Robert F. Lurtsema
12:00 AM, Apr 5, 1999 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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."
But William Porth, a lawyer in Charleston, West Virginia, recently noticed the striking similarity of Lurtsema's "Ode to A.A." to a poem reprinted in Marquis's 1921 collection The Old Soak and Hail and Farewell. The similarity is more than striking; it's nearly exact. Of Lurtsema's nineteen stanzas, eleven are precise replicas of Marquis's, and the eight others very close.
It would be nice if Lurtsema's plagiarism helped restore interest in Don Marquis. There was a time -- back when Ogden Nash was the most prolific poet for the New Yorker -- that light verse was enormously popular in America. But those days have mostly gone, and only a little of Marquis survives. He created his best-known characters, Archy and Mehitabel, in his 1920s newspaper column, "The Sun Dial." Archy was a cockroach who lived in the city and wrote free verse by hurling himself headfirst against the keys of a typewriter, and Mehitabel was an old cat, jaded by the changing times in New York. Marquis's column would run as though written by Archy (with no capital letters because the diminutive insect couldn't use the shift key). But Archy wasn't just a cockroach, he was a poet whose precocious first words were "expression is the need of my soul."
Marquis wrote nearly three dozen books, but he died just short of sixty years old, and his last fourteen years were filled with tragedy. He was always a hard drinker; E. B. White relates the story of Marquis, at the end of a month as a teetotaler, walking up to the bar and declaring, "I've conquered that god-damn will power of mine. Gimme a double scotch." He lost his only son at age five, and then his wife. He remarried, only to lose his only daughter at thirteen, and then his second wife. In the end, all he had was his work.
Once, while ostensibly describing Archy, Marquis revealed the cost of his own small craftsmanship: "After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion."
The life of our modern Renaissance man, Robert J. Lurtsema, has been considerably more charmed than Marquis's. Knowing where his inspiration derives, the reader may laugh when Lurtsema solemnly invokes the Muse in A Pocketful of Verse and explains that talk of her "can lead to all kinds of philosophical discussions on just where the material comes from in the first place."
But his material has served him very, very well, as he sits in the study of his house by a pond in Wellesley, working in watercolors during the evenings and recording a national radio program in the mornings. He's fond of telling a story of the satisfactions of his fame. When he injured himself skiing in Colorado, the local doctor decided he needed twenty-six stitches. And when "I said I hoped he was a good tailor," the doctor recognized Lurtsema's dulcet voice, and "turning around wide-eyed, the doctor shouted, 'Robert J.? Is that you?' And I assured him it was."
It is finally the pretentiousness that is unbearable. There are, of course, genuine Renaissance men who do things in many different fields. And then there are the sham Renaissance men who want to be perceived to have done things in many different fields. Robert J. Lurtsema's pretension may be forgivable. It's certainly human. But plagiarism is wrong.
Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.