Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths
by Krista Tippett, host
After the Tucson shooting — which is when we first aired my interview with Elizabeth Alexander — phrases like “social healing,” “moral imagination,” and “civil discourse” entered our public life for a brief moment.
But those words themselves couldn’t address the divisions and hostilities in American culture now. We have no prominent models, no public habits of navigating difference, that demonstrate what social healing would look like. We’ve locked historic discussions of our meaning and purpose as a nation, as well as large intimate open questions of sexuality and family, into adversarial debates. We don’t merely disagree; we demonize, making the bridging of gulfs between us unthinkable. And now we are watching this play itself out in the halls of Congress in an extreme and tragic way.
So this summer we’ve pulled together our civil conversations of the past year as a well of cumulative wisdom. For the next six weeks, we’ll offer them up side by side as a resource of ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces.
As far back as the election of 2010, the Evangelical thinker and educator Richard Mouw put a fine point on what became an animating question for this series. I’d offer this as a fine question for our public life moving forward: Can we find new ways to treat each other, to live together, even while holding passionate disagreement? The hard truth is, we are not going to reach agreement on many of the issues before us any time soon.
Indeed, from inside one of the most fractious of all issues — that of abortion — Frances Kissling provocatively suggests that our single-minded fixation on resolving conflict, of getting on the same page, “works against really understanding each other, and we don’t understand each other.”
The pragmatism and hopefulness of these conversations start there — in pointing us at basic action, new beginnings we can set in motion, that bring us back from the impossible task of resolving lightning rod issues by bringing others around to our point of view. The philosopher Anthony Appiah, who has studied how seemingly impossible social change happens in societies across time, proposes "sidling up" to difference. What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”
The magnificent civil rights elder and veteran Vincent Harding reminds us gently that we should not be surprised that this kind of simple association with real difference is hard. We are “a developing nation” when it comes to navigating the 21st century’s magnitude of pluralism and change. He has unexpected, hopeful thoughts on how the leadership for this new era will surprise us too.
And Sherry Turkle, who created MIT’s evocatively titled Initiative on Technology and Self, is an empowering voice with her insight into how technology is shaping human relationship on private and public levels. She insists that we can and must shape it to human purposes.
We begin the series, though, with Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisite wisdom on the power of words to be weapons and to be tools in reaching across the puzzling, utterly predictable “gulf” between human beings. By way of poetry, she asks, “Are we not of interest to each other?” If this question accompanied our more usual focus on who is right and who is wrong — even in our most embattled political spaces — how could it change our debates, our approaches to each other, the possibilities we might live into? For that is the challenge before us — to transform these things in the service of the common life we want for ourselves and our children.
We hope this series will be a contribution to it. And we’d love to hear from you.
Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths
by Krista Tippett, host
A man at a coffeehouse in downtown Long Beach reads aloud to himself.
(photo: John Williams/Flickr)
When I listened to our Rumi show back in December, I was struck with new force by Rumi’s notion of “the value of perplexity.” Perplexity is a great word I’d like to use more often. It’s something more nuanced than confusion, more substantive than anxiety. It describes the way many of us feel at this moment in time in the life of the world, I think, and also on a more intimate level at this time of year.
We’re making sense of what’s been, reckoning with that, and also feeling perplexed (which is not the same as hopeless) as we look forward. I was tired at the end of last year and I’m aware of that in many around me too. And the cold and snow in the place I inhabit encourage an animal urge to get under the covers and close one’s eyes.
My interview with Elizabeth Alexander (audio above, mp3) encourages this slowing down and peering inside, as well as seriousness and playfulness with words, and a different kind of reflection than all the popular “end of year” analyses and lists. I’ve become more and more aware, in my years of doing this program, of poetry as a conveyor of truths that cannot be captured in mere fact. Poetry, Elizabeth Alexander also reminds us, is one of the great ways we have to tell our stories, the stories of life. It is a carrier of questions to sit with. There is this question, for example, that ends her poem titled "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe": “Are we not of interest to each other?”
A question like this could be as powerful a tool as any we possess for reorienting our approach to each other in our private and public spaces. So was the question she invoked in a political moment at the presidential inauguration in 2009: “What if the mightiest word is love?”
As Elizabeth Alexander and I frankly discuss, these have been hard months since that historic and exhilarating day on the Washington Mall. But this, for her, makes that question more pointed, more necessary — not less so. During one exchange, I wonder if a discussion about poetry might be a luxury when the crises of our time for many are about basic matters of safety and survival — a job to go to, food to eat, medicine to buy, a roof over one’s head. She comes back at my question with a poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a crucible of poverty and insecurity: “(C)ould a dream sent up through onion fumes/And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall/Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms?”
I have the feeling that we need poetry but sometimes without even knowing it. I’ve noticed how distinctively magnetic it is for us and our listeners when we draw out a Joanna Macy, or hear Wendell Berry, or now sit with Elizabeth Alexander. Poetic language is magnetic and humanizing in a class of its own. But I’m aware too that poetry also demands a quality of attention and vulnerability that other forms of language don’t, which may be why we don’t reach for it as often as we might.
I’ve been reaching for it lately. And I’d like to share a few of the poems that have spoken to me at this turn of year.
