BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
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BILL MOYERS: Analysis with our master media decoder, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Attack is healthy, it helps us see the weakness in these candidates. The problem occurs when only one side has the money to attack, but nonetheless it's not bad to have attack in politics. It's bad to have inaccurate attack.
BILL MOYERS: And Rita Dove, and the poems that tell the story of America.
RITA DOVE: Suddenly there were these voices that came out. Ordinary, town folk voices. And what he says in this poem is that, where are these voices. Do they disappear? Do they disappear when we shut the book?
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. If you like to watch TV but live in a state that has endured one of this year’s primaries or caucuses, you have our sincere condolences. How you are coping with those endless hours of attack ads is beyond us. Nasty accusations, distortions, outright lies. Those ads will turn anyone’s words against them – even Honest Abe…
NARRATOR: Has President Lincoln, given up? At a speech in Pennsylvania, he even refused to dedicate a battlefield, still fresh with the blood of tens of thousands of Union soldiers.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: We cannot dedicate. We cannot consecrate. We cannot hallow this ground.
NARRATOR: Lincoln believes that America will perish from the earth.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Perish from the earth.
NARRATOR: And that our soldiers have died in vain.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Died in vain.
NARRATOR: Honestly Abe, died in vain?
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: In vain, in vain, in vain, in vain.
NARRATOR: Abraham Lincoln, wrong on the war, wrong for the Union.
BILL MOYERS: Okay, that’s a joke, a fake ad to prove a point. It’s produced by a group called Flackcheck.org. Their mission is to debunk the negative political advertising that’s polluting the airwaves even more than usual. Flackcheck is the video counterpart to factcheck.org, an award winning organization that does the Lord's own work, trying to keep politicians on the straight and narrow, or at least factually accurate. Both are projects from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the director is Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Faithful followers of our programs over the years know that she is our master media decoder, so I’ve asked her to join me this week for a look at the campaign so far. She is the author of many books including her latest, “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election”. It’s co-authored with Kate Kenski and Bruce W. Hardy.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen, welcome.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: We've been doing this a long time.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Certainly, we have.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty years or more is—right? All right, so here we are.
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever seen a meaner campaign?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I've seen campaigns that I thought were mean. I've seen campaigns that I thought were deceptive and irrelevant to governance. I haven't seen a primary campaign that this early in the season has done so much damage to candidates from whom we will select a Republican nominee. And I worry a great deal about what that means for the general election.
BILL MOYERS: There has been a lower turnout than everyone expected this year and a real drop-off in states, in voting in states like Florida and Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota. All are down from 2008.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Republican voters didn't start out disillusioned by this field, but if you watch the number across time they're increasingly thinking that they don't have a very good field of candidates. In part because the super PACS have aired primarily attack and primarily attack not on issues, but on character, I think, has effectively undercut one sense of the standing of these candidates.
And so if you don't think you have a good field and you think that their characters might be, their character might be really fundamentally flawed, why would you feel energized and want to go vote? And listen to some of the character attacks in these claims.
There's actually a super PAC attack that suggests that Romney was implicated in illegality in the Damon Corporation which was, you know, guilty of Medicare fraud. But Romney wasn't personally accused. What's the implication of implicating your own candidate in an attack from your own side in illegality? There's the implication that Speaker Gingrich essentially takes any position he's paid to take.
Now, that's not a Democrat attacking. That's a super PAC ad run by people who favor an alternative candidate. This is cannibalizing one's own in the most devastating way. If I can undercut your character I can make it impossible for you to make a case on the issues because no one's going to believe you or trust you.
BILL MOYERS: Look what Romney's attack ads did to Gingrich.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, and very effectively. It is remarkable in that environment that these alternative candidacies have been able to sustain themselves as long as they have been able to and that the Gingrich candidacy came back after the withering attack in Iowa is really an astonishing tribute to his success in the debates.
BILL MOYERS: Well, many people think that Gingrich and Santorum would not still be in the race if they hadn't been adopted by a couple of billionaires spending a lot of petty cash out of their accounts.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If it hadn't been for Sheldon Adelson coming in, in order to support Newt Gingrich and Foster Friess coming in to support Santorum they wouldn't have right now the ability to get their advertising level up enough to stay on the playing field with Romney. I think they would have withdrawn from the race had it not been, for that support.
