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Selected Readings

'Poetry Is Not a Luxury' by Audre Lorde

Ms. Alexander cites this classic essay that says that poetry "forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action."

Selected Poems

'Kitchenette Building' by Gwendolyn Brooks

On the day before the President Obama's inauguration in 2009, Elizabeth Alexander recited this poem on the mall for a soundcheck. And hundreds of people stopped, listened, and clapped.

'One Week Later in the Strange' by Elizabeth Alexander

In this poem, Ms. Alexander says that the late Lucille Clifton informed her fluid approach to "a very deep kind of ancestral understanding... that moves us into the future." Includes the audio of the poet reading her work.

'Neonatology' by Elizabeth Alexander

The last poem of a longer work, Ms. Alexander puts this together with her poem "Autumn Passage" as an example of having those experiences of giving birth and the privilege of sitting with one near the end of life.

'Autumn Passage' by Elizabeth Alexander

Listen to Ms. Alexander recite this poem with and without music. Which one do you like better? In our show she reads this after "Neonatology" and surprises herself with the appropriateness of the pairing.

'Praise Song for the Day' by Elizabeth Alexander

An excerpt of the poem Ms. Alexander read at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

'Ars Poetica #100: I Believe' by Elizabeth Alexander

Listen to Ms. Alexander recite this poem with and without music. Which one do you like better?

'Translator (James Covey)' by Elizabeth Alexander

Listen to Ms. Alexander recite this poem with and without music. Which one do you like better?

Three Poems from 'Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color' by Elizabeth Alexander

Listen to Ms. Alexander recite this poem with and without music. Which one do you like better?

Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog

Elizabeth Alexander discusses truth, metaphor and language with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report the day after delivering "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's first inauguration.

With the unseasonably mild winter, a poem reflecting on how our inner and outer lives take shape in unpredictable ways.

A reflection on the different interpretations of a single poem and how one man's experience of suffering affects his reading of "Le Vase Brisé" ("The Broken Vase").

Marie Howe uses poetry to explore disagreement + the distance between people.

Elizabeth Alexander on poetry, the art of revision and letting creative expressions be, and remaining open to the world around you with E. Ethelbert Miller.

Brian Blade's poetic description of Joni Mitchell's "chords of inquiry."

A guest contributor uses poetry as a vehicle for processing his faith, doubts and depression during the Advent season.

This week's reflection on the words of Martin Luther King Jr., poetry, nourishment from our listeners, the goodness in sport, and the power of family.

These vids from BBC's "Poetry Season" bring Byron and Blake to life — through punk rock and a soccer presser? Absolutely riveting!

About the Image

A man at a coffeehouse in downtown Long Beach reads aloud to himself.

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This particular show brought tears to my eyes as I listened to it on my way home Sunday morning. I was working all Saturday during the day and all night on the Labor and Delivery floor at a hospital in New York City. When I heard Elizabeth Walker read "giving birth is like jazz, something from silence, then all of it" it literally took my breath away. That is exactly what it's like. Then when she went on to talk about the how the expectant is no longer the celebrity.... incredible. It was such wonderful timing that I happen to tune in at that moment as I was leaving the labor floor. Ms Tippet, you mentioned in your last show that most people come across your show by accident, I find that is true for me over and over again.
Thank you so much for your show. It is what makes NPR glow.

A letter of mine got published in Birder's World in 2004. As soon as you started talking about "words that shimmer," I related it to that story. I exactly what you mean about power. Even parrots can discern it ...

"In response to Eldon Greij's December 2003 article (p.76) asking whether Alex [the famous african gray parrot in Dr. Irene Pepperberg's studies] is thinking, let me say this: For 10 years, I've kept an aviary with 23 birds. I'm not teaching them to mimic humans. I want to experience birdness, not train performers. So acquiring a talking Timneh [African] Gray from a person who has moved to Alaska has rocked my world. The Gray has all my other birds trying to talk. They see how it works for him and they want that power. They're no longer satisfied with clicks and whistles.

My new bird tries to lure me to his cage using tone of voice, correct language, and novel word usage. He says, "Birdy. C'mere. C'mon. I no bite you. I really mean it. C'mon." Who taught that avian creature a few rungs down the evolutionary ladderl to use pronouns? He recognizes 'power words' that achieve a desired effect. I have to be careful not to get emotional around him because it teaches him how to manipulate me. As it is, he laughs in the right places using that funny little extra sigh people add when their stomachs ache: "Ha ha ha, ahhh." Lord only knows what that room will sound like in a few years when all those birds can talk and giggle."

I wanna add a little insight into what the second decade of living with parrots has taught me. I have rescued two more talking parrots --a macaw and a cockatoo. I came home from work after accidentally leaving the Gray's door unlatched last week. He mowed all my hanging plants (which are bird safe) and the whole aviary greeted me with kissy noises. I took it as a sign of how far we've come. Although I've only made the mistake of leaving a Senegal parrot unattended once before, it resulted in a very dramatic scene born of passion and revenge. Since then, I've spent a lot of time showing them how to let go of strong emotions and it really pays off.

A letter of mine got published in Birder's World in 2004. As soon as you started talking about "words that shimmer," I related it to that story. I exactly what you mean about power. Even parrots can discern it ...

"In response to Eldon Greij's December 2003 article (p.76) asking whether Alex [the famous african gray parrot in Dr. Irene Pepperberg's studies] is thinking, let me say this: For 10 years, I've kept an aviary with 23 birds. I'm not teaching them to mimic humans. I want to experience birdness, not train performers. So acquiring a talking Timneh [African] Gray from a person who has moved to Alaska has rocked my world. The Gray has all my other birds trying to talk. They see how it works for him and they want that power. They're no longer satisfied with clicks and whistles.

