In this JOURNAL episode, actor and children’s author John Lithgow reveals a side of himself many haven’t seen before… poetry lover. This episode also spotlights the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival with a clip from the documentary FOOLING WITH WORDS. There is also a special JOURNAL segment with some previous guests sharing their view of the “American dream.”
Watch the Original Segment
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to another edition of the JOURNAL. A special edition, if you will, brought back by popular demand for this pledge drive. When we first introduced you to John Lithgow and THE POETS’ CORNER, so many of you responded that we realized this broadcast had touched a nerve.
One of you stopped me on the street to say, “Please tell Mr. Lithgow thanks for some relief from the nightmare.” She meant the stream of calamitous news of lost jobs, lost homes, and a shredded safety net. She wasn’t talking about an escape from reality, but a way to cope with the world as it is. And that’s what public broadcasting is about – life, in all of its manifestations. So, as you watch this special edition, think about your support for this station.
Walking down the street with this gentleman is a little bit like taking a stroll with the man of a thousand faces. Like all great character actors, my neighbor, John Lithgow, has the genes of a chameleon in his DNA. Just who is this man, anyway?
[JOHN LITHGOW AS ROBERTA MULDOON IN THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP]: My name’s Roberta.
BILL MOYERS: Roberta Muldoon, for one — football player turned transsexual in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. He’s also Dr. Emilio Lizardo in the cult classic BUCKAROO BANZAI. A gentle Iowa banker in love with Debra Winger in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.
[JOHN LITHGOW as SAM BURNS IN TERMS OF ENDEARMENT]: It’s always so nice to see you, I can hardly believe it.
BILL MOYERS: Name your villain–and odds are Lithgow’s your man. He’s a psychopath in BLOW OUT.
[CHILD IN BLOW OUT]: You’re a monster.
[JOHN LITHGOW as ERIC QUALEN IN BLOW OUT]: I’m not a monster.
BILL MOYERS: And the evil prince in SHREK:
[JOHN LITHGOW as LORD FARQUAAD IN SHREK]: You and the rest of that fairy trash poisoning my perfect world.
BILL MOYERS: If you’re among the millions who went nuts for the hit TV series 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN, you’ll remember him as Dr. Dick Solomon, the lunatic leader of aliens come to study earth.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS DICK SOLOMON IN 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN]: I come from a different world.
[JANE CURTIN as MARY ALBRIGHT IN 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN]: And this is news?
BILL MOYERS: Lithgow comes by his role-playing naturally. At age six, he was on stage with his father’s theatre company in Ohio. He would go on through the years to win two Tony Awards on Broadway in roles as diverse as those in his movies and television.
A British rugby player in THE CHANGING ROOM An aging, punch-drunk prizefighter in REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. A French diplomat madly in love with a Chinese opera diva, who’s really a man, in M. BUTTERFLY.
He’s even played himself, last year, in a one-man show called STORIES BY HEART, a tribute to his book-loving poetry-quoting parents and grandmother. He’ll be back at Lincoln Center with it this spring.
A man at home with the word, John Lithgow has written several best-selling children’s books, including his most recent, I GOT TWO DOGS.
But it’s this book, THE POETS’ CORNER: THE ONE-AND-ONLY POETRY BOOK FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY, may best express his love of language and his zeal for sharing it with young and old, loving what the poet Marianne Moore called, “The pull of the sentence.”
Just last month, John Lithgow completed a successful Broadway run as the star of Arthur Miller’s classic play, “All My Sons.”
Lithgow’s character, Joe Keller, was a loving family man with a terrible secret. During the Second World War, he cravenly cut corners for profit at his manufacturing plant, shipping damaged parts to the military and causing the deaths of 21 pilots. He lets his partner take the rap and go to jail and keeps the matter secret from the family. The truth is revealed in the play’s climactic confrontation between the father and the son who worshipped him.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS JOE KELLER IN ALL MY SONS]: What could I do? I’m in business. A man is in business. A hundred and twenty cracked, you’re out of business. You got a process, the process don’t work, you’re out of business. You don’t know how to operate, your stuff’s no good. They close you up. They tear up your contracts. What the hell is it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes. What could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?