Now, you could say that's a good thing. If you think that, with Romney having all of the money it's just simply unfair that the alternative candidates don't get a chance to have access, then maybe you should applaud the, you know, multimillionaires who come forward in order to keep the race running.
But what it does suggest is before one ever thinks about running for president in this post Citizens United world, one should find a few billionaires and determine how one can align one's issue positions with those individuals or find billionaires who are already aligned with one's issue positions and make sure that their wallets are open and ready to protect against assault from the other side and to assault when necessary.
BILL MOYERS: The political writer David Weigel wrote in "Slate" magazine the other day that super PACs are good for democracy. He says they're making the presidential race more competitive, more transparent and fairer. What do you think about that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The problem is that that overemphasizes the amount of disclosure that we actually have and the capacity to hide behind company names. It also underestimates the ability of these groups to move to their charity arm and as a result, basically be able to get rid of the requirement to disclose. Nonetheless I do agree that the fact of disclosure has been very productive. Because at least it lets you ask, "What are the interests of those who are giving money?" And to watch the candidate in relationship to those interests.
I think what we ought to be thinking about is not simply saying that's a pro-Gingrich super PAC, but we ought to say that's a pro-Gingrich super PAC brought to you by largely Sheldon Adelson, that this is a pro-Romney super PAC -- now, the problem is now the list is much longer -- brought to you by these individuals with these financial interests. If journalism kept saying that, we would increase the level of accountability behind the attack.
BILL MOYERS: But you and I both know that journalism rarely catches up after the fact with the large impression put out there by an ad seen by people who may never see the story that verifies or doesn't verify.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's true. And here's the reason that we should try to make them accurate before they, before they go on the air. They, right now there's one small place in the environment that individuals can actually act and potentially make a difference. Local broadcast stations have the right to refuse third party ads. They only have to accept ads by bona fide candidates for federal office, that would be presidential candidates among others.
BILL MOYERS: They don't have to take ads from super PACs?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: From super PACs, that's correct. And if they take them they have an absolute right to say, "You prove every statement in that ad before I'm going to put it on my airwaves and let into my community's living rooms."
BILL MOYERS: But Kathleen, you know that those station managers reap a windfall out there from a presidential-- from an election year like this. They're not going to turn down these ads.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I grant you that. The financial incentive is just too strong, but there is win-win. They can insist on the accuracy of what they air.
What Flackcheck.org is doing is taking the fact checking content from the major fact checkers and posting it against the ads they're airing in the various primaries right now. So a station manager can go and look at our website and see for example, here are the ads that are airing right now and here are the deceptions in the ads. They can now go back to the super PACs and say, "Correct those or I'm not going to let you continue to air." You can fix these ads to make them accurate, station manager.
BILL MOYERS: The station manager can?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The station manager can, and has an absolute right under existing regulation. And so what we would like is every citizen in every media market to contact by email and by phone, and we're going to be posting a way to do this on our website. Contact the station managers, contact the stations to say, "We want you to insist on the accuracy of the third party ads you air not just for the presidency, but across the board.
And then when it comes into our living rooms, we will know that you protected us from that form of air pollution. It's a little things that citizens can do and station managers, but I think those station managers care about their communities, they live in the communities there after all. And I think they'd like to perform this public service.
Let me give you an example. In Ohio in October there was an egregious example of bad third party advertising.
WOMAN in OHIO POLITICAL AD: When the fire broke out there wasn’t a moment to spare. If not for the firefighters.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: A great-grandmother whose grandchild was saved by firefighters made an ad supporting one side of a ballot initiative. The other side took her and put it in their ad, making it out that she would support their side of the issue. They basically pirated her content into their side of the argument thereby completely confusing voters. Stations in Ohio said no, they refused that ad. We have a piece on Flackcheck.org that says good for great-grandmother, good for granddaughter, Zoëy, and good for you, stations in Ohio. You've set a model for how other stations around the country can help protect us from air pollution.
BILL MOYERS: I want to ask you about President Obama and super PACs. Let me play for you, the tape of when Barack Obama told Matt Lauer that he didn't like Super PACs.
