Rives: Which Time Of Day Is Both Too Early And Too Late? Poet Rives explores why 4 in the morning has become popular shorthand for the strangest hour of the day.

Rives: Which Time Of Day Is Both Too Early And Too Late?

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So let's move up from a second to an hour and a theory about why one hour in particular seems to be so different from all the others - 4 a.m.

RIVES: Poets, when they talk about 4 in the morning, often do mention it as a time of extraordinary stillness; placidness or of magic. They're really talking about this time as something special.

RAZ: This is Rives - just Rives. He's actually a poet himself.

RIVES: I say I'm a poet. That's what I put on my tax return.

RAZ: And for years, Rives has been obsessed with 4 a.m.


RAZ: A time he insists that you have to kind of experience for yourself.


RIVES: Good morning.

RAZ: Hi, Reeves.

RIVES: (Laughter) Good morning, Guy. Welcome to 04:00.

RAZ: Wow, this is what it feels like? Just waking up.

RIVES: Did you set an alarm?

RAZ: Yeah, I set an alarm.

RIVES: OK, are you inside?

RAZ: Yeah, inside.

RIVES: Well, I don't think you're getting the picture.

RAZ: All right, well, I can go outside. Let me go outside. Go outside.

RIVES: Me, I'm standing in the middle of the street.

RAZ: Oh.

RIVES: Can you hear the birds or can you smell the jasmine? I mean, can you see another person?

RAZ: No, there's nobody else outside.


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) It's 4 in the morning, the end of December.

RAZ: Here's how Rives described the 4 a.m. hour on the TED stage.


RIVES: Did you ever notice that 4 in the morning has become some sort of meme or shorthand? It means something like you are awake at the worst possible hour.


RIVES: A time for inconveniences, mishaps, yearnings; a time for plotting to whack the chief of police like in this classic scene from the Godfather. Coppola's script describes these guys exhausted in shirtsleeves - it is 4 in the morning.


RIVES: A time for even grimmer stuff than that, like autopsies and embalmings in Isabel Allende's "The House Of The Spirits." After the breathtaking green-haired Rosa is murdered, the doctors preserve her with unguents and mortician's paste. They worked until 4 o'clock in the morning; a time for even grimmer stuff than that. Like, in last April's New Yorker magazine, this short fiction piece by Martin Amos starts out (reading) On September 11, 2001, he opened his eyes at 4 a.m. in Portland, Maine, and Mohamed Atta's last day began. For a time that I find to be the most placid and uneventful hour of the day - 4 in the morning sure gets an awful lot of bad press...


RIVES: ...Across a lot of different media from a lot of big names, and it made me suspicious. I figured surely some of the most creative, artistic minds in the world really aren't all defaulting back to this one easy trope like they invented it, right. Could it be there is something more going on here?


PAUL SIMON: (Singing) Four in the morning, crapped out, yawning, longing my life away.

RAZ: So why is it - is it like 4 but not 3 or, like, 5?

RIVES: Well, I think 3 is a junior varsity 4 in the morning.

RAZ: (Laughter).

RIVES: A good example is F. Scott Fitzgerald talks about 3 in the morning courage - no man has courage at 3 in the morning. But there aren't really any dire 3 in the mornings in "The Great Gatsby." There's a really dire 4 in the morning. Jay Gatsby waits for Daisy the last night of his life, and she comes to the window and disappears. Five in the morning - you can tap on someone's window at 4 in the morning, and it's still romantic. You tap on someone's window at 5 in the morning, they're like, nah, dude, I got to get up.

RAZ: Or they're like, let's go jogging.

RIVES: Right, right, the day is already started.

RAZ: Yeah.

It's like that weird sort of transitional time where like, the mothers are sleeping, the joggers are sleeping, morning people are sleeping, the night owls are pretty much asleep. Like, the only one awake is you. You're the only one.

RIVES: Well, there's a paper guy and a tram just went by, and there was a driver and one passenger so one driver, one dude. So there's those guys. And I don't know, there's, you know, there's nobody around just a few people. The street lights are still on. As hard as the perception of time goes, there's a song when you're all alone, "It's Always 4 a.m."


SHIRLEY BASSEY: (Singing) The world is cold. The night is still.

RIVES: Yeah, I think 4 in the morning is the modern dark and stormy night.


BASSEY: (Singing) When you're all alone, it's always 4 a.m.

RAZ: Why does time feel so differently at this very special moment in the day? Do we know?

RIVES: Well, first of all, I think it feels special because for most people, it's a foreign land. So it feels special the way that Paris feels special. You only go every once in a while, or the flipside is that's why it feels threatening or dire or weird or uncanny. But if you're in the mood, there's no better time to read a book, and there's no better time to work on that novel. And it's a little bit lonely sometimes, but I know 4 in the morning. So it feels like something very familiar to me.

RAZ: Well, I'm awake now. So I don't think I'm going back to sleep. And I think I'm going to start the day.

RIVES: Well, thanks for the visit to the country of 04:00.

RAZ: Yeah, thanks for having me. Thank you. All right, man. Good night.

RIVES: Good night. Good morning.

RAZ: That's Rives. He's a poet and the curator of The Museum of Four in the Morning, which is actually a website. You can find it at fourinthemorning.com, and you can see several more talks by Rives at ted.com. Our show today, shifting time. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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