BILL MOYERS: The versatile John Lithgow is with me now. Welcome, John, to the JOURNAL.
JOHN LITHGOW: Wonderful to be here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: That scene, that gut-wrenching revelation, when a son learns the awful truth about his father. I mean, the night I was there, the whole audience was suspended in shock. How do you explain that scene to yourself?
JOHN LITHGOW: The scene comes probably about 90 minutes into the play, and the audience has just gotten to know these two men, so well, this father and this son, and Miller just structures it in this extraordinary way. If you think back to the first act, when you were just getting to know them, it’s such a warm and wonderful relationship to all appearances. They shadowbox and they roughhouse.
You even see Joe Keller playing with a little boy, a little neighbor boy. He’s one of those great guys, like the neighborhood great guy. And his son adores him. He has an idolatrous relationship with him. To set that up, and then see the scales fall from the boy’s eyes. The boy, he’s 32 years old. And to see his father’s failings and have it just fall on him like a ton of bricks, it’s just an incredible emotional rupture.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think at that moment, when you know what’s happening to the audience? Are you smiling to yourself and saying, “I got ’em again.”
JOHN LITHGOW: Yes, I do. That’s my guilty secret. It’s a great pleasure to torture an audience. Well, that’s the mystery of acting, isn’t it? There’s a tremendous amount of calculation, sort of blended with the spontaneity of the moment. You just try to induce that and create the impression of the first time.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have any idea of what Arthur Miller might have wanted us to think and see at that moment?
JOHN LITHGOW: I think he wanted to really throttle people with emotion. He felt that it was important that the people onstage be stretched to an emotional extreme, to have them tortured and to have the audience tortured, to take everybody through this cathartic experience.
It’s wonderful to be a part of something that sort of reawakens Arthur Miller, sort of re-imagines him. One of the reasons I wanted to do this was how it spoke to our historical moment. That was a play written right after a war. Issues of war death, war profiteering, accountability for mistakes made during wartime. All of these are our obsession right now. Joe Keller… his sin was letting a moment pass when he should have stopped something.
And letting it pass, in order that he should continue to prosper and thrive and benefit and profit from the war. That was his great sin. If nothing had gone wrong, if these engine parts had not mis-functioned he would have been fine. And no one would have known about his sin. But 21 men died, because of what he did. And he still pretends that it didn’t happen. And when it’s revealed, he has to be held accountable. Well, this is our era of accountability. I mean, aren’t you dying to know who let these various moments pass? Who allowed some memo to get sent which turned us into a nation that tortures? Or who allowed faulty intelligence to pass across the desk without saying, No, no, no, no. Don’t. This can’t go any further than here, ’cause it’s wrong. Somewhere along the line, people are accountable. And everybody wants to know.
And Miller, this enormously principled man with this gigantic social conscience, he constructs a story which moves us so much because it involves this man and his own two sons. And he learns that he is responsible, not directly, but indirectly, for the death of one of his sons by suicide. This is such a colossal moment of accounting for him. Miller has him, fall on his own sword, metaphorically.
It’s the only way he can punish himself for this. You know, which is, it’s a somewhat redemptive but terribly, terribly sad and tragic moment. Miller really makes demands on us. He says, we have to be accountable.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the difference in doing that and 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN?
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, in fact, 3RD ROCK was very much a theatre experience. It’s what I loved about it. You would spend five days preparing a 23-minute piece of comedy and you’d perform it for a live audience. And it’s your only chance to get it right. And you count on giving them a great show and making them laugh really hard. It was very, very exhilarating, but it was like sketch acting, like revue acting. Everything was so fast and so buoyant.
[VOLUNTEER in 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN]: Here’s a list of candidates and referendums. So you are all set. You come back here in two weeks to vote.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS DICK SOLOMON3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN]: Right. And how many times do I get to vote?
[VOLUNTEER]: One time.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS DICK SOLOMON]: And it doesn’t matter that I’m brilliant.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS DICK SOLOMON: Have you noticed how tall I am?
[VOLUNTEER]: We all get one vote.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS DICK SOLOMON]: So your opinion counts equally with mine?
[VOLUNTEER]: You got it.
