Notes on a “Note”: Milton Allen Kaplan’s Radio and Poetry

“If radio literature is worth study and analysis, it must be filed, classified, and catalogued accurately. The variety of programs would necessitate an intricate library system in order to permit a student to find such categories as poetry, music, historical drama, documentaries, readings, adaptations, and discussions.” Thus remarked Milton Allen Kaplan in his 1949 study Radio and Poetry, one of the most recent additions to my library of books on American broadcasting. To this day, such catalogues remain inaccurate and incomplete, at best, even at the Library of Congress or the broadcasting museums in New York and Chicago. Radio verse plays, in particular, are an immaterial thing—a nothing—of the past; they are almost entirely forgotten or ignored, especially in the teaching of literature and drama. Literary critics seem to assume that, since radio was chiefly an advertising tool, the spoken yet scripted words that aired had only the most tentative connection to the arts. The study of what presumably were mornings with Stella Dallas, afternoons with The Lone Ranger and evenings with Jack Benny should be left to cultural historians whose trade it is to dig into the trash heap of Western civilization.

When Radio and Poetry was published, network radio was pretty much dead as a medium for verse. Even the most distinguished practitioners, Norman Corwin and Archibald MacLeish, found the networks less than accommodating. Corwin, of course, had come under suspicion by the House un-American Activities Committee and, in 1949, left CBS to write and produce plays for UN Radio instead. Only a few short years earlier, his works had been heard by tens of millions and were deemed vital to the war effort.

As Kaplan points out, Corwin was “the first poet brought up with radio,” as opposed to being among the “notable poets who turned to radio.” While not recruited, he was often importuned to write occasional verse, to speak to and for the nation, to erect aural monuments in commemoration of the momentous. On this day, 13 May, in 1945, Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” was once again produced; the aforementioned play had originally been heard on V-E Day (8 May), which it was expected to celebrate. “Coming as it did at a climactic moment in our history,” Kaplan remarks, the play “won nationwide attention, and was rebroadcast, published, and transcribed.”

Corwin did not altogether embrace his role as a national chorus in the theater of war; and the “Note” he struck was hardly a positive one. Instead, it is cautiously optimistic, daring to consider the future rather than seeing victory as a happy ending to a drama staged with a cast of millions. The “Note” was also one of Corwin’s last major plays; the “triumph” of peace gave way to the whispers of anti-Communist hysteria and further war cries in Korea, the conflict that would not trigger any poetic responses on US radio. “So they’ve given up,” the play opens. “. . . on radio,” Corwin might as well have added after V-J Day.

Norman Corwin, who recently turned 98 (and whose 97th I commemorated here), is hardly unheard of today. His V-E Day broadcast was subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (2005). Still, his name is not frequently uttered among those whom Kaplan sought to engage, the literary scholar and educators whom he encouraged to consider radio plays as aural art. Indeed, Kaplan’s study, long out of print, is just about as triumphant as the medium upon whose life it depended. Radio verse being a dying art back then, Radio and Poetry was doomed to be buried alongside it. The author’s enthusiasm seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

“Today,” he concluded in a passage sounding very yesterday,

we have many aspects of poetry on the air—the advertising jingle, the popular song, the cadenced prose of the announcer, the verse play, the radio opera. Tomorrow, as our audiences comes to demand more and more of the medium and as that medium changes, what new aspects will be revealed, what new alliances effected, what new forms developed?

Heard any new “radio opera” or “verse play” lately? Apparently, those jingles and popular songs are the notes triumphant . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: