May 1945: When Poetry Mattered

There was a day when poetry mattered in America. Indeed there was a time when its lyric phrases, its cadences, or the free flow of its blank verses could endow the entire nation with inspiration, or insight, or an arousing--if occasionally disturbing--emotional fervor. There was a day when poetry had a majestic power.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of what may be reckoned the most demonstrable attestation ever of poetry's once pervasive allure. On the evening of May 8, 1945 some 60 million Americans--a full half of the country's population--assembled around their radios to listen to what Carl Sandburg pronounced "one of the all-time great American poems." The nationwide gathering had been previously arranged by President Franklin Roosevelt. Shortly before his death shocked the nation, FDR had requested that a poetical reflection be broadcast to the nation--in fact, to the world--upon the defeat of Nazi Germany. When he was taken from them by a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, just as that victory was within sight, vast numbers of his fellow citizens required no scholarly prompting to make the heartrending association with Walt Whitman's ode to the loss of Lincoln found in "O Captain! My Captain!" Yes they remembered, in lines committed to memory since childhood, their leader's death came after "their ship had weathered every wrack" and their "fearful trip" was nearly done.

Nor were Americans in need of an introduction to the writer that FDR invited to prepare this commemorative composition. Norman Corwin would come to be crowned "the poet laureate of radio." Born into an immigrant family in Boston, Corwin started as a local news reporter. His passion for poetry became manifest when he covered a high school football game in verse. He graduated from hosting a small town poetry show to prominence as writer, director, and producer of a national broadcast that began on the CBS network in the late 1930s. The brightest stars of Hollywood clamored to play even the smallest role in one of his weekly "word orchestrations."

Corwin possessed a keen historical sense and comprehended, as well as anyone possibly could, the part that poetry had played in the American narrative. As early as 1770, when the enslaved 17-year-old Phillis Wheatley's widely read verses challenged the blithely held racist suppositions, works of poetry helped animate social, cultural, and political change. Sometimes--as when Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Last Leaf" inspired the veteran pension act of 1832--these influences were positive, and occasionally less so. Kipling's extraordinarily popular and racialized "Take Up the White Man's Burden" contrived a convenient moral purpose for a brutal conflict in the Philippines and the entry of the United States as an imperial power in the Far East.

By the time Corwin hit the airwaves, the poetry of the lost generation had established a much more somber vision of war. The works of the "war poets" sold exceedingly well in the interwar period and Alan Seeger's "I have a Rendezvous with Death" was memorized reverentially by legions of young Americans--including John F. Kennedy, who deemed it his favorite poem--and helped engender a widespread skepticism about U.S. intervention in European affairs. Corwin's artistic assaults on fascism helped alter public opinion, while endearing him to the Roosevelt administration and ultimately winning him his VE Day assignment.

He titled his two hour commemoration--which was rebroadcast later in May--"On a Note of Triumph." and using the mellifluous voice of actor Martin Gable, he began triumphantly. "Take a bow GI / Take a bow little guy / The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon." Corwin had slight interest in American braggadocio; the victory belonged to the myriad peoples across the globe that had that had suffered and sacrificed. "From Newburyport to Vladivostok / You had what it took and you gave it." With the Pacific conflict yet to be resolved, with massive bloodshed inevitably to come, his Whitmanesque verses were far less celebratory than reflective. It was not enough for a people to be willing to die for freedom, they must engage in the more prosaic task of living for it. "It must be renewed, like soil after yielding good crops / must be rewound, like a faithful clock / exercised like a healthy muscle." A hard-won peace was not a lifelong commodity: "it is lent and leased / You can win a war today and lose the peace tomorrow / Win in the field and lose in the forum." Corwin concluded with a prayer--for the millions listening and for the countless millions to come:

Lord God of test tube and blueprint,
who joined molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of the conquerors and give
instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father's color
or credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who
profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of little peoples through
expected straights,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come for longer
than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.