[JOHN LITHGOW AS DICK SOLOMON]: You’re awfully smug for a man who works at a folding table.
JOHN LITHGOW: And you did it. And it was really disposable. It’s done. You’re onto the next one. Literally, the next morning, you’re starting to prepare the next one.
ALL MY SONS, or a play like this, an experience like this, it’s carefully perfecting something. It’s like polishing a jewel, and getting it just right.
BILL MOYERS: I went home that night from watching your performance, and as I was turning out the light, my eye fell on your book, THE POETS CORNER, and I was suddenly mindful of the fact that there’s a poem in it that goes to this. It’s Randall Jarrell’s poem. And Randall Jarrell, I don’t think there’s enough appreciation for him in the country. He actually taught at my alma mater for a few years, at the University of Texas. You know, perhaps our first war poet. And you’ve got a small poem in your book, one of your favorites, right?
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah, you think about the play, ALL MY SONS, that’s like a symphony. Randall Jarrell writes chamber music compared to that. You know, it’s so succinct, but– I’ll read it.
BILL MOYERS: Set it up first. It’s called—
JOHN LITHGOW: THE DEATH OF THE BALL TURRET GUNNER. The ball turret, it’s a little bulge near the back end of the fuselage of the old flying fortresses, the B-17s. And they had machine guns, and you could spin around and shoot in all directions from that little ball turret. And the ball turret gunner was absolutely the most dangerous member of the crew of a B-17.
BILL MOYERS: Very vulnerable.
JOHN LITHGOW: Because there was literally a target, hanging right on the belly of the airplane, THE DEATH OF THE BALL TURRET GUNNER.
“From my mother’s sleep,
I fell into the state,
and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth,
loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak
and the nightmare fighters.
When I died,
they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
It’s a very womb-like image. And you do think, what does a young man think of when he’s facing death? Probably his mother. And it’s just incredibly evocative of the deaths of these soldiers in the play.
BILL MOYERS: This pull of the sentence, where did it come from for you?
JOHN LITHGOW: My dad was a Shakespeare fanatic. He created Shakespeare festivals and produced them in Ohio when I was growing up. And he was also a great storyteller and a reader of stories to all of us kids.
It was just in our household. And of course, I did a huge amount of acting as a young kid. I was one of the princes in the tower. I was Mustardseed in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Shakespeare just washed over me like a warm bath, you know, as I was growing up. I didn’t really intend to be an actor. I had other interests. I was much more interested in being an artist, but I went off to college and started acting and I realized, “Well, I’d better give into it. This is my destiny.” But I’ve always had that deep background.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve got a Shakespeare poem in there. Was that one of your father’s? Does it make you think of your father? Is that why you included it?
JOHN LITHGOW: I actually read it at my father’s memorial service. It’s my favorite. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Shakespeare. I mean, it’s a sustained poem. It’s actually, some call it a song, from CYMBELINE, and it is Shakespeare’s great eulogy,
It’s called, FEAR NO MORE THE HEAT OF THE SUN.
“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou, thy worldly task hast done,
home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
to thee, the reed is as the oak.
The scepter, learning, physic,
must all follow this,
and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning-flash, nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
fear not slander,
Thou hast finish’d,
joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
and renowned it be thy grave.”
BILL MOYERS: Who was it, who said, if you ask a young man why he wants to be a poet and he says, “I have something important I want to say,” then he’s not going be a poet. But if you ask him, “Why do you want to be a poet?” And he says, “Because I love the play of the word, the language.” Then you know he’s going to be a poet.
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And you know, I’m not sure what importance that is saying. I mean, I know that’s saying something important, but it’s the play of the language that holds you.
JOHN LITHGOW: You have no idea. The interesting thing about that poem is, it’s a colossal joke. That beautiful poem, which is spoken so deeply from the heart about mortality and the ephemeral nature of life. Well, that’s spoken by two brothers, over the dead body of a young man who was their dear friend.
