and age, the person who wrote it down?

FAGLES: Very much so, very much so. It's subject to a lot of scribal error and scribal adaptation.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I've actually pulled out several translations of the same passage, including yours. I wanted to read one by Robert Fitzgerald.

FAGLES: Please.

MOSS-COANE: And this goes back to 1961.

FAGLES: Yes.

MOSS-COANE: And then you'll read your translation.

FAGLES: Fine.

MOSS-COANE: And perhaps you can even just tell the audience before they hear this what they're going to hear.

FAGLES: All right. This is a passage from the fifth book of "The Odyssey." Odysseus has been locked -- well, held captive by Calypso, whose name means to hide or to cover. He's been Calypsoed on a beautiful island in the middle of the sea for at least seven years. And finally, Zeus and Athena decide that he can be released.

Before he goes, however, he has to come to terms with Calypso and her great offer. Her offer is that of immortality, which doesn't come easily in the Greek world any more than it does in ours.

Nevertheless, he remains loyal to Penelope, and the immortality offered by Calypso is finally not a temptation. The great temptation, the great objective is to leave that island and head for home and become reunited with his wife.

MOSS-COANE: Who's Penelope.

FAGLES: And this is a speech, a brief one, in which Odysseus in a very clear-sighted way compares the immortal Calypso with the mortal Penelope, and says his choice in a kind of declarative way.

MOSS-COANE: All right. And this is Robert Fitzgerald's translation. This goes back to 1961.

"My lady goddess, here is no cause for anger
My quiet Penelope, how well I know, would seem a shade
Before your majesty
Death and old age being unknown to you, while she must die
Yet it is true each day I long for home, long for the sight of home
If any god has marked me out again for shipwreck,
My tough heart can undergo it
What hardship have I not long since endured at sea, in battle
Let the trial come."
Now, as he spoke, the sun set, dusk drew on
And they retired, this pair, to the inner cave
To revel and rest softly side by side

FAGLES: That was nicely read. And it's a beautiful piece of work. Robert Fitzgerald was a great friend of mine and my wife's. And I have found myself more than once translating work that Robert translated many years ago, and I do so with trepidation.

At any rate, here's my version of the passage:

"Ah, great goddess," worldly Odysseus answered,
"Don't be angry with me, please.
All that you say is true, how well I know.
Look at my wise Penelope
She falls far short of you
Your beauty, stature
She is mortal, after all, and you,
You never age or die.
Nevertheless, I long, I pine all my days
To travel home and see the dawn of my return.
And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wan dark sea,
I can bear that, too
With a spirit tempered to endure.
Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now
In the waves and wars.
Add to this to the total
Bring the trial on."
Even as he spoke, the sun set and the darkness swept the earth
And now withdrawing into the cavern's deep recesses
Long in each other's arms, they lost themselves in love.

MOSS-COANE: I want to ask you because you said every generation needs a new translation of Homer, do you feel that those words speak to your, my, and perhaps our children's generation?

FAGLES: I hope so. I hope so. It's very hard for me to measure that. Certainly that's my goal, as it is the goal of any translator, to speak to his or her time.

MOSS-COANE: And to use the language, the vernacular, the rhythms of the time.

FAGLES: Yes, I do think so. At the same time, you're looking for a language that is timely on the one hand, and timeless on the other. Homer manages to do that.

And you're obligated, I think, to try and do the same hundreds of years after Homer and in your own language -- and in your own sweet way. You're obligated to try and do that, too, mix the timely and the timeless.

MOSS-COANE: Well, since there's no third Homer, what's next for you the translator?

FAGLES: I don't know, and it's a problem, to say the very least. And after spending about 20 years with Homer and finding that I wake up in the morning and, well, Homer's there, but he's not waiting to be translated by me much anymore, I have a sense of a loss, a loss of comradeship.

And my mind is distracted from that weighty question by virtue of the fact that I'm a teacher and part of a university and I give readings from "The Odyssey," and there's much to do still. But where to turn after Homer, I really don't know, and it's a question that fills me with a lot of trepidation.

MOSS-COANE: Robert Fagles' new translation of Homer's "The Odyssey" has just been published. He's a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Fagles
High: Scholar and translator Robert Fagles. He is a professor at Princeton University and has gained recognition for his interpretation of "The Iliad." His latest translation of Homer is a new version of "The Odyssey" (Viking). The book also has a companion cassette recording of the poem by Ian McKellen. Recently Fagles won the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for lifetime achievement in the field of translation.
Spec: Books; History; Europe; Greece; Homer; The Iliad

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Office of the General Counsel at (202) 414-2040.
End-Story: Robert Fagles
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042103np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Letter on Tape
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:32

MARTY MOSS-COANE, GUEST HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

From time to time, we bring you stories from "This American Life" -- a new public radio program produced at WBEZ in Chicago. The show got some happy news earlier this month. It just received a prestigious Peabody Award.