My new bird tries to lure me to his cage using tone of voice, correct language, and novel word usage. He says, "Birdy. C'mere. C'mon. I no bite you. I really mean it. C'mon." Who taught that avian creature a few rungs down the evolutionary ladder to use pronouns? He recognizes 'power words' that achieve a desired effect. I have to be careful not to get emotional around him because it teaches him how to manipulate me. As it is, he laughs in the right places using that funny little extra sigh people add when their stomachs ache: "Ha ha ha, ahhh." Lord only knows what that room will sound like in a few years when all those birds can talk and giggle."

I wanna add a little insight into what the second decade of living with parrots has taught me. I have rescued two more talking parrots --a macaw and a cockatoo. I came home from work after accidentally leaving the Gray's door unlatched last week. He mowed all my hanging plants (which are bird safe) and the whole aviary greeted me with kissy noises. I took it as a sign of how far we've come. Although I've only made the mistake of leaving a Senegal parrot unattended once before, it resulted in a very dramatic scene born of passion and revenge. Since then, I've spent a lot of time showing them how to let go of strong emotions and it really pays off.

As a poet this interview was very interesting, however it’s impact went beyond interesting as it seemed to speak directly to a poem I had crafted this year. When Elizabeth Alexander said that poetry is “not all love, love, love,
and I'm sorry the dog died.” it immediately reminded me of my poem, “Sometimes, dogs”

A bit later in the interview she elaborates, saying “You know, when I say ‘poetry is not all love, love, love,’ I mean romantic love is where we go first with the word. But really there is so much more to the word. The word is sober. The word is grave. The word is not just about something light and happy and pleasurable. The word calls up deep, deep responsibilities.” She talks about how poetry has always been about community, that at it’s roots it is part of the societal discussion. She implies that this is the impetus of poetry, or at least a part of it’s functioning, when she says that it’s essence is “I gotta tell you my story. I gotta tell you what happened. Let's think about who we are.”

Even though I understand the context of what Dr. Alexander was speaking to, I also received a different message, a message that helped me to understand my own poem. “Sometimes, dogs “ here is a poem about being sorry that the dog died, and so much more which falls into the category of both about love and about the dog dying and about sober, grave issues which I believe are calling us to brave, deep responsibilities to talk about who we are.

sometimes, dogs

If you have had a dog,
then you know their pure love,
and most, their frailty

sometimes, dogs outlive their offspring 

yet their lifespan is still shorter than their owners’
especially the children they’ve grown up playing with

you have tasted the sweetness your own life
in their tail wagging from ear to ear
as much you have tasted your own mortality

in the foreshadow of their passing

the latter days spent snoozing in the sun
spunk of youth rising only in rabbit dreams 

or in their eyes momentarily at the crinkle
of the treat bag or cheese wrapper

the glossy sheen of their coat gone dry, wiry

perhaps grey or even gone, worn at the elbows
…the stick fetched far fewer times

then one day they’re gone,
you hate to see them go, sometimes
torn at the seams of sickness 
and circumstances,
the catch 22 at the end of love, with 

the other hand being only an end of

think you hear them murmur in the night

or the nails on the floorboards, chasing rabbits

wake up early, out of habit
 to let no-dog out,
and sigh
, turn on the TV in an empty room,
watch without sound 
 the news
of the latest loss of school children

feel a thing inside reflected too deeply

a companion sorrow touching yours
as your heart comes to terms with the facts

sometimes dogs outlive their children

~David Anthony Martin
Copyright 2013

This poem, “Sometimes, dogs” is a poem that gave me pause to reflect as it is the only poem I have written in which the “plot” and movement of events is not accurately drawn from a single experience in my life, rather it is a hybrid of experiences woven together into an anecdotal narrative-styled poem. It is a poem of experience; a poem, which I hope, allows us to “…think about who we are.” Strangely enough, Dr. Alexander also addresses this type of poem further into the interview saying,

“The truth of a poem is actually much deeper than whether or not something really happened. What matters is an undergirding truth that I think is the power of poetry and I think that, when I veer from that even by a syllable, it's my job to know if I've veered from that.”

I am going to post this in more of an article poem on my blog An Illuminated Path of Heart. You can read more samples of my work there at:

My life has changed with the Lord above,
Now I think to always show love.
Never wanting to hurt anyone,
Only looking to show Jesus' love.
I will keep strong faith in the Lord above,
Cause He shined on me with His love.
Cherish each day with great thanks,
Stand firm on Jesus' bank.
No other can be true as He,
My heart He does lead.
Come find your strength in the Lord,
Learn to carry His Awesome sword.
Truth is what He is about,
Praise His name and give a shout.
He died so we could live free,
I love Him and know truly He loves
me indeed.

Written by: Leslie Taylor

First I would like to start off by saying that I really enjoyed listening to Elizabeth Alexander talk about Poetry. There are three things in particular that stood out to me. First is when Elizabeth talks about the word Love. I agree with her in the fact that Love can be seen as just pleasure, or generalized as a happy word. Love can mean so much more like she mentions: sober, grave, or deep responsible. The word love is a word that should not be taken lightly. Instead, Love should be seen as one of the hardest things to achieve.

Another thing that caught my attention during the podcast was when Mrs. Alexander mentioned how she used questions she didn't know the answer to in her poems. To me this just shows how crucial poetry is to the world. It is not just a form of literature. Instead, poetry is way for a person to express themselves freely and time to reflect from all the craziness in the world.