Well, first of all, it’s not a young man, it’s a woman dressed as a young man. And second, the young woman is not dead. So it’s Shakespeare’s crazy joke, to write this beautiful piece of poetry, and have these two guys completely oblivious.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve often… I’ve wondered sometimes if Shakespeare might, where ever the great poets gather, be sitting on a corner with Ogden Nash. Comparing their almost mischievous view of life that reflects itself in different-
JOHN LITHGOW: Boy did he love the twists and turns of language. I mean, the puns and the jokes and the ironies. Fantastic, and that’s a fabulous example of it. I mean, you can’t find a more moving piece of writing. And the fact that it’s all a misdirect is just wonderful.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about Ina Lithgow.
JOHN LITHGOW: Ah. Ina B. Lithgow was my grandmother, my father’s mom. And she lived to the age of 95. And she recited long, long poems to us. I mean, really long.
BILL MOYERS: Epic poems?
JOHN LITHGOW: Epic poems by Longfellow and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and she knew them all by heart. And in her 80s, she could still remember them, start to finish, and without missing a single syllable. I just remember being astounded by this.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember any of the poems she read to you?
JOHN LITHGOW: Actually, I did learn one of them.
BILL MOYERS: Go ahead. We don’t have time for it.
JOHN LITHGOW: No, no. It takes about seven minutes to recite, so I will tell you about it, though. It’s Oliver Wendell’s Holmes poem, THE DEACON’S MASTERPIECE, OR THE WONDERFUL ONE-HOSS SHAY, which in fact is about a handsome carriage.
BILL MOYERS: One-horse carriage.
JOHN LITHGOW: That’s right. That was built to last, built by the deacon of all the very, very best materials, and sure enough, it lasts in perfect, perfect condition until it turns exactly 100 years old, at which point it flies into a million pieces. And my grammy used to recite this. And I can’t say for sure, but it may just have been my first insight into poetry, my first sort of metaphorical leap. Maybe it occurred to me that my 80-year-old grammy, in such superb mental shape, was the wonderful one-hoss shay.
BILL MOYERS: Who lasted almost 100 years.
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And then was gone.
JOHN LITHGOW: I will recite you the very end of it.
“What do you think the parson found,
when he got up and looked around?
The poor old chaise,
in a heap or mound,
as if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course,
if you’re not a dunce,
how it went to pieces all at once.
All at once and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do
when they burst.
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”
BILL MOYERS: That’s a turn. “Logic is logic.” What is he saying?
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, the very beginning of it is: “Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way? It lasted 100 years to a day.”
BILL MOYERS: We’ll be back with John Lithgow for more of his favorite poetry, as well as a visit to a festival where poets and their poems are the stars. But first, we take a moment to ask for your pledge to keep this station on the air.
BILL MOYERS: Here at the Journal, we continually hold to the light the multifaceted set of beliefs and ideas that inform our democracy. We often explore the hopes and aspirations that sustain us as a people. What we and the rest of the world call the “American dream.”
You can go to our Web site at pbs.org and tell us what you think the American dream should be. You could also find many of the men and women who have appeared on the Journal and be able to hear their vision for the future of the American dream.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There’s no one dream, but if I had to think of what I would hope for is respect, dignity, fairness, justice. Those are words that need to be fleshed in and filled in. But those to me are so much a part of what this country could be about.
WILLIAM GREIDER: It’s not just about political reform and financial reform and dealing with global warming and dealing with an oversized military and etc, etc. It’s about Americans kind of reconsidering what they really want in this society, and what really matters.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Most people really want to have a government that inspires trust and hope for the future, for them and for their children. That requires citizens to at least exercise their right and their capacity, whatever it may be, to be participants in the future of America. Because that’s how we’re going to achieve it.
SCOTT BITTLE: And it’s not just about what happens at elections. It’s about being engaged in decisions between elections, in their daily lives, so people feel they have control, they have a say, that their voice counts. These are things we’re really lacking right now. And I don’t think we can have the American dream without that.
MELISSA HARRIS LACEWELL: It’s always about collective action. It’s not an end place to which we arrive; it’s a process. It is the process of being together in our democracy. So for me the big question of the American dream has to do with whether or not we can together improvise and create something great.
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: I think that we’ve arrived at a moment in American life when there’s a willingness to talk about the past, talk about how to extend opportunity to everybody. And I think that we’re on the verge of a very different kind of pursuit of the American dream, and in a way that hopefully, some of these terrible vestiges of the past finally fall away.