BARACK OBAMA: One of the worries we have obviously in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called Super PACS, these independent expenditures that are going to be out there. There’s just going to be a lot of money floating around, and I guarantee you a bunch of that’s going to be negative.
BILL MOYERS: Within a few days after the president told Matt Lauer that he didn't like super PACs he said, "I'm going to have a super PAC."
SCOTT PELLEY: The Obama reelection campaign told its financial contributors that they should feel free to contribute to so-called Super PACs.
BILL MOYERS: Were you disappointed? Were you surprised?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I was disappointed in 2008 when he rejected campaign finance. And so I didn't have much disappointment left by 2012.
BILL MOYERS: That’s not all he did. He said it was okay for his White House staff and cabinet secretaries to show up at super PAC events, that means face time for billionaires who support super PACs with government officials, face time ordinary people don't have.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It begins to look to the public as if this is a corrupt process when that happens. And it, there's a difference between having a process that is corrupt and having a process that looks as if it's corrupt. The danger is we now have both.
BILL MOYERS: Despite the fact that President Obama changed his plan on contraceptives, conservatives have been accusing him of a war on religion.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country, must not stand and will not stand.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Don’t let the media commentators tell you this is about this is about contraception, this is about religion. This isn’t even a social issue, this is a constitutional issue.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: The issue will not go away until the administration simply backs down. They don’t have the authority under the 1s Amendment of the United States Constitution to tell someone in this country or some organization in this country what their religious beliefs are.
MITT ROMNEY: And I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life in this country.
RICK PERRY: This administration is assaulting the Catholic Church and people of faith across our nation by forcing their pro-abortion agenda on religious hospitals, on charities, and on employees. The Obama Administration's war on faith must be defeated.
BILL MOYERS: I don't have the tape of this, but let me read you what Rick Santorum said in my home state of Texas the other day. Quote, "When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left is the French Revolution. What's left is a government that gives you rights. What's left in the unalienable rights, what's left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you'll do and when you'll do it."
"What's left in France became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we're a long way from that, but if we follow the path that President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are heading down that road." You can't say it, but I can as a journalist. That has all the refrain of a hallucination.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That is an example of the extremist language in which campaigning now takes place. The… on the Flackcheck.org site we have a whole block of attacks that we call Way Out of Whack Attacks, WOW Attacks, statements that don't bear any relationship to their literal referent. This is just one set of examples. At the point at which you're analogizing something to the French Revolution, in once case a Republican candidate analogized EPA regulations to a reign of terror.
If you're calling the opposing individuals barbarians at the gates or a mob (alternative sides of the political aisle by the way use that language), if you're on the floor of the House during the health care reform debate saying the other sides wants seniors to die (both Republicans and Democrats said that on the floor of the House), you now are existing in a world in which language is decoupled from anything that is reasonably a referent.
And as a result you not only are not describing what is out there, but you're exhausting the capacity of the language to express outrage. It is if we are campaigning at a level, a decibel level that only dogs are able to hear at some level and everyone has their ears perked up and they're fleeing, but nobody understands why it is that that's happening.
BILL MOYERS: So these are dog whistles?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: These are dog whistles. This isn't actually about a specific statement about how we're going to deliver access to contraceptives under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This is actually about an assault on the character and identify of the person who championed that bill, President Barack Obama. This is an example of the ways in which we take a policy difference and we translate it into a charge that someone is somehow fundamentally unacceptable as a human being to lead us. And we're seeing it in many ways within the Republican Party and across the Republican/Democratic divide right now.
And we ought to worry about language that escalates to that level because it makes it virtually impossible for us to reflect on the actual meanings of the policy distinctions which are real this year that will translate into governance in ways that will be real in the coming years and which will affect the well-being of the nature within the next decade.
BILL MOYERS: Conservatives gathered recently in Washington, the annual gathering of the base in effect. And there was one speech that really grabbed my attention. It was not by any of the candidates. It was not even by Sarah Palin. It was by the anti-tax ideologue Grover Norquist. Listen to this excerpt.