"This American Life" tells stories in fresh and unexpected ways. They invite writers, reporters and performers to contribute pieces based on a theme, and they produce documentaries on a wide range of topics.

On occasion, they discover stories in found tape recordings -- tape that was never intended for the radio, but is still revealing in the way the best radio documentary tape can be. It's what they call an "accidental documentary."

Such a tape was found in a Salvation Army thrift store in Michigan by a man named Joe Solosky (ph). It was recorded about 1967. Here's Ira Glass (ph), the host of "This American Life."

IRA GLASS, HOST, THIS AMERICAN LIFE: The tape that Joe Solosky found is from 1967. It came in a -- one of those boxes. I don't know if you remember these kind of boxes that reel-to-reel tape came in in the '60s and '70s and '80s. And it fits two hours of tape -- it's not that big -- it's like nine-inch reel of tape -- two hours of tape.

And the box had stamps all over it, and addresses written and crossed out and written. And what it was was a letter on tape between this family in Michigan -- the Davis family -- and their son, Arthur, Junior who was in medical school in Loma Linda, California.

And the tape is interesting because it documents, pretty thoroughly, life in this one American family.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP TAPE RECORDING OF THE DAVIS FAMILY)

MOTHER: Hello, son. There isn't much news. Grace was over one day, and she was feeling so bad about her marital situation, so I gave her this reality therapy book. And by the way, I sent you one, son, you'll be getting it in the mail soon. I had it sent right direct to you.

It isn't that I think you need it. It's just a new insight in -- on mental health -- mental illness that I think is good. I -- I probably told you about the chapter I read to Jimmy when I was going -- we were riding to Mrs. Lester's voice lesson, and it was a chapter on nagging -- smart wives don't have to nag, it was.

And it was so interesting. As I got through it, I realized -- half way through it, I realized that this was written for me, because I -- I do nag quite a bit.

And here it brought out that sometimes, a person nags because they want to feel superior, and each time they -- each time they, well, here I'll read it, son: "if you stop to think about it, you now perfectly well that this sort of nagging" -- that means, nagging to get things done and things -- "isn't correcting the evil of which you complain. It's only making you feel important, virtuous, and superior."

"So for goodness sakes, find some more constructive way of enhancing your feeling of virtue if it's so badly in need of being enhanced -- enhanced."

LAUGHTER

Daddy has been very, very busy working in the basement. One of the machines is broken down and, true to form, it's taken him a long, long time to fix it. We're behind as usual on strips. Jack didn't -- goofed I guess in his order of extrusions, and we're out of extrusions and won't be having them until Friday.

I made $50 in one week and a half, that's what I bought -- I bought your suit with and paid my tithe and things like this.

Well, son, I'll say goodbye, but thank you for your words of advice as far as my resting and thank you for being concerned about my welfare. I really have gotten along quite well recently. I didn't feel too bad a depression last month. Well, here I go. We'll see you again and I'll let somebody else talk on the tape. Bye-bye.

FATHER: Hello, Joel. How do you like this big tape, anyhow? Isn't this pretty neat? I don't know if we -- if we, you know, ever get the thing filled up, and if we do get it filled up, I don't whether you'll ever have the time to listen to it or not.

Things are surely busy around here. They're really popping. I didn't get to bed 'til after one o'clock though, I was working downstairs. I had the work ready to take up to Jack's today so we could get paid. We don't have any strips right now, though. I guess I got a call for supper, so I'll come back later.

I heard a little story that I thought I would tell you, Joel. Mom reminded me at the supper table. We just got back -- just got back from eating supper. There was a couple out -- they were getting acquainted, shall we say. Been doing a little French kissing, and the fellow said: Oh, "I think I got your gum." And she says, no, she said: I got a bad cold.

So, I'll leave you with that little thought for the time being.

Hi Joel, I just got through listening to your -- talking to you on the phone. Ken -- little Kenny Jockpur, I don't know if you remember him or not, but he's Clint Jockpur's oldest son. He got married last March.

His girlfriend was here in school, and they were intending to keep it quiet until after school was out, but I guess she's pregnant now, so I suppose when you fool around and do things like that, why I suppose that's the price you take.

