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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

"When Death Comes" by Mary Oliver

As you read this poem, ask yourself a simple question and take some time to ponder it: "How, then, shall I live?"

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.

Barn’s burnt down -
I can see the moon.
- Mizuta Masahide, 1657-1723
Tagged: #poem

Detroit Becoming, Detroit Jesus

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Campus Martius Fountain in Detroit Kids play at the Campus Martius Fountain in Detroit. (photo: Maia C./Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

After listening to this week’s show with Grace Lee Boggs ("Becoming Detroit"), Peter Putnam sent this inspired response:

"Time Inc. was here for a year — and this is the story they missed: Detroit becoming. Full disclosure: I’ve known Grace since 1993. In fact, I met my wife, Julia, through Detroit Summer, Grace and Jimmy’s (r)evolutionary idea to utilize the spirit of young people to revitalize, re-imagine, and re-spirit Detroit. Julia was actually Detroit Summer’s first volunteer and is now deep in the process of creating a place-based school in Detroit, the Boggs Educational Center, that will draw on many of the people and principles that came out in your show. Ending with Invincible’s hip-hop song was also right on.”

He then ended his note with this poem, which he composed for Grace Lee Boggs on her 96th birthday:

Detroit Jesus

Time, Inc., buys a house in Detroit
and tries to track him for a year.
But he’s invisible to those looking for a
            blue-eyed dude in a white robe
or for a city gone completely to hell.

He is the cinnamon of my son’s skin
with a green thumb and a Tigers cap
and my daughter’s dove-grey eyes.
He prays into Blair’s guitar,
hangs out on Field St.,
bakes bread at Avalon
and plants tomatoes on the East side.
He rides his old-school bike down the heart
            of Grand River,
paints a mural in the Corridor,
shoots hoop in the Valley
with priests and pimps and lean young men
trying to jump their way to heaven.

At night,
while the Border Patrol counts cars,
he walks across the water
            to Windsor,
grabs a bite to eat,
walks back.

Like Grace,
born in Providence,
he lives so simply,
he could live anywhere:
Dublin, Palestine, Malibu.
But Detroit is his home.
It was here one Sunday
a boy invited him down
            off the cross
and into his house
for a glass of Faygo red pop.

That was centuries ago, it seems,
and how far he’s come,
reinventing himself more times than Malcolm.
He’s been to prison,
been to college,
has a tattoo of Mary Magdalene on one arm,
Judas on the other,
and knows every Stevie Wonder song by heart.

He’s Jimmy, he’s Invincible, he’s Eminem.
He’s the girls at Catherine Ferguson
            and their babies,
and he’s the deepest part of Kwame
still innocent as a baby.

The incinerator is hell,
but he walks right in,
burns it up with love,
comes out the other side,
walks on.

He can say Amen in twelve religions,
believes school is any place
where head and heart and hands
and wears a gold timepiece around his neck
with no numbers, just a question:
What time is it on the clock of the world?

And every second of every day
he answers that question
with a smile wide as the Ambassador
and a heart as big as Belle Isle,
hugging this city in his arms
and whispering to each soul
words no one else dares to say:
You are Jesus,
this is your Beloved Community,
and the time
on the clock of the world
is Now.

Without Art, we should have no notion of the sacred; without Science, we should always worship false gods.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973), from “The Virgin & The Dynamo” in the collection The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays.

(via amiquote)

Tagged: #poetry #poem

Our Twitterscript with Poet Elizabeth Alexander

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor + Shubha Bala, associate producer

Poet Elizabeth AlexanderOn 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:

  1. Krista is starting an interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Obama’s inaugural poet, essayist and teacher http://is.gd/i357R (9:02 AM Dec 1st) 
  2. "Art arrests us. It makes us stop in the midst. It makes us contemplate" - Elizabeth Alexander (9:06 AM Dec 1st)
  3. "I was the proverbial child with the jug ears - I was a listener" - Elizabeth Alexander (9:10 AM Dec 1st)
  4. Poet Elizabeth Alexander on being a voracious reader: “Why would you like to make things you also wouldn’t consume?” (9:18 AM Dec 1st)
  5. "We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much bologna all the time." - Elizabeth Alexander (9:20 AM Dec 1st)
  6. "Children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they are drawn towards language that shimmers." - Elizabeth Alexander (9:21 AM Dec 1st)
  7. Elizabeth Alexander tells us about the ‘I’ in poetry by reading us “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” http://is.gd/i391u (9:24 AM Dec 1st)
  8. "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 (9:27 AM Dec 1st)
  9. Elizabeth Alexander shares a story about reading this favorite poem on the Mall for a soundcheck before the inauguration http://is.gd/i3axu (9:33 AM Dec 1st)
  10. "Poems are fantastic spaces to arrive at conundrum-y questions." -poet Elizabeth Alexander (9:36 AM Dec 1st)
  11. There has to be such a thing as love that doesn’t have to preempt grievance. - Elizabeth Alexander (9:37 AM Dec 1st)
  12. "Poems are living organisms - they’re so yeasty. They become more than what they are." - poet Elizabeth Alexander (9:41 AM Dec 1st)
  13. "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 (9:44 AM Dec 1st)
  14. "We speak out of what we know and what we have lived. Hopefully from that comes something we call universal." -poet Elizabeth Alexander. (9:53 AM Dec 1st)
  15. "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 (9:56 AM Dec 1st)
  16. "Communities, tribes, people have always told the story of who they are in song." - poet Elizabeth Alexander (10:00 AM Dec 1st)
  17. "You can snatch time to make a poem…They are like grass or flowers coming up in the sidewalk cracks." -poet Elizabeth Alexander (10:04 AM Dec 1st)
  18. 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.” (10:12 AM Dec 1st)
  19. "We crave radiance in this austere world, light in the spiritual darkness." - poet Elizabeth Alexander reading from "Allegiance." (10:19 AM Dec 1st)

"Divine Love"

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A lovely little video poem from past guest E. Ethelbert Miller happened upon via his tweet.

Tagged: #poem #video #love

Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

by Kate Moos, managing producer

Philip LevineI love Philip Levine — poet of the working stiff. I go back again and again to his poetry with its precise cadence, its anger and patience and enduring beauty. Levine, who grew up in Detroit and spent time on its assembly lines, is a veteran chronicler of work, of the work that is labor.

As you rest from your labor, assuming you do rest, enjoy the treat of reading his fine poem about learning what work is, and the further treat of hearing him tell the story behind the poem before reciting it here courtesy of the Internet Poetry Archive.

The sketch to the left is drawn by N.C. Mallory/Flickr and posted here via Creative Commons.


Behind the Scenes: Picking Poems
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

This week’s show, "Black and Universal" with poet E. Ethelbert Miller, features a rich smattering of readings — from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to the poetry of Lucille Clifton, and some poems by Miller himself.

We spent a lot of time deliberating about these selections: which ones to include, how long they should be, who should voice them (Krista? Our managing producer Kate? An outside reader?).

Lucille Clifton’s "won’t you celebrate with me" is one of the poems that made the final cut. The poem is short, easy for a listener to grasp, and flows nicely out of Miller’s musings about blackness, beauty, and Michelle Obama. Here’s the clincher that sealed the deal: audio of Clifton reading the poem in her own voice. The power of her delivery took those words on the page to a whole new level.

We also considered Elizabeth Alexander's poem "John Col" for this same slot in the show. Alexander explores the wrought beauty of John Coltrane’s music — music that has influenced Miller personally and poetically. Kate was particularly enamored with this poem, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I especially like these lines and how they read like Coltrane’s music sounds:

a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn


Poetry Gone Video Viral
Trent Gilliss, online editor

Poetry. What can I say. Verse slakes our audiences’ thirst; many of us imbibe poetry in binges. Yet, most people — well, I — don’t regularly take the time to sit down and read a chapbook, much less a poem these days. These cinematic tableaux (embedded above and below) commissioned by BBC’s Poetry Season rekindle that flame and force me to reconsider my lethargic attitude.

Perhaps it’s remembering the shared commonality of a poem, the power of it being read aloud and its reminder to us that people living several hundred years ago weren’t so different from us. We, too often, internalize poetry and disconnect ourselves from the communal act. The human condition speaks to the lonely wanderer in a crowded room as much as on a wayward street.