GROVER NORQUIST: We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a President to tell us what direction to go […] We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. We have a house and a senate. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate so focus on electing the most conservative Republican who can win in each House seat, and the most conservative Republican who can win in each Senate seat. And then pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become President of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: Now, what Grover Norquist is saying is that it doesn't really matter who the president is. We, the conservatives, the party, being elected in all of these House and Senate races will tell the President what to do and all he needs to do is to sign the legislation we pass. Is it conceivable to you that they don't want anyone with a vision or capable of leadership, they just a want a figurehead?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think what Grover Norquist wants is someone who will promise that he would, subject himself to torture and die before signing a tax increase in any form as defined by Grover Norquist. And the problem with that is that you can't get out of the situation we're in simply by cutting spending. We're going to have to raise taxes. And we're going to have to raise taxes on that group called the middle class as well as that defined variously as the rich, the wealthy or those making over $250,000.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say about democracy when you do get locked into a mindset that, that responds in no positive way to the facts and to reality?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It says that we have-- have failed to conventionalize a structure that lets our leaders talk candidly to the public about the choices we actually. I think what we're seeing right now in the Republican primary is the fundamental shift from our philosophy of how candidates campaigned in the past.
My sense of many past elections was that the party eventually nominated a person who paid a role in telling the party what it was. They helped frame the platform, they then run on the platform.
In this case I think the candidates are trying to align themselves to -- on the Republican side -- the conservative base instead of telling Republicans where the party should be they're trying to tell people that they are conservative where the conservatives are. And I think that's what Romney is saying with his strange statement that he's severely conservative as Governor.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play a montage that we did of the times he mentioned the word conservative in that speech.
MITT ROMNEY: Be conservatives […] as conservatives […] American conservativism […] but conservatives […] we conservatives […] we conservatives […] now as conservative […] conservative causes. […] Conservatism […] My path to conservatism […] Conservative values […] These conservative […] Fiscally conservative […] Conservatism […] I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism […] Conservative […] our conservative […] But I was a severely conservative Republican governor […] Conservative […] conservative convictions […] as conservative, […] for the conservative […] conservative […] This is why we’re conservatives.
BILL MOYERS: So deconstruct that for me. What's going on there?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's telegraphy to say, "If I use the word often enough you will identify the word with me." Here's what's missing. I'm waiting to hear from the Republican candidates a coherent vision of what conservative means to them. I'm waiting to hear a definition that was actually offered in the 1964 campaign by Barry Goldwater. You knew in '64 what you were positioning against because there was an ideology there and it was coherent.
And it was consistent with what he had acted upon across his career. It would have been a very interesting race had we actually had a debate between John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater as proposed or between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater because they each incarnated a philosophy that they could express, very different views of government, very difference-- different views of federalism, very different roles of the individual in society. It would have been a very, very interesting campaign because it was there.
I don't hear it there in the Republican candidates. I am not clear with these conservatives about what they mean by this ideology. And I have the sense that they're chasing this thing called the base and trying to identify with it without bringing the rest of us along in an understanding of what it is.
So fashion for me as a person who would like to understand what it is that you're saying when you say, "I'm a conservative," how this ideology coheres into a vision from which you will lead rather than simply telegraphing words to me that don't actually have meaning other than, "Don't raise my taxes."
BILL MOYERS: So here we are in a lull during the Republican campaign after 19 debates, nine primaries and caucuses and the Lord knows how much money, millions of dollars have been spent, but with no sure thing, no definitive outcome at the moment. Have you reached any conclusions about what's happening?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There's the notion that discourse can either ennoble you and increase your capacity for reflection and judgment or it can demean you and constrict your ability to make good judgments and make thoughtful judgments. And across the years we've increasingly moved to a kind of campaign structure that makes it harder to thoughtfully consider alternatives, to give the candidates the space to lay out alternatives thoughtfully.
And increasingly we've rewarded candidates who have deceived and taken words out of context and campaigned in ways that made it impossible for them to govern well. We've got to try to find a way to fix this. We're at a very, very critical time right now.