The last thing I really like about Elizabeth Alexander's interview was how she talked about the difference between writing a poem and writing a novel. She used some examples from her fellow colleagues: One started a poem while waiting for her internet to work and another started a poem while at home with her kids sick. This again shows me how important poetry is to the world. Poetry is one type of literature where you can write it in any situation. To me it seems that if poetry is something that everybody can relate too.

After listening to this interview, I really made an effort to give Alexander’s idea of sort of reveling in the silence after you read a poem. I went and opened the textbook for my poetry class to a random page and read a poem that had no context to this assignment, and after I read it, I sat in my seat and did nothing. I didn’t move; I didn’t make a noise; I sat without thinking, just staring at the page the book was open to, and I feel as though it genuinely helped my idea wrap around this poem. While I can’t actually recall what the poem was, I felt a much deeper connection to the poem, and I know that, if I ever come across that poem again in my day-to-day life, I’ll sit there, with a small smile on my face.

Her story about testing the microphone with a poem is absolutely incredible in the way that the "audience" crowded around and applauded once she had finished speaking. In that single instance, we are able to see what poetry means to people and how it grabs their hearts and interests them, regardless of if they are familiar with the particular poem or not. At the same time, her story talking about receiving letters from people who are not poets, but simply other individuals who are impacted by the language of poetry and the symbolism that is associated with certain poems (i.e. "lettuce"). It also fascinates me how much we are able to learn about the poets themselves through their poetry and the way in which they use language to create an ambience and emotion that connects with a way that the poet might feel themselves. Elizabeth Alexander uses Lucille Clifton as an example and the stories in which she tells through her poetry, almost like Edgar Allan Poe's poetry gave readers an insight into his life as well. Wonderful interview!

I love how Elizabeth Alexander really goes into detail about what poetry is, and what it should mean to its readers. It was really interesting that she mentioned that poetry should be unexpected. Poetry shouldn’t mean, but be.

It’s interesting that Alexander’s poet ego goes purely off of intuition; no over thinking, just doing. This has a special meaning to me because it concretely relates poetry to volleyball. My coach is always talking about how important it is to “just do.” We can try over and over again, but until we actually just do it we cannot grow or get better. Once we stop overthinking and just focus on the being and doing, we will not only grow as individuals, but contribute to something that is much bigger.

I loved this interview; there were so many points that Elizabeth Alexander made that hit home for me about the human experience. Poetry, definitely calls itself to attention. It makes us stop and, I think, find ourselves , in the words that we are presented with . In some sense, I feel like this is something we all do when we read poetry. There is a certain expectation of being told something. It definitely speaks on that Otherness she referenced in the interview. We expect to be related to, for our emotions to dwell in the company of others, besides ours inner hearts and minds. I think it is definitely a connection there and a connection that if we don’t knowingly enjoy, we at least want to be acknowledged and experience a certain commonality, or “universality”. In some sense, it is validation.

I really liked the points Dr. Alexander made about other poets and their impact on her. This is especially meaningful to me, as I have never had the opportunity to get to know a contemporary poet, other than my mother. It is interesting, because, while she has never been published, just having someone that understood why it felt necessary at all to even create a poem was so helpful. I write some original poetry, though I'm not sure that I would call myself a poet. A topic I wish Dr. Alexander could have spoken on even more was the idea of poetry as something necessary and prevalent in communities since language was invented. There seems to be some underlying aspect of being a human being that craves for language to have a rhythm and a truth.

For my World Religions class, the homework often includes listening to different interviews by Krista Tippett on On Being, and it’s become a wonderful source of reflection to listen to the podcasts. Even before listening to Words That Shimmer, I knew that this would be a wonderful interview, and it did not disappoint. I’m in awe of the Elizabeth Alexander’s flowery speech. I keep thinking about her declaration that poetry is an art form for poor people. I’m not yet sure how I feel about that.
Something that especially resonated with me was the importance Alexander puts on silence, meditation, and spirituality when writing poems. The podcast was thought-provoking and fascinating.

I really liked the points Dr. Alexander made about other poets and their impact on her. This is especially meaningful to me, as I have never had the opportunity to get to know a contemporary poet, other than my mother. It is interesting, because, while she has never been published, just having someone that understood why it felt necessary at all to even create a poem was so helpful. I write some original poetry, though I'm not sure that I would call myself a poet. A topic I wish Dr. Alexander could have spoken on even more was the idea of poetry as something necessary and prevalent in communities since language was invented. There seems to be some underlying aspect of being a human being that craves for language to have a rhythm and a truth.

The interview with Elizabeth Alexander was very insightful and informative in relation to poetry. I love her emphasis on language and words and how they can be used to convey extraordinary messages (i.e. Conundrum). I also truly admire her statement that “truth” in poetry does mean it had to have really happened. Truth depends on how someone responds and reacts to a poem at a certain point in time. I agree that poetry has always been a part of human kind, and as a way for people to express themselves. This even dates back to the rise of blues music and spirituals as a way for African-Americans to express their emotions and longings. Poetry has a way of doing that as well with very condensed language.

Krista Tippett’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander was refreshing. I found Alexander to be a professional and accomplished artist who has wonderfully balanced a creative life as an artist with the practicality of job security. As Alexander discusses “words that shimmer”, I think she resonates something within all of us. Adults, like children, are drawn to words; we are all drawn to poetry. As she said, poetry intrigues us because it forces us to ponder and ask questions that we are unable to answer. It tells us the truth, and there was honesty in what Alexander had to say about poetry itself.

I really enjoyed the way Elizabeth Alexander explains that she was never really destined to be a poet. To me, this was inspiring that Alexander was able to build a career on the Arts, but in a practical sense that allowed her to incorporate common studies that she was brought up with.

When Alexander says that “we crave bologna” she references the ways that the social media works under these common times. When she says that language shimmers, she speaks about how the truth of the poem is much deeper than the frivolous language used to construct the poem.