LEILA FADEL: I think the future of the American dream is the essence of what America should be, a transparent government that doesn’t arrest people on secret evidence, and a place that I can say truly that I know I can have an effect on my nation and my government without them hiding things from me.
GLENN GREENWALD: Americans almost feel apologetic about what our nation has stood for and what it’s been doing and I think reversing that and restoring the sense of pride that Americans have about being Americans is equally important for the American dream
THOMAS FRANK: This country is about equality. And it’s about everybody having a voice. And I think one of these days I think the American dream is going to shift from “I want to get rich” to “I want everybody to be able to have things like healthcare, a decent standard of living,” you know? I want democracy.
ELIZABETH RUBIN: It would be wonderful if one day the American dream started to dissipate and it became a global idea. I would like to see a world dream, you know? People around the world can have the same dreams and be able to fulfill them the way people can by coming to America. You shouldn’t have to come to America anymore to have the American dream.
JOHN LITHGOW: This is a moment of extraordinary optimism and extraordinary fear. And we’ve been there before, and American positivism has managed to overcome our fears. And that’s my hope. And I’m pretty sure we’re going to do it.
BILL MOYERS: You’ll find many more ideas about the American dream, and you can tell us your own, on the Moyers blog at pbs.org.
BILL MOYERS: Is it true that you once held forth with your first girlfriend, with Walt Whitman?
JOHN LITHGOW: So, you are intent on embarrassing me. Yes, yes. I think, like many, many people, including Bill Clinton, I might add, I recited “Leaves of Grass,” to my first girlfriend.
BILL MOYERS: And you didn’t marry her.
JOHN LITHGOW: No, no. It was fabulously romantic summer travel trip to France, and oh, I was such an insufferable young aesthete. Can you imagine me, reading poetry, on the banks of the Loire, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I can actually. But I’m wondering when I heard about that, I was wondering why you didn’t read her Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you know.
JOHN LITHGOW: I do have—
BILL MOYERS: You have an Elizabeth Barrett Browning-
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: -poem in here.
JOHN LITHGOW: Why don’t I read that too?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
JOHN LITHGOW: Talk about the ardor of language.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Yeah. The passion of romance.
JOHN LITHGOW: This is SONNET 43, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which you will certainly recognize.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depths and breadths and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints! I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.”
BILL MOYERS: Do you think people still respond to that kind of poetry?
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, I think that is the magic of archaic language. I think it sort of takes us back in time. I mean, it’s the beauty of Shakespeare. It’s his turn of phrase, in a language that’s 400 years old. And it’s like music. I always feel that–I’m an actor. I’m a performer. And an entertainer. Almost everything I do, in these areas, is using words. And there are these three aspects to a turn of phrase, the meaning, the emotion, and the music. And well, Arthur Miller, he’ll write a line like: “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him, they were all my sons. And I guess they were. I guess they were.”
Well, that’s a very rough poetry, but in its way, it’s poetic. It has meaning, music and emotion. Well, Shakespeare, a line like “Aye but to die and go we know not where, to lie and cold obstruction and to rot.” I mean, that’s language of 400 years ago, but the music of that language and the emotion and the thought. It’s just as compelling. It’s just a very different kind of music. It’s like listening to Erik Satie and Bach, you know.
BILL MOYERS: What about the music, and emotion, in Ogden Nash? I know that Nash is a favorite of yours, right?
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What about the music there?
JOHN LITHGOW: Well-
BILL MOYERS: That’s so contemporary.
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, yes, it’s comical music. It’s doggerel. I, and one of the reasons why I love Nash is, to the extent I write poetry at all, I write daffy doggerel for little children. But Ogden Nash is kind of my patron saint. And it’s musical, all right, but it’s musical the way Spike Jones is musical.
This is Ogden Nash’s comical poem, “No Doctors Today, Thank You.”
“They tell me that euphoria is the feeling of feeling wonderful, well,
today, I feel euphorian,
Today I have the agility of a Greek god and the appetite of a Victorian.
Yes, today I may even go forth without my galoshes.
