Monday, March 06, 2006

Norman Corwin, Poet Journalist

I was intrigued by the Oscar for short documentary, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (IMDB). So I looked up Corwin, and was impressed by the beauty of the fragments of his writing that are floating around on the internet.

The documentary that won the Oscar looks back at the legendary piece Corwin did celebrating V-E Day, called "On a Note of Triumph." Here is a bit from the end of Corwin's original piece, a "prayer":

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed 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 conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father's color or the 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 the little peoples through expected straits,
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. (longer excerpt here)

What does the style remind you of? I get equal parts Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. I'm not saying I absolutely love the writing, but rather that I'm surprised and impressed that this type of lyricism was once acceptable in mainstream journalism. Perhaps it works best when reserved for extraordinary circumstances: it would have been thrilling to hear it on the radio at the end of World War II.

Another breakthrough piece by Corwin is "They Fly Through The Air With The Greatest of Ease" (1939), about the Italian bombardment of Spain during the Civil War. Here's a snip from an audio excerpt on Corwin's own homepage (see a partial transcription here):

Here, where last year stood the windrows of the hay
Is now an aviary of such birds
As God had never dreamed of when he made the sky.
Look close, and you will see one now.
They are wheeling it out of the hangar.
Oh, do be careful, gentlemen.
It is so dumbly delicate:
Its fabrics and its metals, its gears, its cylinders, its details,
The million dervishes ready to whirl in its motors,
The guns fore and aft,
The sights, the fins, the fuselage,
The bomb racks and the bombs.
Do not jar them; do not jar them, please.
Be gentle, gentlemen.
This bomber is an instrument of much precision,
a mathematical miracle
As cold and clean and noble as a theorem.
See here: Have you no eye for beauty?
Mark how its nose, be-chromed and tilting toward the heavens
Reflects the morning sun and sniffs the lucent air.

And here's a second snippet I found from the same story, which follows up on the idea of the "theorem," only after the planes have crashed:

That's all.
That's all the fighting they will care to do.
They have a treaty with the earth
That never will be broken.
They are unbeautiful in death
Their bodies scattered and bestrewn
Amid the shattered theorem.
There is a little oil and blood
Slow draining in the ground.
The metal is still hot, but it will cool.
You need not bother picking up the parts.
The sun has reached meridian.
The day is warm.
There's not a ripple in the air. (link)

To my ear, these snippets sound less like Whitman and more like Carl Sandburg.

* * * * *
More Corwin links:

--A satisfying 12 minute audio interview with Corwin on NPR's "Lost and Found Sound."

--An in-depth text interview at Crazy Dog Audio Theatre.

--Norman Corwin's web site. Corwin sells tapes and transcripts (including e-books!) of his stuff. You can hear excerpts from some of his pieces; I would particularly recommend "They Fly Through The Air..."

--A piece in the L.A. Times that ties Corwin to Edward R. Murrow, who was also 'revived' this year in George Clooney's gripping Good Night, and Good Luck.

--A timeline of the "Golden Age of Radio, 1936-1950." TV killed the radio stars... including Murrow himself.

--"Good Can Be As Communicable As Evil, a piece by Corwin, for NPR.


Harry "broadcastellan" Heuser said...

Your ear does not fail you here. Corwin was both influenced by Whitman and Sandburg (the latter no stranger to the broadcast studio). Among his further influences, the Oscar-nominated journalist and playwright claimed, were Shakespeare and Edgar Lee Masters.

6:15 PM  
Amardeep said...

I'm glad you agree. Incidentally, I just checked out your post on Corwin, and enjoyed it.

6:23 PM  
Richard said...

I remember seeing Norman Corwin's "The World of Carl Sandburg" when I was a kid and never thought I'd be working for Corwin just a few years later at USC. There's really no one like him in the broadcasting universe these days, is there?

10:57 PM  
Michael Locker MD said...

Great stuff.

Michael Locker MD

4:46 PM  
Anonymous said...

Hello Fellow Corwin fans:

In my quest for more Corwin material I recently discovered a DVD movie called "The Poet Laureate of Radio, An Interview with Norman Corwin". I found this interview to be very informative. It's fun to listen to this man whose time spent during this period is the stuff of legends. Even Hollywood movie critic Leonard Maltin reviewed the DVD and gave it high praise. Check it out when you get a chance. I've provided the link below.


12:17 PM  

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