Jean Shepherd always improvised on his radio broadcast. Except when he didn’t. (As I quote Shepherd’s fellow broadcaster Barry Farber regarding Shepherd in my Excelsior, You Fathead!, “Never had a script or anything. Good Lord! Don’t ever use the word ’script’ anywhere in your book!”) Others who saw Shepherd perform on his radio broadcasts say the same thing. So we know it’s true. Those who saw him enter the studio report that sometimes he would have a couple of words scribbled on a scrap of paper to remind him of subjects, and, it’s apparent from some of his broadcasts (and his statements that he did “work” on some of his material in advance), that, though he did not write out any details, sometimes he had a good plan in mind regarding where and how he would proceed with his improvisation. As he once put it, he was like a jazz musician knowing the “Tea for Two” melody and creatively taking off from it.
But on rare occasions he did read from published material. “When?” you might ask in disbelief. Not to worry. As far as we know, he was always upfront about it. All Shepherd listeners will recognize what I’ll be describing, and no one will be offended by the truth—as obvious this all is to many listeners, it remains of some interest to put it on paper to contemplate. Let’s just mention the kinds of stuff he occasionally read right off the printed page.
NEWS NOTES—STRAWS IN THE WIND
Sometimes he read short news notes from periodicals, usually of odd little occurrences found down at the bottom of the newspaper page or on back pages. He would refer to the location as “the silly section” of the paper—usually The New York Times. Some of these he found himself and some were sent to him by listeners. He would comment on the article, suggesting that humanity was certainly foible-filled.
STORIES FROM HIS OWN BOOKS
On a couple of holidays, he might read from his own works. These stories he had first improvised on the radio, then had published in magazines and then in his books. Some years at Christmas he read his BB gun story, “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.” Near July Fourth he would sometimes read his story of Ludlow Kissel and his fireworks disaster.
HAIKU and other POEMS
Occasionally he read a few poems by a variety of poets, mostly American. Usually they would only occupy a small portion of a program.
Haiku, a short, condensed form of Japanese poetry, limited to seventeen syllables, especially fascinated him. He devoted considerable portions of at least a few programs to them. Under his readings he would have traditional Japanese koto music played softly. Shepherd must have inspired many listeners to delve into haiku themselves—my first edition paperback is copyright 1958, and I know that he inspired me to buy and read it. I have subsequently enjoyed haiku for many years.
What is it about haiku that attracted Shepherd? My copy of An Introduction to Haiku, with translation and commentary by Harold G. Henderson notes that “Primarily it is a poem; and being a poem it is intended to express and to evoke emotion.” Haiku has been exceeding popular in Japan for hundreds of years–millions of the short poems are written yearly by millions of ordinary citizens. Henderson mentions that most haiku suggest a season of the year. He also writes that, “they usually gain their effect not only by suggesting a mood, but also by giving a clear-cut picture which serves as a starting point for trains of thought and emotion.” The back cover of the book comments that Henderson’s analysis shows that “haiku is a very exacting form indeed, requiring compliance with the strictest aesthetic standards of concreteness, objectivity, and suggestiveness.”
I suggest that all of this struck a strong cord, appealing to Shepherd’s own propensity for seeing his world with acute observation and expressing it with exactness.
Translation into English must alter the original enormously. I doubt that many of the original Japanese rhymed. Here’s an early one from my haiku book—thus maybe not quite of classic style—that I imagine appealed to Shepherd:
Dewdrops, limpid, small—
And such a lack of judgment shown
In where they fall!