Alexander asks if we, as human beings, want to know each other; and then answers the question by saying that she does not know what is in our heads, but she craves knowing.

The interview with Elizabeth Alexander was very insightful and informative in relation to poetry. I love her emphasis on language and words and how they can be used to convey extraordinary messages (i.e. Conundrum). I also truly admire her statement that “truth” in poetry does mean it had to have really happened. Truth depends on how someone responds and reacts to a poem at a certain point in time. I agree that poetry has always been a part of human kind, and as a way for people to express themselves. This even dates back to the rise of blues music and spirituals as a way for African-Americans to express their emotions and longings. Poetry has a way of doing that as well with very condensed language.
-Alundra Dickson

This interview reminded of the flexible power of poetry to connect to people from all different histories and upbringings. Poetry can serve as a silent or aural means to bridge a proverbial gap between the people of our constantly more complicated world. As Elizabeth mentioned, there is little room for lies and twisted truths in poetry, as each poem stems from true emotion or experience from either the writer or the speaker, or at times a combination of both. It is, in essence, pure. It is raw, regardless of it's subject or perceived audience. I loved Elizabeth's comment on words that "shimmer". To me, there exist many such words of power that seem to give off an audible shimmering aura when spoken aloud. Although these words exist across all of literature, only poetry, meant to be read aloud, can truly exhibit the prowess of words.

Like Coral, I found the one of the most interesting parts of this interview to be the microphone testing. The crowds reaction to the recitation of the poem shows how a poem, though created by an author to explain one isolated incident, may resound within the shared experience of humanity. The crowd's appreciation for the poem shows in their response and applause. From this instance one may understand the universality of a poem. Even though each person who heard it may ascribe a different meaning to the poem, each of these separate interpretations are contained within the totality of the words. It unveils the human experience and establishes a sense of normality and community with each person there.

I liked this conversation about poetry because it gave me a sense of why we should value poetry as its own unique medium. I really liked what Krista said at the beginning of this interview: the nature of the radio makes it possible to reach out to many listeners all at once, which is exciting because poetry is multidimensional: listening to poetry being read gives it another meaning than simply reading it silently to oneself. What Krista said about poetry being almost a luxury in these times really stuck with me: it is depressing to think that while nowadays there are very real and practical issues surrounding us, poetry with its abstractions and greater ideas should almost be an indulgence. However, I believe that the reason poetry matters is because it captures this human experience and therefore is a necessary and very accessible medium to express our thoughts.

I was quite intrigued by this interview. The way Elizabeth described listening to the conversations of her parents as a child reminded me very much about my childhood.

I found the title of this podcast to be very appropriate. Each poem that was read had so many "words that shimmer" and I loved the explanation Elizabeth Alexander provided, relating the amusement with shimmering words to that of small children who are fascinated with new words. Also, her story of the farmers’ organization that thanked her for using the word “lettuce” in her speech at Obama’s Inauguration really helped me understand how important and meaningful each specific word is in a speech or poem -how different people are moved in different ways by different words they hear according to their perception and experiences. I was also very moved by her explanation of the intimacy and privilege of being near a person as they pass away. Overall, I am very impressed by how empathetic and intellectual Elizabeth Alexander as well as the interviewer (Krista Tippett, I believe) are.

The point that Alexander made that I connected with the most was her discourse on the power of individual words. Obviously, the many words in the English language that represent the same idea have certain connotations, but I hadn't really considered the weight involved in the selection of each word. When she mentioned the excitement of children to new words I thought of my younger brother and the way he would retain words he heard that he found interesting. I recall him commenting at age four that he didn't want to play outside because it was a sweltering day. I also loved her point about poetry being the art form of the common people. Particularly in this age, poetry has become less of a highbrow form and more something that anyone can relate to in some way. Loved looking at Alexander's "Ars Poetica" and the story about "The Kitchenette Building."

This interview with Elizabeth Alexander struck me as intriguing because of her assertion that poetry can offer a place of quiescence and solitude. This idea of poetry affording a reserved moment and an opportunity for inner contemplation has been reiterated by multiple poets who are just as passionate about their work and want others to experience the same pleasure they do in poetic writing. Alexander focuses on the importance of having those instances of silence as well as finding truth in poetry that isn't necessarily expressed in other forms of writing. I also found these elements of experiencing poetry in reading and discussing William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.”
Alexander states that she finds poetry situates her in a moment that prose can only describe. This draws on the significance and differentiating factors that poetry holds as an art form. She goes on to further discuss how society as a whole “craves truth tellers,” which are predominantly absent in the performance of speech. We generally accept this form of discourse although it doesn't really get us anywhere, and instead we should be asking “What would we really say?” Alexander also expands on the importance of poetry offering small chunks of time for self-contemplation and quiet mindfulness. She describes it as a moment of inner listening, in which one takes notice of themselves and their subjective well-being.. I found this to be particularly evident when I read and then discussed “This is Just to Say”.
Upon my first reading of this poem I knew I would need to slow down and truly notice and take time discover the poem. On my first glance it seemed to be hardly anything more structurally complex than a kitchen note crudely scrabbled on a napkin. After taking this time and eventually obtaining my own understanding of the poem, however, I sought out others’ opinions through discussion. It seemed that my peers largely differed on their interpretation of how the poem should be read. The general consensus seemed to be that the poem had a sarcastic tone in its entirety, and that if the speaker were truly apologetic they would have begun the actual apology at the beginning of the poem. I fervently disagreed. I read this poem as though it were written by someone afflicted with anxiety. Someone who is honestly apologetic and is seeking forgiveness for something they are truly ashamed of. My interpretation of the first two stanzas,
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

is that they are to be read in a more accelerated fashion, as though it were a monologue of the train of thoughts that come tumbling out as the speaker tries to write the note. The line breaks play a significant role in this appreciation of the poem because I imagine a gasp for air at the end of each of them as the speaker tries to hold back apologetic tears and the anxiety of committing what they perceive as a severe misdeed. The final stanza, however, offers that sense of inner contemplation and quiet resolve that Alexander noted. The speaker ends their frantic apology with the last stanza.
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