Today, I am a swashbuckler, would anybody like me to buckle any swashes?
This is my euphorian day,
I will ring welkins and before anybody answers I will run away.
I will tame me a caribou.
And bedeck it with marabou.
I will pen me my memoirs.
Ah youth, youth! What euphorian days them was!
I wasn’t much of a hand for the boudoirs,
I was generally to be found where the food was.
Does anybody want any flotsam?
Does anybody want any jetsam?
I can getsam.
I can play chopsticks on the Wurlitzer,
I can speak Portuguese like a Berlitzer.
I can don or doff my shoes without tying or untying the laces because I
am wearing moccasins.
And I practically know the difference between serums and antitoccasins.
Kind people, don’t think me purse-proud, don’t set me down as vainglorious.
I’m just a little euphorious.”
BILL MOYERS: Oh, I love that. Euphorious. A word without meaning, but which is invested with feeling. You get it, even if you don’t get it, right?
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah. He just loved music. He loved to almost caricature language.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, on the other side of the street, and across from that in your book, there’s a very short one that takes us somewhere else, by Gwendolyn Brooks.
JOHN LITHGOW: Oh yes. This book has accompanying it a wonderful CD of great actors reciting all the poems, and I managed to persuade my friend Morgan Freeman to recite this Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem.
MORGAN FREEMAN: “We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
JOHN LITHGOW: “We die soon.” It’s a very scary, very spare poem. It reminds me, you know, the last three words, “We die soon.” I remember a comic version of this poem in a “New Yorker” cartoon, of two inner-city kids sitting on a stoop, little kids. And one saying to the other, “What are you going to be if you grow up?”
BILL MOYERS: If you grow up–
JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah. It’s what we were talking about before regarding ALL MY SONS, is startling people with something so emotional. It’s scaring them, almost. Scaring them and making them feel the hurt. All of us kind of need that emotional exercise. I think that’s what art is about. I mean, certainly serious, dark art, as opposed to comic art, is to make you feel the pain.
BILL MOYERS: Some of the shortest poems are the most powerful.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve got one in there by William Carlos Williams, “To a Poor Old Woman.”
JOHN LITHGOW: Yes.
“To A Poor Old Woman
munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her”
You just feel the pain and desolation of that. And yet, she savors a plum in exactly the same way we savor a plum. You know, we who don’t experience anything near the pain she experiences.
BILL MOYERS: What inspired this book?
JOHN LITHGOW: I did a favor for a friend of my wife’s, a colleague of my wife’s. They asked me to host a reception for, they had two autistic children, these people, and they were a part of a marvelous organization in Orange County called “Access, Creative Approaches to Education for Autistic Kids.”
And it had an unbelievable impact on me. All of the people there were the parents of autistic children. That’s the one thing they all had in common. In every other way, they were completely different from each other, economically, ethnically. And I think very few of them had ever heard poems read out loud in a poetry reading.
Well, I got this sheaf of poems, that they, these good people had laid out for me. And they started with very familiar poems, Robert Frost, Auden, Yeats. And then the further I read, there were a series of poems by a woman, the mother of an autistic child, and the final two poems were written by a 25-year-old autistic woman. The audience, listening to these poems, was completely overwhelmed by them. They knew the import of every single sentence in these poems, even obscure, difficult poems. It was so intense.
I mean, the wonderful thing about these people was that they were so powerful and positive and proactive about their own children. You know, and hopeful. And I, it was just this incredible moment. And you know, I think I was 55 years old at the time, and I was taught a real lesson, that I had never known before, just how powerful words can be.
BILL MOYERS: It was Dylan Thomas who said, “Too much poetry to-day is flat on the page, a black and white thing of words created by intelligences that no longer think it necessary for a poem to be read and understood by anything but eyes.”
So let’s go out as you take this poem off the page.
JOHN LITHGOW: Okay. This is a wonderful poem and since we’ve been speaking so much about fathers and sons. This is a poem I read for a friend of mine, when his father passed away, at that memorial service. It’s called, DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
BILL MOYERS: John Lithgow, thank you very much for being with us on the JOURNAL.