Politics is badly broken and if we can't find a lever in the system to minimize the kind of campaigning that strikes viscerally at our affective selves and instead move to a kind that engages us in consideration of a future that we need to come to through sacrifice and through tradeoffs among competing goods, we're not going to be creating a climate in which these elected officials can make decisions that will make it possible for us to become the kind of country in the future that we've been in the past.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, I'll be seeing you often at this table as this year unfolds. And I'll be going to Flackcheck.org when we finish this broadcast to see what you posted from yesterday. Thank you very much for being with me
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: We'll continue this conversation with Kathleen Hall Jamieson on our website, BillMoyers.com. Join us there.
From the combative, ferocious and vituperative field of politics, we repair to a quieter place – a respite for the soul, if you will, against the tumult of our time. A few days ago, in the East Room of the White House, along with such greats as the actor Al Pacino, sculptor Martin Puryear, and painter Will Barnet, President Obama presented the National Medal of Arts to the poet Rita Dove.
The award makes Rita Dove the first person to receive all three of the nation’s highest arts and humanities distinctions: the Medal of Arts, the Humanities Medal, which she received in 1996, and the title Poet Laureate of the United States. In fact, she served two terms as Poet Laureate, the youngest and the first African American to be named to that prestigious position.
Rita Dove is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of nine books of poetry. Among them, the Pulitzer Prize winning "Thomas and Beulah," a collection inspired by Dove's maternal grandparents. Her latest work, "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry" is a banquet of language, images, and ideas.
This is not your usual anthology. The poems were selected for what they tell us about American history, our story. And if you never thought of poetry as a way to snatch the past from George Orwell's memory hole, you'll be thinking that after spending a few hours with this book. Rita Dove is the editor -- the sole editor -- which meant enormous freedom of choice and a great burden of responsibility.
Rita Dove, welcome.
RITA DOVE: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: I felt when I opened this book that I was diving into America's melting pot. Everybody was in there. I mean, 176 poets swimming around with me. And I wanted to say to all the folks still on the edge of the pool, ‘Come on in, it's a fascinating place.’
RITA DOVE: Oh, that's terrific. I'm glad you felt that way. Because that's how I felt when I began working on this. I just felt, you know, I felt I was in this amazing party. And there were all these people who had little story to tell. And stories to tell about the way that they felt when they were living in this country.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, the emotions that they were experiencing while history was playing out?
RITA DOVE: Well, yes. Their interior lives. Because we all have these interior feelings that we carry while the larger picture is going on, right? While everything is being written down and marked off as something enormously important in history. And to remember the humanity behind the facts, is -- I wouldn't say that's all that poetry does, but it manages to do that as well.
BILL MOYERS: So what did these poems in particular tell you about the 20th century?
RITA DOVE: I found that even from the very beginning of the century, the poets are wildly different from one another, in a great, kind of wonderful way. Wildly different. You would have someone as pristine and clear and stately as Elizabeth Bishop, and then you would have someone like Anne Sexton.
Or, to go even further, someone like Sherman Alexie, you know, "The Powwow at the End of the World." And yet they could all coexist. Because there also exists, I think, in America, usually, an understanding that there are many different ways to get at true feelings, you know, and there are many different ways to express it. That was one of the things I discovered.
I also discovered as we went through the century, you could really see the advance of women's rights, of civil rights, of immigrants' rights. You could see it in the way that more and more women, African American, Asian Americans, Latinos, that more and more of them became published, became important poets, and their voices began to get heard.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here about how a poem exerts its spirit upon the time in which it was created. Give me a couple of examples.
RITA DOVE: Here's an early example, fairly early example. And that would be T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Which was -- we can't even imagine how radical that was, you know, anymore. But a poem which traced the way in which a human being thought, and the doubts that he had about this new century. And all of that was a very different way of tackling prosody and talking about one's emotions.
In other words, instead of making a pronouncement, you know, 'I feel this way' or, 'Truth is beauty, beauty is truth,' all of that, he said, "Let us go then, you and I, while the evening is spread out across the sky." Sounds all very poetical. "Like a patient etherized upon a table." And you go, 'Whoa, something's different.' But also it's this, 'We're going to take a walk.'
What T. S. Eliot does is after he invites us to take that walk, like a patient etherized upon a table, and you know that suddenly things are not going to be pretty all the time. And they're not going to be soothing. We're going to discover the roughages together. But he takes his time.