From my interpretation, this was a stanza ridden with tones of guilt and self-deprecation. The completion of the apology offers a quiet resolve that appears in opposition to the tone of the rest of the poem. In my imagining of the rest of the poem to be frenetic in pace, this last stanza is read slower as the speaker comes to terms with themselves and reaches a point of acceptance with their guilt and scorn for themselves. After reading this poem, I always find myself considering what it truly means to be apologetic and how personality factors can be misinterpreted when not understood from a perspective that understands the person asking for forgiveness. The quiet moment of seeking truth from the poem and brooding over it’s real life application to myself and others demonstrates that moment of solace and obtaining an understanding within oneself that was previously not sought out. As Alexander asserts, prose could describe this experience of anxiety in social relations and the guilt and stress that accompanies it, but the poem “This is Just to Say” puts the reader into the subjective experience of what prose can only offer a descriptive narrative of.

The first day of my spring poetry class, we spent the initial few minutes jotting down what
came to mind when we thought of poetry; then we went around the room sharing a word or
phrase from our responses. For months I had been keeping a small notebook of little drawings
and short poems, so when it came time to share what I associated with poetry I spoke up from
spot in the circle, saying, “Doodles.” When asked to expound on my response, I talked about my
little notebook and my habit of jotting down little poetic truths and pencil-scratch doodles when
they came to me throughout the day.

Elizabeth Alexander was right in saying that poetry is “a poor people’s art form.” She
spoke of how a writer must have mass quantities of time in order to write a novel, and how
poetry is not so. You only need a moment to scribble down a poem. She shared the story of a
poet who claimed to write her best poetry at the dinner table with her kids. The poet believed that
she could “snatch” time to write in the midst of her own experiences. I would argue that we all
have that ability to write from within our daily routine. I think of the conditions expressed in
marriage vows. “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” anyone
can write poetry. Inevitably, poetry is wedded to the human experience as a means of expressing
it and as an attempt at understanding it.

We saw this in my spring poetry course as we studied the W.S. Merwin poem, “To the
Old”. In reading the poem, I felt myself step into the tired shoes of an old man reflecting on the
process of his own aging and on moments from his youth. He describes fish he watched swim in
a stream one summer. The imagery he creates with shimmering words brings the scene to life for
his audience: “to see the transparent fish flash beneath my face” (13-14). Reading his words, I
thought of trips to Allsop Park as a kid where we would tromp through the little creek there,
catching crawdads and minnows. In an instant, I had related to a man over a summer stream
scene despite decades of difference in age because of what he wrote down one day. Poetry
allows us to connect. It’s a “poor people’s art” and an art of transcendence with which people
can rise above not only fiscal divides, but also age discrepancies, gender distinctions, and
cultural differences.

In the interview, Alexander spoke of how cultures would pass on their stories through
song. She views songs as synonymous with poetry because she doesn’t feel that any poet would
write with the hope that their words would “fall flat.” Alexander furthers the connection that
she’s drawn between songs and poetry by claiming that poems are similar to songs in the
emotional response they elicit from those who encounter them. I would tend to agree with her
argument that songs have an emotional effect on people, especially good songs. That kind of
response is universal in the sense that you don’t have to be of a certain class or race or age to feel
it. Emotion is human, and poetry’s relationship with it makes poetry innately human.

In her interview, Alexander states that, “poetry has always existed in a communal
context” and I tend to agree. Over just nine words, I connected to a Pulitzer prize winner through
an age discrepancy of decades. We didn’t need a novel to connect us, just a nostalgic instant
captured in less than a sentence. Poetry is a matter of community because we all have a stake in
it. All you need to write and understand poetry is to be human. The notion of community that
Alexander discusses revolves around the sharing and the understanding of human experiences,
and I, in accordance with what I believe her to have said, see poetry as a means of doing that for
the “poor people”, the rich people, and the other people in between.

When listening to this interview with Elizabeth Alexander, one point that struck me was when Alexander said “I didn’t say who I was or what I was doing or ask for their attention. The poem asked for their attention inherently” when speaking about dress rehearsal for the presidential inauguration. The concept of a poem asking for an audience’s attention is something that I had never really thought about before. If a poem asks for one’s attention, it must connect deeply with a person on a subconscious level. I have never had the experience of being called by a written poem to listen to it, but I can only imagine how it might feel to be called to listen. Even though I know that songs are basically poetry put to musical notes, I have felt called to listen to music rather than spoken word. Sometimes I will listen to the radio in the car and hear a song that catches my attention immediately. Part of this could be the beat, but usually the first thing that I consciously notice about songs is the lyrics. If I begin to listen, I cannot really take my mind off of the lyrics until it’s over. It’s a very cool experience, and I’m sure the experience of being called to listen to spoken poetry is very similar.
Another prominent point that Alexander spoke on that made me think is the concept of poetry as a luxury. I want to rephrase the saying that poetry is not a luxury by saying it is a universal luxury. Poetry is a way of expressing feelings and not just a way to be creative and rhyme words on a page. It is more like writing a song to bring to life rather than a couple paragraphs of prose. Everyone is entitled to express his or her feelings. I think about poetry being a luxury, and I think about how much poetry would not be in existence if it were. Some of the best poetry comes from individuals who have a random spur of creativity, and if people couldn’t just do that, a lot of poetry would not have even been written. It is a curious thing to think about.
Discussing poetry being a product of creativity leads me to wonder what actually makes a poem a poem. In my poetry class this semester, we read and discussed a translation of a poem written by an ancient Greek poet. The poem was seven lines, but only one could be read and translated. It read “in a thin voice.” Whether this can be really called a poem was discussed during class, and it was one of the most interesting discussions that took place throughout the semester. Some people seemed to believe that it was and some believed that there wasn’t enough to classify it as a poem. I was not sure where to stand on the issue. Poetry has an objective definition and it varies from person to person, but I still am not sure what that definition is for me. It’s something to think about. It was one of the conversations I will still think about after the class ends.
It seems fit to conclude with a discussion of Dr. Alexander’s reading of “One Week Later in the Strange,” since she also concluded the interview with it. This poem gives the sense of a conclusion and a new beginning. Just as the interview concludes with this sense of a new beginning, the interview has also begun a new way of thinking about some things for me. Thinking about poetry as a universal luxury puts a new light on how much meaning poetry has in the world.

