Studs Terkel: Using a populist style to tell populist history

My first official introduction to Bronx-born Studs Terkel was in Willie Perdomo’s VONA Poetry class two years back. Willie was constantly challenging us to view the creation of political poetry from as many vectors as possible and kept bringing in material that challenged the notion that there is only one way to write political poetry.

One example was Studs Terkel’s 1961 interview with Gwendolyn Brooks that was reprinted in Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. Studs’ admiration for Brooks is very present throughout the interview but more than anything, I really dig how he keeps asking her to read more poems, reads a few of her poems himself (“May I try reading this?”), and then brings in an outside recording of “Sir Patrick Spence” to broaden their conversation on the ballad form.

Man, I am so feelin’ this interview and Turkel’s reverence for the office of “poet,” how he feels it elevates and chronicles the people. Which is the cruz of Willie’s discussion: How do you stay true to your craft but still relate to those who you are writing about?

Gwendolyn Brooks’ response:

By the time I began to write Annie Allen I was very much impressed with the effectiveness of technique, and I wanted to write poetry that was honed to the last degree it could be. … I no longer feel that this is the proper attitude to have when you sit down to write poetry, but that’s how I felt then… I feel that my poems should be written more in the mood that I had when I wrote A Street in Bronzeville. I was just interested in putting people down on paper and, although it’s rougher than Anne Allen, I feel there’s more humanity in it.

That quest for “more humanity” seems to be one that Terkel also shared in. His list of oral histories is not only impressive but also takes an approach that honors the traditions of the griot while simultaneously predating the current trend of user-generated content that is driving Web 2.0 to replace the network news and local papers.

It’s looking like I’m going to have a lot of Studs Terkel to catch up on but this appraisal from the NY Times and this YouTube from UCTV seem like two great places to start.

He Gave Voice to Many, Among Them Himself
By Edward Rothstein

Mr. Terkel anticipated the academic movement of recent decades to tell history from below — not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it. He once said he was interested in the masons who might have built the Chinese Wall, or the cooks in Caesar’s army. That is also one of oral history’s implicit ambitions: using a populist style to tell populist history. The oral historian does little more than hold up a mirror, just making sure the glass is clean. The practice claims to be self-effacing and world-revealing. How can a collection of interviews be anything else?

But if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end.

Full article can be found here.

Conversations with History: Studs Terkel

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