I guess he's still in the Army. I saw him tonight in the drive-in. They looked real happy together. She seems like a real nice little girl -- almost too nice for him. He's a real nice fellow, but he's quite mentally retarded, I think, and at least -- I don't know -- he may not be mentally retarded, but he has an awful time in school trying to figure out his ABCs.

Anyway, that's the way it goes, and she seems to be real happy with him. She went with Carl Hamlin before, and she seemed like a good Christian girl. She's got one hand that's deformed. I supposed that makes her feel like it'd be awfully hard for her to -- to get anybody, so she probably thought she'd take whatever she could get.

MOTHER: It was interesting as we visited Aunt Mint (ph) and Uncle Wendell's this weekend. We just had a real nice time, but I -- I felt a little odd about going, and kind of suggested in a -- in a very small way that Art ought to call Mint, but sometimes he gets real negative about my suggestions, and I realized that it's because many times I perhaps force myself on him. So, I didn't say anything until about 50 miles before we got there.

I really felt as though Mint should know we were coming. I should have written and told her, but I've left the communication with his family to Daddy. Well, he got a little bit vexed and jumped out of the car and went to the telephone, saying "I hope you're satisfied now."

But when he came back, Mint hadn't realized we were coming and we were all grateful that we'd made the telephone call, even though I didn't want to be right and say I told you so, because it wouldn't have been nice to have walked in on them at a quarter to ten at night.

It was interesting how genuinely they accepted us. I don't know if I could be that gracious or not, although they live such different lives. They had no plans for the weekend. We came -- this is fine. We ate what they had and this was it.

But I think of -- if the situation were reversed, and Mint and Wendell dropped in on us, how many times we have company over the weekend, we have to go to functions and we have music lessons and things like this, and our lives are so completely different.

It's interesting that we just spent all day sitting, without doing anything at all, and this is so unusual for us, and even though I don't suppose I could do it every week, it -- it did seem good for one week -- just to sit and look at each other and talk.

Mint and Wendell are sweet people, really. It's very difficult for me not to judge a person's Christian experience. Darlene was voicing her experience last night. Art was a little bit perturbed because her skirt was too short, and Darlene was telling me that, really, she, in a way, resented Daddy's religion because it -- it seemed to be so void of actual feeling and love.

And I felt rather bad this morning. I -- I got up to have my worship. I neglected it over the weekend. And I got up to have my worship and as I did, Daddy came in and sat down beside me. And I felt rather funny because I really feel he -- he does this as a duty more than anything else. And when I have my worship, I -- I feel communication with God and I enjoy what I'm reading.

And when Daddy came in, there was just a -- I don't know, I supposed you'd call it an inner resentment. I didn't know quite what to do. I was right in the middle of reading a chapter. So for the first time in my life, rather than to try to anticipate what he wanted and his needs, I just let him sit there. And I thought if he would say to me, "well, could I have worship with you?" I would -- it would be fine. But he didn't.

So, I just continued reading and didn't say anything at all. He sat there for a little while, and then he left.

MOSS-COANE: We'll continue with the story from "This American Life" after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

Let's return to our story from "This American Life." It's from a program they call "Accidental Documentaries."

FATHER: Hi, Joel. It was sure nice to hear from you the other night. Hello -- and to talk to you about tonight was I wanted to tell you about a power feed. We got the -- this power feed that I made. We got that going now. So, I gotta hydraulic filter from Dimba (ph), put that on there an put some micro-switches on there, and we -- the thing goes up to pull the chain around the sprocket...

MOTHER: I think that if Daddy feels a spiritual lack and feels the need, then he himself ought to be the aggressive one and -- and fulfill this need in his own way.

FATHER: So, we put that sprocket on there, and there's a -- soon as it goes in, it pulls the chain that goes around the sprocket -- pulls it up, and pushes the drill down.

MOTHER: I would love to begin to have worship with Daddy, together as husband and wife.

FATHER: And then when it gets to the other micro-switch, why, it comes back and as it comes back, we got weights on the other side of the sprocket pulling the chain the other direction.

MOTHER: We certainly have begun to enjoy many relationships that are very, very fulfilling in our marriage, but as far as this worship is concerned, it seems as though I'm always the one that has to make the initiative plunge and say, well, come have worship with me and select things that are inspiring. And I think this is wrong.

FATHER: But this new compressor works like a dream. It really is doing a good job for us, which makes us very happy. We're real happy with the results we're getting so far.