As I listened to this podcast there were two things that Elizabeth Alexander said that really caught my attention and changed how I view poetry. The first thing was Alexander argued that poetry is not a luxury, the second is how she argues poetry is a poor persons art form. I have always viewed poetry as classy form of writing, something that only scholars and educated people could write, but that was very close-minded of me. Poetry does not have to be a super abstract piece of writing with only words that educated people can understand; it can be a simple piece of writing with only a few lines and elementary words.
This realization opened my mind to a whole new world of what poetry can mean. Poetry does not just have to be something shared between colleagues in a classroom, or something read at an opening to an inauguration, it can be something that is enjoyed between children and their parents or grandparents and even as a bonding source between friends. I believe that I always read poetry much too fast, I never quite understood the meaning of slowing down to get the full effect, and that’s why I never realized that poetry means so much more than a classy piece of writing.
As I finish up my freshman year of college, I am starting to reflect on everything I learned from all my classes, and as I look back on my poetry class I realize the most important thing I learned is straight from my professor, Dr. Maupin, that it is perfectly acceptable to read poetry slowly and not quite understand it on the first read through. I remember during the middle of the semester when Dr. Maupin walked in and I was thinking about the homework we had done the previous night, I had not really understood the poem we read. Dr. Maupin started off class that day by discussing how it is ok to be confused by poetry and sometimes by being confused you get the full affect. I was stunned, never had I thought being confused was ok, and I just remember completing every homework assignment after that with ease.
A poem that comes to mind when I think about how you need to slow down to understand it is “To the Present Tense” by W.S. Merwin. Merwin uses a very repetitive structure to represent the passing of time and as the poem goes on the repetitiveness eventually ends to signify the inevitable passing of time. This poem, as well crafted as it is, is extremely hard to figure out a single meaning by quickly reading through it, you must take the time to examine the structure, syntax, and diction.
So I truly do agree that poetry is a poor persons form of art, and I am glad it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be quite so special. The power of poetry is not within the big fancy words it is deep within the meaning, which is only accessible by slowing down and understanding the meaning through the structure, syntax, and diction. This is something I never would have learned without Dr. Maupin or my poetry class.

In an interview for On Being, Elizabeth Alexander read from her poem “Ars Poetica 100: I Believe,” a poem that ends with the question, “Are we not of interest to each other?” The question speaks both to the space that poetry can create for asking questions of one another and the world, and also of the language of intimacy that poetry can be. It is an intimacy created by the precision that poetry undertakes. She speaks of the way that she “asks questions fairly often in poems because I don’t know the answer.” I think that it is in the questioning and precision that we grow to understand more about each other.
I am reminded, in the questioning space built by poetry, of William Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convents Narrow Room.” Particularly the lines “Pleased is some Souls (for such there needs must be)/ Who have felt the weight of too much liberty/ Should find brief solace there as I have found.” I think that it is the idea of the solace found within this poem may be at once at odds and in cohesion with Elizabeth Alexander’s thinking. A line of “I Believe” asserts “Poetry, here I hear myself loudest.” Wordsworth is speaking of the way that comfort may be found and Alexander speaks of hearing herself in poetry. Both are taking a kind of solace in the lines of poetry: One to hear, and one to be restrained. However, she also speaks of the way that she asks questions in poems because she does not know the answer. And I think it is here that a tension between hearing and understanding is rooted. “Nun’s Fret Not Their Convents Narrow Room” talks about the comfort found within the restraints of the poem but I think there is something to be said for discomfort as a tool of poetry. Alexander seem to see poetry as a place where it is okay not to understand, to question and leave questions unanswered. I think there is something deeply uncomfortable and really vast about unanswered questions. The vastness comes from the fact that leaving questions unanswered leaves space to look for response to the question, even if it can’t be answered in it’s entirety.
The question “Are we not of interest to each other?” blossoms in this space of the unanswered, blossoms in the search of answers that we must use the precision of the language of poetry to find. Alexander speaks of the “undergirding truth” of poetry and the fact that as intimately as we know a person, we can never know their mind, but in the search for answer, we must look at each other and speak of each other with truth. It is here that I think the ideals of Wordsworth and Alexander converge. The comfort found in the sonnet by Wordsworth, is perhaps a comfort of having a space in which to find truth. Perhaps it is truth about oneself and others that is the solace given in the poem. Perhaps the two poets are not at odds because there is a difference between answers and truth. It is through poetry that we look for truth when simple answers will not suffice. Perhaps the truth is that the complexity of people, of knowing people, is far too vast for answers. But if I have learned anything about poetry, it is that it is completely okay not to understand. Perhaps the truth lies in not in understanding, but simply in looking.

In this interview, Elizabeth Alexander discusses the universality of language. To borrow her words, “we encounter each other in language” since it facilitates almost every interaction we make. Alexander goes on to talk about how language is so universal that there is large amounts of insipid chatter and fluff that clouds our day-to-day lives. She explains that this is why language, particularly poetry, that stands apart from this fluff is extremely captivating. This kind of language evokes “the deeper human voice” and bridges all humans into a collective community.
Take a look at some of the comments people have shared in response to this podcast on There’s such a diverse range of folks with unique experiences: a busy working mother who finds rare solace in poetry, a Navy lieutenant whose wife uses poetry as a way to cope with a husband off at war, a woman who is a part of a Quaker worship group that made her realize how poems can be powerful spiritual guides. These people are all extremely different. They (assumedly) don’t know one another and will never meet each other, yet they are all united in that they feel intimately connected to this discussion of poetry and poetry in general. Nothing else could support Alexander’s claim about the deeper truth of poetry and its ability to form community than the very comments the interview sparked. Alexander’s words and poetry go beyond differing individual experiences and resonate on a deeper level.
As a writer, I also found it interesting that Alexander mentioned how extremely precise poets must be with their language to achieve this deep connection. She ardently stresses how poets can never veer from the “deeper human voice” that fascinates and unites all of us. I connected this to Philip Sydney’s first sonnet from the Astrophil and Stella collection. In this poem, the speaker is desperately trying to articulate his “woe” into verse that would win over the sympathy of muse to which he is referring. The first thirteen lines of the poem describe his extremely calculative plan to achieve this end goal, yet the poem ends on a completely different note with the muse herself commanding, “look in thy heart, and write.” Here, she seems to suggest purifying one’s thoughts and sentiments in order to write successfully, which I think is akin to Alexander’s imperative of abiding by the “deeper human voice” while writing poetry.
The lesson to take away seems to be that, while writing, all of your effort needs to go into abiding by what is inherently true instead of trying to write a certain way or reach a certain goal, like wooing Stella. Thus, both this Sydney sonnet and the Alexander interview highlight how being a writer or poet is not some frivolous job where no hard work is required. In actuality, it requires skill, extreme focus, clarity, and – most importantly, in my opinion – passion. Only then can you so powerfully penetrate through the negligible chatter that surrounds us and connect lieutenants to Quakers.

In “Words That Shimmer,” an interview conducted by Krista Tippett with Elizabeth Alexander, the renowned poet reflects on her experience with moments of silence during her formative years, and draws a connection between these moments of self-reflection and her relationship with poetry. While conversing with Tippett, Alexander expresses that silent, self-reflection provides comfort and serenity through allowing the meditator to participate in constructive, inner-dialogue. Poetry, though dissimilar from meditation in many ways, is another outlet through which Alexander can achieve relaxation and peacefulness. Mindfully reading and writing poetry allows Alexander to access a state of contemplative silence and, thus, acts as a substitute to traditional meditation practices.
In this podcast, Elizabeth Alexander discusses the benefits she gained through daily moments of silence instituted by her Quaker high school. She described the experiences as brief, three minute long instances in which she partook in inner-listening. These moments allowed her to “take stock” of her subconscious well-being, and managed to “override teenage, restless silliness.” Alexander claims to have recognized these moments’ importance, and to have referred back to these introspective moments of silence throughout each day as she undertook life’s many challenges. Throughout high school, silent meditation provided Alexander with comfort and balance. As an adult, she reaches this state relaxation and serenity through a new method, poetry.
Alexander is not the first person to view their relationship with poetry as a form of meditation, conversely, it is a viewpoint observed by many great poets. For instance, legendary poet, William Wordsworth, appears to approach poetry with a similar mindset. In his poem, “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” Wordsworth comments on escaping life’s chaotic anarchy and attaining peace through writing poetry according to the rigid structure of sonnets. This sentiment is expressed through the concluding lines of his sonnet: “Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, / Should find brief solace there, as I have found” (13-14). Authoring sonnets provides Wordsworth with comfort and inner-peace and, therefore, parallels the effects of standard mediation. “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room” reveals the role poetry plays in Wordsworth’s life; a role which is strikingly similar to the one mediation plays for many people.
Another prominent poet who references seeking meditative comfort through poetry is Seamus Heaney. In his poem, titled “Poem,” Heaney depicts the task of organizing his thoughts as “puddling through muck in a deep drain” (4). Fortunately, poetry acts as a tool which allows him to understand his inner-dialogue. Organizing his subconscious’ thoughts is challenging, but placing pen to paper and expressing these thoughts through poetry enables him to expresses his feelings articulately. Heaney reveals the perspective poetry offers him through the following line: “Within new limits now, arrange the world” (15). Poetry allows him to examine his feelings through an alternative channel and, consequently, makes navigating his subconscious much easier.
Poets Elizabeth Alexander, William Wordsworth, and Seamus Heaney each use poetry as a form of meditation. Poetry allows them to facilitate an inner-dialogue, and to express their feelings through an artistic medium. Much like standard forms of meditation, poetry can provide introspective contemplation which leads to solace and relaxation. Unlike standard forms of mediation, however, poetry leaves behind a physical record of the poet’s reflection. This physical manifestation enables someone else, a reader, to gain access to a poet’s innermost thoughts and feelings which, in turn, provides another person with a form of mediation from which they can derive their own peace and comfort.

