SPRINGFIELD — Back when Conrad Balliet was in the service overseas, a big cardboard box of paperback books would frequently be made available to the troops.
“There’d be 40 or 50 books,” he recalled.
Anything with a woman on it went first, and went fast.
So by the time Balliet got to the box, he was always left with stuff like “The Fireside Book of Verse.”
“Nobody wanted the poetry,” he said.
It was there, as an 18-year-old draftee working in the office of a war crimes unit in postwar Germany, that Balliet first found himself moved by the likes of Longfellow and Tennyson.
Now 84, the retired Wittenberg University English professor has spent nearly two decades sharing his love of poetry in a forum that’s a lot like the big box of books — most people still go straight for the titillating stuff.
Little else on the radio today sounds like “Conrad’s Corner,” Balliet’s nightly reading of poetry on 91.3 FM WYSO that lasts little more than a minute and always ends with his congenial send-off, “Thanks for listening.”
Even by public radio standards, Balliet’s program — in which he simply reads a poem or two unaccompanied by music or other sounds — practically catches the listener off guard.
“My audience is probably the average person who isn’t going to love poetry. I doubt if people tune in just to hear me read,” Balliet confessed. “I try not to make it something that’s too intellectual.
“I try not to put on a stereotype.”
Since 1993, he’s volunteered his time to read poetry on-air, for the most part to keep his mind active in retirement.
“I did not miss freshman English,” he said. “What I missed was my love of sharing poetry.”
Each night, there’s always the hope that someone out there will feel what he feels.
“Wordsworth describes poetry as the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ ” Balliet explained. “An emotional response is what I hope for.”
Often, he picks a poem that correlates with an event in his own life.
After all, there are those times when the best words already have been written.
During the course of the show, there have been those times — the time he lost his wife to cancer a year short of their 50th anniversary, the time more recently when the second love of his life succumbed to Alzheimer’s and the time cancer came back to claim his daughter.
“I get very involved with a poem,” Balliet said. “I don’t think most people know it, but sometimes I’m crying at the end.”
A native of eastern Pennsylvania’s coal region who came to Springfield in 1961 to teach English at Wittenberg, Balliet is such a staunch advocate of poetry it’s easy to assume he writes it, too.
“Sometimes they call me WYSO’s poet in residence,” he said. “I know good poetry from bad.
“What I write is pretty bad.”
But perhaps more than anything, you can’t help but notice the poetry in Balliet’s life.
In 2000, the year after his wife, Marion, passed away, he finally moved to the 42-acre farm they’d bought in 1977 near Pitchin.
“My wife never wanted to move out here,” he said. “She liked Springfield. She had friends. She liked to shop.”
Out in the Clark County countryside, he built a house with a tower that overlooks a pond called Lake Marion.
The view from the top is, well, poetic.
The tower is his version of the one William Butler Yeats called home — and from which the great Irish poet pondered what it meant to grow old.
“Yeats is the one,” he said, “who has moved me most deeply.”
Balliet started seriously reading poetry while in the Army.
“Japan surrendered,” he explained, “on the day I was drafted.”
He ended up spending the next two years in Dachau, Germany, as a clerk in a war crimes office, as he put it, “to find out who did what.”
“It was a real education for a small-town kid from a Christian home where you were taught to turn the other cheek,” he said.
More than 65 years later, Balliet still has several of the tiny paperbacks of poetry — the “armed services edition” of books with titles like “Love Poems.”
“It does for me what music does for other people,” he said. “People react emotionally to music. I react emotionally to poetry. I don’t know why.”
It’s even harder to say what makes for a good poem.
“What makes a good song? What makes a good movie?” he wondered.
“All I’m quite sure of,” he added, quoting Shakespeare, “is if two men ride on a horse, one must ride behind.”
Of course, poetry is a lot like the radio of literature — it’s easy to ignore.
“A lot of people have an aversion to it,” Balliet said.
“They have the impression it’s different and difficult and they don’t like it, and they’re glad when they don’t have anything to do with it.”
When “Conrad’s Corner” briefly expanded on WYSO to a half-hour, Arbitron only confirmed that suspicion.
“What they found,” Balliet said, “was when ‘Conrad’s Corner’ came on, the ratings went down.”
Still, one poem is better than none.
Balliet is just happy to have his nightly minute.
“I look upon it,” he said, “as a highlight in my life.”
Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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