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RENAISSANCE MAN

Robert F. Lurtsema

12:00 AM, Apr 5, 1999 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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November 8, 1996, was, by special order of Mayor Tom Menino, "Robert J. Lurtsema Day" in Boston. And since he isn't Larry Bird or Roger Clemens, it must have pleased Lurtsema immensely that his widely broadcast public radio show, Morning Pro Musica, had finally garnered for him the kind of tribute that cities normally reserve for local sports stars and visiting astronauts.


But Boston was merely recognizing what listeners have known for twenty-five years: Lurtsema -- or Robert J., as his fans call him -- seems the perfect embodiment of a very New-Englandy type: the man who can turn his hand to almost anything. The sixty-some-year-old broadcaster (he refuses to reveal his exact age, saying that he "doesn't like to create any barriers" between himself and his listeners) can charm a radio audience with his wide-ranging comments. He can write a little music (Lurtsema helped compose the theme for Julia Child's television cooking show). He can even produce poetry.


Indeed, he wrote in his A Pocketful of Verse (1991, from Parnassus Imprints) that "the term 'modern Renaissance man' used to bother me when I'd see it in print applied to me." But it only used to, and he's come at last to accept the nomination: Lurtsema is a polymath, a Boston institution, and -- A Pocketful of Verse also reveals -- an out-and-out plagiarist. Every age gets the Renaissance man it deserves, and we get Robert J. Lurtsema.


It was back in October 1971 that Lurtsema began hosting Morning Pro Musica, a program of classical music and talk on WGBH, the National Public Radio affiliate in Boston. He quickly became a local sensation by beginning each morning with the chirping of birds and his own slow, broken cadences. Morning Pro Musica went into syndication from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and Lurtsema became a national NPR figure as well.


He delighted in making the program function at his own deliberate pace. He planned installments months in advance, dedicating whole mornings to obscure composers and sometimes acting conspicuously daffy. (One Earth Day program played nothing but animal noises and crashing waves.) Even his newscasts were the News According to Lurtsema: He edited and summarized the wire reports, broadcasting only what he felt relevant. Some mornings there was no news.


It's hard to keep track of all that Lurtsema relates that he's done. He explains that he's been, at various times, an advertising executive, actor, painter, publisher, photographer, sculptor, writer, composer, broadcast journalist, trapeze artist, diving instructor, and construction worker. And that's not to mention the "unofficial ambassador abroad for American media" and a poet.


"Renaissance man" hardly seems sufficient to describe it all. In A Pocketful of Verse he presents a hodgepodge compendium of his talents. It contains small bits of childhood reminiscence ("I was a natural explorer"). It reproduces his art works, mostly notebook doodles. And then, of course, it prints his poetry.


The poems are clearly important to Lurtsema, for he spends page after page ruminating about their inspiration and meaning. As a child, he guilelessly relates, he "would spend entire days talking in rhyme." The childishness is what remains. "It may help to know a little bit about meter," he observes, but "one of the delights of writing poetry or, for that matter, working in any art form, is that you get to make up the rules as you go along."


Some of his poems are low-rent A. A. Milne, without Milne's skill and joy in meter:


Words Words are toys, things to play with, play with, play on. Played out? Play on!


Some are progressive paeans, such as "A Rainbow in Auckland," a rhythmically awkward poem in praise of environmental sabotage. But at least his "Ode to A.A.," about Alcoholics Anonymous, shows flashes of genuine talent, relating how the drunkard's foot still reaches for the railing on a bar even while he's on the wagon:


My heart is all resigned and calm So, likewise, is my soul, But my habituated foot Is quite beyond control.


If this isn't quite enough for Lurtsema to quit his day job, it's still pretty good light verse. Good enough, in fact, to have been published before. In the New York Sun. Around 1920. Under the byline Don Marquis and the title "The Old Brass Railing."


Lurtsema introduces "Ode to A.A." with a description of how his poetic skills helped him in the Navy: "My knack for rhyme came in handy in many ways, not the least of which was entertaining the troops with lusty limericks, ribald rhymes, or epic ballads on trivial topics."