MOTHER: I was reading an article last week, where we -- we so many times try to fit people into our own pattern, rather than to understand their background and let them stay in their -- and appreciate their own pattern. And I think that he ought to fulfill his spiritual needs in his own way.

FATHER: Ken is gonna come over -- Ken Schultzky -- I don't know if you know him or not, but he -- he does real good at drilling the big holes -- so he's gonna come over and drill a couple hundred of the strips with the big holes in for us. So we'll -- we can at least get under production again by tomorrow night.

MOTHER: Because I don't really know the depth of his spirituality and his basic needs.

FATHER: This one is practically fool proof, as long as we don't put too much air pressure on it and drive it too hard.

MOTHER: So, because I have no way of knowing, I'm going to stop worrying.

FATHER: We've been drilling some extrusions -- 18 inch extrusions on the press -- the -- two holes at a time. It's been going pretty good.

MOTHER: Daddy's calling, so bye-bye, son, and I'll see you later.

I just had to tell you, son, Daddy screamed and hollered -- you may have heard him over the tape. Honey -- and I was right in the middle of a sentence to you, so I didn't go. But when I ran down, here he has this power feed on. You know Daddy, he is very, very slow at what he does, and everyone has about lost their temper at him because they've tried so hard to be patient.

And day by day, they've hoped this thing gets fixed, and so now I find this morning that -- that he had fixed it and this John that is working there was sitting there, and working this just -- just as easy as could be. And of course, everyone was really thrilled. And Daddy was so tickled. He was just as tickled as -- as a little boy, really.

FATHER: So, son, we love you. We'll see you. I want to save some room here for the your lady love. Good night.

MOTHER: Hello, son. I don't know whose talked.

FATHER: So, son, we love you. We'll see you. I want to save some room here for your lady love.

MOTHER: If I had the money, I would have called you tonight. It's funny -- when you have an emotional problem, you don't quite know where to turn. They can say turn to the Lord, and I think this is true. And yet we're so human. We want human help.

I just come back from taking a walk this evening, thinking if I could just talk with someone. And of course, you don't talk your problems out with too many people.

And so, I decided I'd turn the tape recorder on and you could hear negative -- I'm trying to get a cold -- you could hear the negative side of the Davis household which has been typical in the last few years.

Here's Dot, darling, and I could go on and on, and I know I must stop. Bye-bye.

DAUGHTER: Hi, Art. This week has really been a week, I tell you. Monday -- I think it was Monday afternoon, I went into Mrs. Haar's office and she told me that I would not be able to take my test because of my debit, which is five hundred and some dollars. And that was very upsetting to me, of course. I didn't realize I couldn't take my test for this.

MOTHER: There's no excuse for this, really, other than that I can see for the first time, she has money of her own, and it's the little things that she's bought that -- it seems good, to just have money and spend it.

And at the first of the year, she really probably didn't work quite as much as she should have. Regardless of what's gone over the dam, she's left with a $500 bill now, and well, naturally, we brought the problem to Daddy.

SISTER: First I talked with Dad about it, and he said he'd see what he could do. Well, he didn't do anything. There just seems to be no understanding at all there, but I guess that's to be expected, being what Daddy's like.

MOTHER: When Darlene found this out from Mrs. Haar, she came home and cried an hour while I was teaching music lessons, and after the lessons I went up and found out what the problem was. Naturally, she realizes her mistake. She's defeated. She doesn't know which way to turn. And I explained this to Art last night, that she had realized that she made mistakes, but goodness knows how many mistakes we've made in life.

And as parents, if we could just help her pick up the pieces and somehow put them together again so she wouldn't feel defeated, this would be, you know, so much more rewarding.

But I also told him that I felt that we hadn't really helped you children too much with your schooling, and that it seemed to me, and I'm sure you children felt the same way, that there were hundreds of dollars that goes into the basement, and I didn't really think it was right. Well, this he resented very much.

MOSS-COANE: We'll continue with this story from "This American Life" in a minute. This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to our story from "This American Life" -- an "accidental documentary" pulled from a series of tape letters from a family in Michigan to a son in college. At this point, the topic is the family finances, and the financial mess the daughter is trying to get out of.

FATHER: Mom said she thought I ought to help her on this bill, but I don't know whether I'm wrong in this situation or not, but I feel, in a way, that she sort of had this coming because she hasn't put in her full time.

Well, this -- this last month she has, but up until that time, she's agreed for 12 hours a week, and it's been usually around oh, I imagine, five to six hours is a lot closer to what's actually been accomplished.

