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Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music brought poetry to the air
Radio World has a fascinating survey of the career of radio legend Norman Corwin. His first broadcast on CBS inauspiciously followed Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds, heard by what he imagines to be a very small audience considering most listeners had probably run screaming from their houses by the time he went on air. Over the next year he regained his footing (and following) with adaptations of The Red Badge of Courage and his own original scripts, eventually writing and producing an award-winning, “calmly poetic” indictment of fascism that launched his famous Words Without Music series. Besides fiction and satire, the series was also known for dramatizing poetry.
One of the first major film stars he employed was Academy Award winner Charles Laughton, who was recruited for a Corwin adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic prose poem “John Brown’s Body.” An expert in British drama and poetry, the actor “knew nothing of American poets,” said Corwin. “I introduced him to Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandberg, and he was thunderstruck.”
Laughton, for his part, was so taken by Whitman’s powerful poetry that when Corwin eventually cast him as the poet in a radio play, the actor came up with an unusual approach to his role: He copied the 36-page typescript in longhand.
When Corwin asked why, Laughton gave a “long, quasi-occult explanation” that this would allow him to embed the emotions subconsciously and better master the poet’s language. “I thought it was a lot of trouble to test a theory,” Corwin said.
When his style of radio fell out of favor with commercial broadcasters a mere ten years later, Corwin continued writing, finding outlets in Hollywood and on Broadway. Though he briefly returned to radio in the 1980s with NPR, its doubtful even they had a place in their schedule for long-form poetry productions.
Once called the “Bard of Broadcasting” by historian Studs Terkel and today still lauded as the Golden Age of Radio’s poet laureate, Corwin has taught the writing crafts for 30 years at the University of Southern California. He believes that being in touch with young, inquiring minds has contributed to his long and productive life.
Corwin has repeatedly said, “I didn’t leave radio; radio left me.” He described the seismic shift in network radio and how it affected his métier as like having a great horse shot out from under him. At age 100 he said he is sad rather than bitter about the virtual extinction of radio drama.