"Let us go through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells."
He's saying, ‘I'm not going to let you get away, dear reader, with just coasting along. I'm taking you right down the alley with me.’ That's a different take on things.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, one could think of all the optimism at the start of the 20th century. You think of all the optimism and the bright future was coming, progress was coming. And then World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, Afghanistan -- he has impressed upon, his age, as you say, the sense of foreboding reality that always accompanies the human journey.
RITA DOVE: He does that. And he does it in a very, very interesting and almost quiet way. Another poem from about the same era is Alice Dunbar Nelson's poem, I Sit and Sew, which was published, I think in 1920 -- '20, '21, somewhere around there. But now, this is a very interesting poem because she was the wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar. And she wrote, I think one of the most scathing antiwar poems -- or war poems, let's put it just war poems. Because, also the tragedy of war. But it's also a feminist poem. It's called “I Sit and Sew.”
"I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.
I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul and pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.
The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?"
BILL MOYERS: So what did that say that caused you to think that no matter what anyone else might think, you as the editor is going to include that in this anthology?
RITA DOVE: Number one, it's a phenomenal poem. I think it's an amazing poem. It's beautiful in a terrible -- in a terrible beauty kind of way. What -- to think that there was a woman writing this kind of poem of that level of ferocity and anger and grief, in the year 1920, to say what second, third, you know, fourth wave feminists have been saying all along, you know, let us into all of the arenas, we are human beings, she doesn’t want to just sit and sew when people are dying.
And to also realize how horrible war is. It's incredibly graphic, it's incredibly beautiful, you know, it has -- as a poem, it's just exquisitely made. So it had to go in there.
BILL MOYERS: And the voice that comes from her, this -- a scream that --
RITA DOVE: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: -- one wouldn't have heard without the poem, right?
RITA DOVE: Without the poem. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you about another poem you have in here that is in another place from another source. And I also interviewed this poet two or three times, Stanley Kunitz, who was one of the great poets of the last part the 20th century. He lived until he was 102, I think, 101 or 102. And he wrote marvelous poems. This one always gets me. And I want to know why you included it.
"Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am."
RITA DOVE: This one was in from the very beginning.
BILL MOYERS: Oh yeah?
RITA DOVE: Absolutely from the very beginning. Stanley Kunitz lived for most of the 20th century. He inhabited the 20th century. And his voice, his poetic voice is such a beautifully modulated elegiac voice that -- it's a wise voice, it's so wise. This is a wonderful example of how language also helps to orchestrate the feeling.
The way it begins, "Summer is late, my heart." And the way that it starts on an accent, "Summer." And you just go, you're in the poem. And then he begins to weave that late summer around you. And you feel the tug of autumn coming, even in the rhythm of the poem.
But -- but also in what he says. He melds the season and the way that it is waning with the waning of the human body. And yet love endures. All of that – these are elemental and crucial and enduring emotion that we have. But he manages to put it into this direct address, you know, which actually tugs at us as well. You hear him speaking almost to us. It's an incredible poem. It does render you speechless, it makes me cry almost every time I read it.
BILL MOYERS: Same here, that last -- the surprising last line, you know, "Remind me who I am."
RITA DOVE: Who I am.
BILL MOYERS: You introduced me to many poets in here -- whom I did not know. And I'm ashamed that I didn't know one in particular, because his poetry in your anthology is very powerful, Countee Cullen, and he's got a poem in here -- Incident that I want to, first of all, to ask you about him, and then I want to ask you why you included this poem.
RITA DOVE: Countee Cullen is -- I think of him often -- the poet who emerged in the Harlem Renaissance that nobody really knows about it, that many people discount, or don't know about, they think Langston Hughes and they forget that Countee Cullen was right there. He was, you know, fairly young when he died. He died in 1946, born in 1903. He was -- I would say that during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, that he was one of the major spokespersons poetically for that era.
He could write a poem like Incident which is a heart-wrenching poem about how prejudice and racial hatred can impact someone at a young age. And at the same time, he can talk about his love for poetry, in another poem, titled “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time.”
So, in other words, he's saying, ‘I -- this is my heritage. My heritage is both all the heritage that every white poet had, you know, and I love John Keats. I am a poet. But I also had this happen to me when I was a child in Baltimore.’ “Incident.”
"Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember."
BILL MOYERS: And yet there's something in this man's spirit that could write the next poem, “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time” and celebrating Keats, of another century, of another race, of another time, beauty.
RITA DOVE: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: "I cannot hold my peace, John Keats. There never was a spring like this. It is an echo that repeats my last year's song and next year's bliss."
BILL MOYERS: Remarkable juxtaposition.
RITA DOVE: Yeah, and in essence, saying -- calling John Keats his brother, you know? His poetical brother.
BILL MOYERS: One of the things that comes through is that the hyphenated America arrives in your anthology. You know, from talking about -- you quote Alain Locke's famous essay on “The New Negro,” you know, and he uses that word over and again, at one time it was a prominently used word, negro. And then you refer to it by the end of the anthology, it's African American.
RITA DOVE: African American.
BILL MOYERS: So what was Alain Locke trying to tell us in that essay on “The New Negro?”
RITA DOVE: On “The New Negro,” well, he was saying, ‘You must look at first of all, you know, drop all of your preconceptions and what you think you see when you look at the negro.’ And this was in the '20s, 1920s, beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. He was saying, ‘There is a new era here. We are in a new, you know, the country is in new.’ I mean, we've come out of the Civil War.
‘The negro that you think you know,’ and I'm using you in a very general sense to say America knows, ‘is redefining himself. And that it behooves you to look very clearly at what you see. Don't just imagine, don't just assume you know what you can see. Look clearly at what you're seeing.’
And that idea of redefining oneself, or constantly defining one's self, is also something that I think is uniquely American in the 20th century. Not only for Negro, black, African Americans, but for every immigrant group that's gone through and for whatever an American is.
BILL MOYERS: You quote Langston Hughes, "We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful and ugly too. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves." What a powerful second declaration of emancipation.
RITA DOVE: Exactly, exactly. So it's amazing, isn't it?
BILL MOYERS: When I read those words from Langston Hughes, I immediately thought, because – we’ve done a series based on poetry festivals around the country and have met Lucille Clifton. So, and I interviewed her several times. So when I read these words that you included from Langston Hughes, I immediately thought of Lucille and her poem “homage to my hips.” And you’ve got that in here.
RITA DOVE: Oh gosh, yeah, I got “homage to my hips.” Yes, it's a great poem.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
RITA DOVE: It is -- it has a unique voice. It has a voice you can just hear, just speaking right off the page. And she celebrates her, you know, the big-hipped self, and sees the beauty in it. And frankly, says, ‘If you're pleased, fine. If you're not, it doesn't matter.’
LUCILLE CLIFTON: And this universal poem is called homage to my hips.
"these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved
, they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!"
BILL MOYERS: She was a piece of work wasn't she?
RITA DOVE: Oh yeah, and what a beautiful piece of work she was.
BILL MOYERS: And you wanted this poem in, you insisted it be in for what reason?
RITA DOVE: It's -- well number one, it has become -- an absolute talisman, I think for many poets. And not just for African American women poets, it's an affirmative poem. It just makes you want to open up and smile.
And it also is a poem that says, ‘Every topic is a fit topic.’ We should not be ashamed of anything that we are, because this is who we are. We are human beings. And this is our mission as poets, first of all, to write about all aspects of humanity, so that humanity can receive it and feel included by it. That poem does it better than anything I know.
BILL MOYERS: There was a turn in the 20th century when poem became quite confessional, intimate. I mean, the intimacy was forced out into the world, Sylvia Plath painted her father as a Nazi with a fat, black heart, and wrote about the dark side of her mind. Anne Sexton wrote about birth and abortion and celebrated her uterus, she pondered suicide. I mean, that's not John Keats or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or that whole earlier generation. I mean, how do you explain that?
RITA DOVE: By the time that Plath and Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were writing these poems, which was pretty much middle of the century, into the '60s and the '70s, a lot of things have happened. And first of all, we had two world wars. One to end all wars, and then a war that, you know, came after that, which was beyond human imagination in terms of its cruelty.
Its organized cruelty in terms of the Holocaust. So a lot of these incredible ideals that we had about human nature were being battered on all sides.
And also interiorly because psychoanalysts began to come up, people began to realize that we aren’t even in control of who we are inside of ourselves With all of that having occurred, by the time we hit the '50s, we're trying desperately to recover from the Second World War and to say, ‘Everything's wonderful and good and we have Chevrolets and, you know, we've got all of these good things,’ there were poets saying, ‘You know, we just can't cover this up. We're in turmoil inside and outside.’
And that's, I think, what gave the impetus for the confessional poets to say, ‘No, we're going to not even be polite about that. We're going to talk about everything.’ Ginsberg's Howl, the beat poets, you know, manage to say, you know, ‘We're not talking about this stuff, we're going to talk about -- we're going to break down all these final walls.’ And that's when the confessionals came in.
BILL MOYERS: I'm so glad you included some of your poems in here. Page 488 is one of my favorites, Daystar. Tell me about that one.
RITA DOVE: This poem comes out of a book of poems called Thomas and Beulah. The book tells the story of one couple's life through most of the 20th century. It's based upon my maternal grandparents. And what I really wanted to bring to light were those moments in a life which are unremarked upon. The ones that we -- that are essential to who we are, but yet we don't think are quote, unquote, "important enough" to ever relate to anyone else and so they do disappear.
And so the book is basically the story of their life told through those intimate and yet unremarked upon moments. And in this moment Beulah, though in this poem she comes off – in the anthology it's just a ‘she.’ This is a woman who is caught in the throes of motherhood and wants to get one moment of peace from her children.
So she's put them out, up for a nap. And she, well, you'll hear what she does. Daystar.
"She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.
So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children's naps.
Sometimes there were things to watch –
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf. Other days
she stared until she was assured
when she closed her eyes
she'd see only her own vivid blood.
She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared
pouting from the top of the stairs.
And just what was mother doing
out back with the field mice? Why,
building a palace. Later
that night, when Thomas rolled over and
lurched into her, she would open her eyes
and think of the place that was hers
for an hour — where
she was nothing,
pure nothing, in the middle of the day."
BILL MOYERS: That does catch so dramatically for me and so personally for me the sense that in this tumult of this previous century, you know, century of war and violence, rapid change, we all were longing for a place like that, where Joseph Campbell called ‘a sacred space of our own.’
RITA DOVE: Yes, a sacred space, a space of contemplation, or kind of endless contemplation, yes.
BILL MOYERS: If you were in charge of education today, all education, you were the czar of education, what would you -- how would you want children to learn? How would you want them to be taught?
RITA DOVE: If I could, the one thing I would do would be to decree that from K-12, at the end of the day, the teacher would read a poem. No comment, no, ‘What does it mean,’ or anything like that, just read a poem, you know, beginning of the day you read Pledge of Allegiance, at the end, read the poem. Send the kids on their way.
It would teach them to live with the poems. To live with them and to toss the ones they don't want, but it would resonate and they go back into their lives, their, you know, crazy mix, not the regimented life of school, but their lives that they live with, all their body running across the schoolyard, they would have that poem with them. And then I predict that they would grow up to cherish poems as being part of life. And would not be afraid of them. It would change the entire equation.
BILL MOYERS: So what are you saying about poetry when you say that?
RITA DOVE: I'm saying that poets write about life because they're living deep in life. The poems are about life, that they make us feel more alive. That there's some crazy thing, many people have gotten the notion that poetry is for the elite, that poetry is for the intellectual.
And to me it's anything but. It is really -- it gets right down into the center of us. Where no platitudes or theories or everything that we learned, none of that matter as much as the experience it calls back up. It's a gut thing.
BILL MOYERS: Rita Dove, it's been a pleasure to be with you.
RITA DOVE: And my pleasure too, Bill, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Coming up on Moyers & Company, the editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman.
CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Reading a poem can be an act of resistance because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that's coming at us.
BILL MOYERS: And go to our website, BillMoyers.com where my conversation with Kathleen Hall Jamieson continues. I have a video essay there with some thoughts on the difficult first amendment path between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
And there’s more with Rita Dove. That’s all at BillMoyers.com. See you there. And see you here, next time.