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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.

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.

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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."

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Poem: “Homespun Love” by Alicia Partnoy
» download the poem in English (mp3, 0:49)

Poet Alicia Partnoy

» download the poem in Spanish (mp3, 0:40)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

For next week’s program — tentatively titled “Laying the Dead to Rest: Meeting Forensic Anthropologist Mercedes Doretti” — we are weaving in the poetry of one of the people who disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War, Alicia Partnoy. What’s even better, she graciously accepted our invitation to read four of her poems, in English and in Spanish.

Here is the first set of poems I could bounce and encode for you to hear before we air the program. I’ll be putting up the other ones in the coming days. Please note that what you’ll hear above will be markedly different from the versions included in the program. These are the poems as she recorded them — a straightforward, passionate reading.

But, when we produce them for the program, we take a different approach. We want to immerse you in the moment, give you space to reflect and breathe in the words of the poem as well as the import of Doretti’s experiences. Mitch might give an extra second at the end of a line of verse, volume graph certain words or lines, or bed the poems with music.

If you’d like, I’d be glad to post those more highly produced versions in addition to the ones I’m posting today and through the weekend. Let me know what you think. Personally, I still marvel at the difference — for the better or the worse sometimes. I can’t wait to hear them in the context of the final show.

In the meantime, I hope you’re as moved as I am by these lovely points of light and darkness.

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