My hope is that projects like this, and even our own efforts as part of the Poetry Radio Project, can reclaim this pop heritage. Poems can elevate the understanding and relevance of complex topics like Alzheimer’s and memory, Argentina’s disappeared, and a geologist’s view of human fragility through more than the intellect.

To be frank, I played rock-paper-scissors with myself and let Blake’s poem "Jerusalem" take the lead. But the slow-motion video of Brit punk rocker Itch of The King Blues reading Byron’s "So We’ll Go No More a Roving" was impossible to ignore.


Suffering and Poetry
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer

In his essay, "Ecce Homo," Xavier Le Pichon talks about his mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s. He explains that she was aware of her memory loss long before she was diagnosed. After her death, he says he came upon some of her diaries, which revealed how she tried to hide her memory loss.

Le Pichon relates this discovery to a poem his mother taught him, Le Vase Brisé" ("The Broken Vase"), written by 19th-century French poet, Sully Prudhomme. In his essay, Le Pichon remembers the poem like this:

"The vase where the verbena is dying
Was cracked by the blow of a fan.
The blow barely grazed it
As no noise revealed it.
But the light bruise
Biting the metal each day
With an invisible but sure hand
Slowly progressed around it.”

The original French version of the poem, published in 1865, was slightly different. I asked poet Robert Archambeau to translate it. He recommended that his colleague at Lake Forest College, Jean-Luc Garneau, read both the French and English versions of the poem, and talked about Sully Prudhomme — his background, his style of writing, and what he may have been trying to say about suffering in his poem.

It’s interesting to connect Garneau’s comments about Sully Prudhomme to Krista’s interview with Xavier Le Pichon. As Garneau says, Prudhomme, along with a few other poets, started the Parnassian School of poetry, a style of writing that rejected sentimentality for scientific precision and detachment. Prudhomme’s poem centers around the idea of fragility — a vase that was cracked by the slightest breeze from a fan. It’s a crack that not only goes unnoticed, but also renders the vase unable to keep its flowers alive. Garneau points out Prudhomme’s scientific distance in the line “the vase is broken: do not touch,” which, he says, suggests suffering should not be interfered with.

When I hear Garneau discuss the poem, I think about Le Pichon describing how he felt he was so immersed in his scientific pursuits that he was not able to see the suffering of others, and that it is through “walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.”

Later in his interview with Krista, Le Pichon recalls what it meant for him to see his mother experience Alzheimer’s: “My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and I could see what the suffering was and that requires from us to invent a new way to deal with this person, with the suffering, to make their life possible, humane. And at each age you have new challenges and you have to face them. And this is how we build the humanity. The humanity is given to us at the possibility of old age, at each birth, and it has to be constructed. It has to be built. It is hard work.”

As Garneau describes what Prudhomme was communicating through the poem, it strikes me as contradictory to Le Pichon’s belief in facing suffering, engaging with it — his idea that fragility is “at the heart of humanity.” I’d be curious to hear more thoughts about how this poem connects with the show and why it surfaces in Le Pichon’s writing.

But, it’s not just “The Broken Vase” that captured Le Pichon’s attention. It is clear from “Ecce Homo” that Le Pichon sees suffering and poetry as intimately linked. He writes:

"As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic and (or) poetic. This has probably been the origin of metaphysics, of art and poetry, which give us the capacity to project ourselves beyond the immediate reality of the difficulties of our life."


Yeats Reminds Me
Trent Gilliss, online editor

Today is William Butler Yeats birthday. Reading his obituary, I paused on his words about Ireland: “We are a nation of believers. We produce anti-clerics, but atheists, never.” I wanted to know what the great poet meant by that so I started digging for the source of his quote.

After falling short on a number of searches, I stumbled upon this panel discussion of leading journalists around the country discussing the historical relationship of religion and secularism. Scanning the transcript, I thought, “Boy, Krista really should have participated in this… maybe she did?” Lo and behold, a find within the transcript revealed that she was there. The date of the conference: December 2007.

Not exactly breaking news but well worth watching if you’re interested in listening to leading journalists discuss religion in public life. And, please drop me a line if you have any idea about the Yeats quote.

To end, a couple of lines from "In the Seven Woods":

I am contented, for I know that Quiet
Wanders laughing and eating her wild heart