Noting the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, pondering The Washington Post experiment with violinist Joshua Bell, mourning Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, reflecting on community theater productions of Shrek the Musical and Into the Woods, fairy tales, and Sir Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage, what poetry has to do with it all–at a time when we are increasingly aware of what is at stake for each other and our earth in standing up for our beauty and value, and refuting notions of ugliness and what we fear inside and out.

Dr. Barbara Mossberg
Produced by Sara Hughes
September 7, 2014
© Barbara Mossberg 2014


Welcome to our Poetry Slow Down, Radio, produced by Sara Hughes, thank you for joining me, your host Professor Barbara Mossberg, as we ponder the news of the day, without which, the poet doctor William Carlos Williams says, men die miserably every day. With our theme music of Simon and Garfunkle, the 59th Street Bridge Song, slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last . . . hello lamppost, whatcha knowin, i’ve come to watch our flowers growin, aint ya got no rhymes for me,  . . . let the morning time shine all its petals on me . . . These words about paying attention to our world, seeing its poetry . . . slowing down! You know, I know, we know, they know, you move too fast! A whole conjugation of knowing about our days and how we live them . . . Do you remember the social experiment The Washington Post did some years back with the violinist Joshua Bell? They set out a simple experiment to see our capacity—when we are most in a hurry, stressed, taking mass transport to work in the morning—to recognize and to value beauty—in this case defined as one of the most recognized and valued violinists in the world. A few days earlier Bell had sold out Carnegie Hall with people paying over $100 a ticket (which is high but was was even higher in those days), and now he’s playing Bach, one of the most intricate works of beauty, in the Metro Station of Washington, D.C., for early morning commuters, who get to hear him for free! And the main result was that, with the exception of a few children, who wanted to stop and notice and gawk and just take it in, no one stopped to listen . . . a few people, a few, tossed money in as they passed—not even looking at him–and the question was do we have the ability to recognize beauty in our every day lives, in this case, cultural beauty? Do we, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle sing, stop to engage with the environment, even a lamppost, with sidewalk urban flowers, or the morning air? With all of the headlines these past weeks and days, it was heartening how much we took the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers to heart. How being moved by them, all these years, stopped us to see our lives. There is something essential for survival in our human ability to own it, own ourselves and our world, through the lens of language, to transform pain and tragedy into something funny and beautiful in art, the earnest poet clown’s transforming powers. Rivers and Williams both played this troubadour role for us. So that’s one kind of good news today. I think the anniversary of the Wilderness Act is especially good news for us as a people here in the U.S. In 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was president, and occupied with civil rights and a war, he signed into law something another president signed into a law 100 years before that—Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, signing the Yosemite Grant in 1864, which was the original legislation preserving wilderness, conceived and promoted by John Muir, himself a veritable clown, taking it upon himself as a self-styled ecstatic tramp to write so poetically about wilderness that he moves us, transforms our ideas about wild . . . in the same way perhaps that Robin Williams and Joan Rivers hold up our daily lives, the troubles and fears and mysteries and heartaches, like clowns, —I was thinking of this the other day when I saw a community theater production of Shrek, about the ogre, a Roald Dahl BFG-type playing against type, stereotype of what we consider monstrous and fear, a poetry-spouting clown who, like the fairy tale solution, whether the frog prince, or modern day Beauty and the Beast, learns despite how he thinks he looks, despite what he was told, a GREEN monster fated to a lonely life in the swamps, despite how he was treated growing up, he is lovable, lovING, and this all seems to be related to the Wilderness Act we celebrate as 50 years old, and Yosemite’s 150 year old birthday, and what poetry has to do with it, so let’s begin with Robin Williams and Joan Rivers—whose funeral is today in New York City. What I thought was so interesting in all the replayed interviews and commentary in the last days and weeks, interviews and replays of stand-up comic routines, is how both comics suffered a profound lack of self-esteem, lack of self worth. Rivers talked about growing up convinced early on she was ugly (she said her mother tried to abort her through to the time she was nine—that’s a pretty fierce objectionable offensive horrible way to categorize her feelings of not belonging or being valued!). Throughout her life she subjected herself, in full public view, to constant violence to the self, surgeries, to correct herself in some kind of imagined conformity with standards of beauty, including erasing time’s wrinkles. She made gags out of all that sags. She came up with a way of owning it, which was being funny about it, making of herself a clown, just like Robin Williams—who actually donned a clown’s formal signature, the bulbous red nose, for his role in the film about the real clown doctor Patch Adams—and Poetry Slow Down, you can hear our show on Patch Adams when I interviewed him this summer, yes, wearing the red nose, yes, sticking my finger up my nose, which he required as we posed, on our podcast at They each had so much psychological pain in their sense of lack of self-worth; yet they stood up, literally, in stand-up comic mode, transforming the painful, which they put out there. And in their self-deprecating manic antics, we loved them—and forgave ourselves, in our common understandings of what we all share, this endless struggle for acceptance and being valued, being considered . . . beautiful. Poets have long played this self-deprecating role for us, the clown, in the way Shakespeare conceived the clown, often the only one in the room speaking truth to power—in a healing way—for example, Rumi’s Zero Circle.


The consequences of the ability to see worth, beauty, value in ourselves and our lives and environment are life and death.

So we will discuss the language of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago, its defining signature criteria of wilderness, “Untrammeled.” We’ll compare that with definitions of “wild” and “wilderness” in our Webster’s, and then hear examples of untrammeled poetry, concerned with wild earth, and the poems who inspired Lincoln’s decision to sign The Yosemite Grant in 1864. We’ll hear John Muir as the ecstatic clown, and William Stafford, Ruth Stone, May Sarton, Linda Barba, Billy Collins, Sir Peter Shaffer, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and “Shrek.”

And there the I’s and eyes and ears have it, Poetry Slow Down . . . as we slow down to ogle the beauty in the beast, the ogre, and in the process save our lives, because as Dr. Williams tells us, we need that untrammeled ogre, wild sense of beauty and value, to love and take care and own our world, own as in the Clown, who ponders “this tremendous scene, this whole experiment in green, as if it were his own” (Emily Dickinson):  humbly, making fun of ourselves, our certain fates, in Joan Rivers words, for her funeral today, and e.e. cummings, because “it’s happening,” “happening illimitably.” Don’t get trammeled, slow down with poetry, poetry as stand-up on the page, standing for what is to be redeemed in our lives, our respect for language to understand and express our experience of consciousness . . .hear hear! Thank you for joining me, and please write me at

© Barbara Mossberg 2014

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