To begin, two poems by Elizabeth Alexander. The first I asked her to read is actually the end of a long poem called "Neonatology," about the birth of her oldest son. She paired it with a second, "Autumn Passage," which is about the death of her mother-in-law. This loss unfolded in that same period as she was becoming a mother. “Autumn Passage” is on my mind today, as I have news of the impending death of the mother of one of my dearest friends. (The full poems and her readings can be heard by clicking the links above.)
I’ve also been pondering Rainier Maria Rilke’s "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower," which Joanna Macy translated and read for us back in September. And, finally, a classic, Mary Oliver’s "Wild Geese." This is poetry, as my beloved producer Kate Moos (a poet herself) has pointed out, that has saved lives.
And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to pick up a copy of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. This book of poems collects the work of this major American poet, and brings us new poems as well. From the seminal work of The Venus Hottentot through "Praise Song for the Day," her poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander celebrates the deep moments poetry can illumine.
Our Twitterscript with Poet Elizabeth Alexander
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor + Shubha Bala, associate producer
On December 1, Krista interviewed Elizabeth Alexander, a poet probably best known for her poem "Praise Song for the Day", which she delivered at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. We’re producing this show for release on January 6, our first show of the new year!
We live-tweeted the 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them here for those of you who don’t do Twitter, or those of you who do but don’t follow @Beingtweets, or those of you who follow us but missed the stream because a) you were working or studying or b) because you follow so many people that your stream flows as rapidly as a spring thaw during flood season:
- Krista is starting an interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Obama’s inaugural poet, essayist and teacher http://is.gd/i357R
- "Art arrests us. It makes us stop in the midst. It makes us contemplate" - Elizabeth Alexander
- "I was the proverbial child with the jug ears - I was a listener" - Elizabeth Alexander
- Poet Elizabeth Alexander on being a voracious reader: “Why would you like to make things you also wouldn’t consume?”
- "We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much bologna all the time." - Elizabeth Alexander
- "Children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they are drawn towards language that shimmers." - Elizabeth Alexander
- Elizabeth Alexander tells us about the ‘I’ in poetry by reading us “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” http://is.gd/i391u
- "I look at my children and think as much as I know you I do not know what’s in your head..and yet I crave knowing you that deeply" Alexander
- Elizabeth Alexander shares a story about reading this favorite poem on the Mall for a soundcheck before the inauguration http://is.gd/i3axu
- "Poems are fantastic spaces to arrive at conundrum-y questions." -poet Elizabeth Alexander
- There has to be such a thing as love that doesn’t have to preempt grievance. - Elizabeth Alexander
- "Poems are living organisms - they’re so yeasty. They become more than what they are." - poet Elizabeth Alexander
- "Much to my amazement I’ve been publishing poems for 20 years. And much to my amazement, I’m a middle-aged woman!" -poet Elizabeth Alexander
- "We speak out of what we know and what we have lived. Hopefully from that comes something we call universal." -poet Elizabeth Alexander.
- "My poet self - she’s all intuition.There’s no program. She’s doing as Adrienne Rich said: ‘Diving into the the wreck." -Elizabeth Alexander
- "Communities, tribes, people have always told the story of who they are in song." - poet Elizabeth Alexander
- "You can snatch time to make a poem…They are like grass or flowers coming up in the sidewalk cracks." -poet Elizabeth Alexander
- Elizabeth Alexander describes poetry as “a poor people’s art form.” She says, “You can’t write a novel without a lot of time to yourself.”
- "We crave radiance in this austere world, light in the spiritual darkness." - poet Elizabeth Alexander reading from "Allegiance."
"With Ears Wide Open" — Elizabeth Alexander Talks Poetry with E. Ethelbert Miller
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
One of my favorite moments in the video above occurs at around the 11-minute mark after Elizabeth Alexander recites "Praise Song for the Day," the poem she penned for President Obama’s inauguration. In her recent interview with E. Ethelbert Miller (from "Black and Universal") at The Aspen Institute, Miller asks if she sees parts she’d like to revise when encountering the poem now.
"No, you know me better than that! No. No. Noooo! Done is done! Or else you will go crazy."
A few beats later she continues, “I think it’s important to be able to see who you were: aesthetically, creatively, emotionally — everything that goes into the poem at a particular moment in time. And to let that stand as a record. And to let development happen.”
I appreciate what Alexander is saying here because she’s offering an antidote to self-critical, never-satisfied perfectionism. There’s freedom and lightness in her approach. She can move forward with space and energy to generate new creative work without being freighted by regret.
We’ve had our eye on Elizabeth Alexander for a while as a possible conversation partner for Krista. She’s just released a retrospective collection, Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. I hope we can share her warmth, intelligence, and poetry with our audience in the coming year.
Elizabeth Alexander and Stephen Colbert
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
I loved the inaugural poem Elizabeth Alexander read earlier this week — with its quiet, understated beginning, and how it wound up to this:
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Still, I was a tad surprised to find her on The Colbert Report last night, where she showed she can hold her own with the master satirist, who’s inquiry into the nature of metaphor, by the way, becomes just slightly infected by double entendre that might offend some sensibilities.
The inaugural poem itself is going to be issued as a chapbook by her publisher Graywolf Press — a marvelous literary publisher located in, of all places, St. Paul, Minnesota where we work.