JOHN LITHGOW: What a pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: The moment John Lithgow spoke of the emotion, and music of language, I thought of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: running and time is clocking us
BILL MOYERS: Every two years for two decades poets gathered there to create gorgeous music and plumb a myriad of emotions. Here are some of the poets from our documentary FOOLING WITH WORDS.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: oh pray that what we want
is worth this running,
pray that what we’re running
is what we want.
GALWAY KINNELL: AFTER MAKING LOVE WE HEAR FOOTSTEPS.
Well, maybe I don’t have to read that one.
AMIRI BARAKA: This is called MONDAY IN B FLAT. I can pray all day and God won’t come, but if I call 911, the devil be here in a minute.
DEBORAH GARRISON: I’m never going to sleep with Martin Amis or anyone famous.
COLEMAN BARKS: There was a time when a man said poems and friendship grew visible.
KURTIS LAMKIN: They call it a festival. It’s like a carnival, you know, and you’re the ride. You know can be a roller-coaster if you want or whatever.
we do right
we do wrong
we do time overtime
we do what it takes to shake the snake
that coils around our humble lives
whatever we can do
we do lunch
we do meetings
we do fundraisers we do marches
we send a million men
to carry peace to the heart of a cold cold nation
some say we don’t count
we always do
suppose there’s a god
who thinks that we are god
who loves us so deeply she followed us here
we work so hard every trick looks like a miracle
and then we name the trickster god
if there is a god
who thinks that we are god
do we hear her prayer
do we hear her prayer
do we? do we?
STANLEY KUNITZ: The poem is on its way in search of people, towards complete fulfillment. It has to have an audience, it has to be in touch with other human beings.
SHARON OLDS: She was four, he was one. It was raining. We had colds. We had been in the apartment two weeks straight. I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his face again. And when I had her wrist in my grasp, I compressed it fiercely, for a couple of seconds. To make an impression on her. To hurt her. Our beloved firstborn.
I even almost savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing: the expression into her of my anger — never, never again, the righteous chant accompanying the clasp.
It happened very fast. Grab, crush, crush, crush, release. And at the first extra
force she swung her head as if checking who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me. Yes? This was her mom. Her mom was doing this.
Her dark deeply open eyes took me in. She knew me; in the shock of the moment
she learned me. This was her mother, one of the two whom she most loved, the two
who loved her most. Near the source of love was this.
W.S. MERWIN: Yesterday
My friend says I was not a good son
I say yes I understand
he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know
even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes
he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father
he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me
oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me
oh yes I say
but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
just because I’m here
I say nothing
he says my father
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you
I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do
COLEMAN BARKS: Don’t worry about saving these song, and if one of our instruments breaks, it doesn’t matter. We have fallen into the place, where everything is music. Poems reach up like spin drift on the edge of driftwood along the beach, wanting. They derive from a slow and powerful route that we can’t see.
BILL MOYERS: I used to want to know what a poem like that means, but I have to say as I’ve gotten older, I don’t care so much about the meaning of the poem anymore.
COLEMAN BARKS: Right, right. Or about rephrasing it in other words. But do you feel it?
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
COLEMAN BARKS: Yes. That’s all he’s after. He’s trying to get you to us to feel the vastness of our true identities.
“I see my beauty in you”
I see my beauty in you. I become a mirror that cannot close its eyes to
your longing. My eyes wet with yours in the early light. My mind
every moment giving birth, always conceiving, always in the ninth
month, always the common point. How do I stand this? We
become these words we say. A wailing sound moving out into the air.
These thousands of worlds that arise from nowhere. How does your
face contain them?
I’m a fly in your honey. Then closer. The moth caught in flames’
allure. Then empty sky, stretched out in homage.
I see my beauty in you.
I see my beauty in you.
BILL MOYERS: From its beginning, the Dodge Poetry Festival was made possible by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, whose generosity touched thousands of poets and poetry lovers. We are grateful something so good lasted as long as it did. Unfortunately, the festival is one more casualty of the great collapse, and has been cancelled for 2010. You can still find the poets online at the Moyers site on pbs.org.
I’m Bill Moyers and I’ll see you next week.
This transcript was entered on June 7, 2015.