And then the money she does get, she's been spending on so many incidentals, and I kept talking and talking, but it didn't seem to do much good, but I sort of feel it's better to provide a way for children to earn their educations, than it is to actually give them the money. And besides, we don't have the money, and if we weren't working down in the basement, why, there wouldn't be any money any more than there is right now.

In fact, there wouldn't be as much. So, I don't know. I guess I get mixed up in my philosophy and my thinking sometimes, but -- and I know Darlene sometimes resents the fact that we don't give her more money. She sees all these other folks getting money, and she doesn't.

I don't know exactly what -- what to do about the situation. I don't know what's really right and what's wrong, but right now I'm pretty strapped with all the taxes. I just had to pay $400 out at the first of the month, and now I come in here again and middle of the month, we have to pay another $200.

DAUGHTER: Just a minute. Back again. Dad just came up to talk to me for a few minutes. I didn't know if I was going to work for him this summer or not, after our little mix up here, but I guess I'm going to. I'm going to work at the school, and then the afternoons for Dad, because I have to pay off this debt just as soon as I can.

FATHER: Well, anyway, be that as it may, Rich told a story. He told about a little mama mouse that lived on the -- oh, there it goes. The thing is running downstairs now. I can hear it clicking. Told a little -- about a little girl mouse that lived on one side of the field, of one side of the corn field, and the little boy mouse lives on the other side of the field.

And one day, the little girl mouse in the autumn made a trip across the field, and when she got to the little boy's house, she said: Help! Help! I've been reaped. I've been reaped. They were reaping the corn. And old Darlene just laughed and laughed. And she -- couldn't -- but she couldn't figure out what she was laughing at. The more she talked, the worst it got. She quite -- couldn't -- quite -- couldn't get the connection to the whole thing.

She said she thought it had something to do with emptying garbage or something, I don't remember just what -- what her statement was anyway. That -- it really made it quite funny -- her naiveness made it funnier than ever.

I'm gonna to quit for now. I've got some big holes to drill downstairs, and tonight's "Fugitive" night. I haven't watched The Fugitive for so many months, I don't whether he's still afoot or horseback. So, well anyway, so much for that.

It's really been nice to talk to you, and I want to leave you with one really profound statement: That the more you drill on these castings, the lighter they get. I want you to be sure if you don't remember anything else, that you remember that.

So, son, we love you. We'll see you.

GLASS: Well, Lee Spiegel (ph) on our radio staff did a few days of detective work and tracked down the Davis family, who mailed this tape to their son in medical school in the late 1960s. And we reached the former medical student, Arthur Davis, Jr. in his home in Indio, California -- not far from Palm Springs.

He practices family medicine. He actually makes house calls, he said, and has six kids of his own. And he told us that these letters on tape went back and forth between him and his parents for a period of about four years when he was away in California in medical school.

He said, no, he hadn't heard one since the 1960s. He said no, he had no idea how one could end up in a thrift store in Chicago. No, he said, his parents were not still alive. His mother died 12 years ago and his father died 4 years ago.

We sent him uncut tapes of everything that was on the tape, and he heard them, and he said that it was fine with him for us to play the tapes on the radio. He said the tapes captured the dynamics of his family perfectly.

The drama of a lot of American families is the emotional distance of the father -- the father staying away from the family orbit -- the father not being around; the father holding himself apart. And Arthur Davis, Jr. says that his father was like a lot of American dads in that way, and was, in fact, pretty removed.

ARTHUR DAVIS, JR., PHYSICIAN, FATHER: He came out -- he was reared in a divorced home and there was a lot of bitterness, and so it was pretty tough for him to even consider getting married, and then when I was born, my mom said that he just broke into tears, thinking that he might have to deal with some of those issues as a -- as a parent. He never did really want to be a parent. And she really helped him through that a lot.

You know what was very fascinating, Ira -- after my mom died, my dad changed tremendously. And he came to live with me, and spent quite a bit of time with my sister and me, and was very connected with us and our children.

So that all changed after mom died.

MOSS-COANE: "This American Life" is hosted by Ira Glass and produced by WBEZ in Chicago. It just received a prestigious Peabody Award.

For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Accidental Documentaries from "This American Life." A 1967 "letter on tape" which was found in a Salvation Army Thrift Store. It features the father, mother and daughter of a Michigan family who's interactions on the recording reveal much about their relationships with one another.
Spec: People; Families; Letters On Tape

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Office of the General Counsel at (202) 414-2040.
End-Story: Letter on Tape
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.

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