After spending a semester studying poetry and listening to the "Words that Shimmer" podcast I realized that this was an inaccurate view of the scope of poetry. Poetry is so much more than a collection of abstract thoughts, virtually incomprehensible to those who are not highly educated. Elizabeth Alexandra articulated this perfectly when she said, "Poetry is a poor people's art form". This line hit home for me. I had never given much credence to poets I had never heard of, discounting it as, not real poetry. But, in fact, the opposite is true. To me poetry has evolved throughout the semester. I have always viewed poetry as a form of writing meant for those with time, and money enough to waste it on lofty language. Instead, though, it has transformed slowly over the semester, becoming a thing that I could appreciate and even enjoy reading.
This realization changed how I viewed poetry entirely. It suddenly transformed from a lofty impossibility to a manageable any-mans art. While it has been hard for me to acknowledge, the confusion and questions poetry has brought me I think that this helps tremendously. This idea of letting yourself off the hook to be honestly confused by a poem is something I think is important to your overall experience with the poem. This idea to not be intimidated by poetry is something that has unexpectedly stayed with me throughout this semester. Originally, I blew this same off as something that was a meaningless scrap of information, however, that idea kept nagging at me until I realized that there is comfort in the confusion. We can be just as comfortable admitting we do not understand the poem as we can be pretending that the poem does not matter to us. This idea has bled into the other aspects of my life, acknowledging the confusion has become something I am increasingly more comfortable with.
To return to the ideas brought up in the podcast, poetry is poor mans art. I remember the idea of the Dim Lady poem by Harryette Mullen. The poem that translated, rather loosely, a sonnet by Shakespeare, takes something many people feel is loft and unattainable and make it entirely manageable, like translation. While the author has no fame as Shakespeare, no special training, no inexplicable talent, she still wrote a poem. Just proving Elizabeth Alexander's idea. This poem I think speaks to the versatility of poetry of poetry, as well. It is something anyone could read and understand.
In a strange manner of coincidence, I went out to dinner with my mother, shortly before leaving school and I ended up speaking to a poetry professor at the University of California, Berkeley. I told her about this assignment she was fascinated. She then proved to have a fascinating insight as to why poetry is thought of as an elite art, when it is an everyman's art, she said, "Poetry, speaks how we feel on the most interior level, and anything that can put words to that is intimidating and unimaginably powerful". This I felt was such a fitting end to the class. Poetry is made to not intimidate and bemuse us, but rather help us to find this that we are comfortable with and things that describe how we feel about everything. Poetry should not be the lofty form of scholars, but rather something you can sit own and talk about with someone like you talk about the latest Grey's Antony episode or the latest hit book. Anyone can be a writer and reader of poetry. So I would like to add to the sentiments of Miss Alexander, instead of saying it is a poor man's art, I would like to say that it is an everyman's art. The only requirement to read or write poetry is to have a heart beat.

In her interview with Krista Tippet, poet Elizabeth Alexander spoke on the increasing relevance of poetry and the many ways in which it affects us, especially as a way to fill the need for love and community between people by serving as a way to get to know people. This notion of meeting someone else through poetry is, in my mind, closely related to the idea that it is important to notice small details in poetry. Through a single word in her inaugural poem, she allowed her audience to have a short encounter with farmers. This is similar to our discussion in Poetry class at the beginning of the semester over Ada Limon’s “A Religion of Noticing Things” interview, which also highlighted the importance of noticing details in a poem. This theme was carried out throughout the semester as we discussed poems like “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.”
At Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read a poem with the word “lettuce” in it. This resonated with the United Farm Workers: “‘So with that word lettuce,’ they said, ‘you made visible the work of the people who feed the nation, with one word.’” This is an example of poetry serving as a medium through which different kinds of people can be exposed to each other. Everyone in the audience at the inauguration was reminded, even if just for a short moment and through such a minute detail, about the work that farmers do. This could, of course, happen on a larger scale, with an entire poem written about someone or a group of people. Either way, it allows the audience or reader to be more aware of other people that exist, which eventually leads to a growing sense of community among people.
When Alexander mentioned the importance of such a little detail in her poem, it reminded me of a phrase that has stuck with me throughout the semester— “a religion of noticing things.” It comes from an interview with Ada Limon, who believes that people can find peace in poetry just as they find peace in religion. Poetry, to her, is like a religion that requires you to pay attention to details. Perhaps poetry is similar to religion in another way as well. Religion unites people, and poetry does this by giving the reader exposure to other people and insight into other people’s experiences of the world. This can, of course, be through details in the poem that are very small.
In Poetry class we focused on how important it is to read a poem slowly and to notice all that you can about it. I specifically remember studying the nuances of “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room” by William Wordsworth. We discussed words in the poem that describe captivity like “bound” and “weight” and contrasted them with the word “liberty.” These simple word choices allow Wordsworth to make an interesting point about writing sonnets; being confined to the fourteen lines of a sonnet can ironically create freedom, whereas the freedom to create outside of the confines of a sonnet can be burdensome. Through this poem, the class had the opportunity to peek inside the minds of poets who write sonnets. In a way, we met, or encountered, them.
What amazes me about poetry is that each detail in a poem holds so much power. Every word is chosen carefully and adds something to the meaning. Perhaps we can learn from poetry that details are important. We can read a poem and encounter the author, the subject, the addressee, or other people who exist in society (like the farmers) through small words and phrases, but only if we are paying attention. If we take our way of looking at poetry and apply it to our day-to-day interactions, we would appreciate small details in our lives, in the world, and in other people. That is poetry’s relevance in the world.

After spending this entire semester studying poetry in a college class, I feel that I have only scratched the surface of what poetry has to offer me. For most of my life and frankly most of this semester, I have found poetry to be a chore. It was a unit in my grade school English classes that I put up with and suffered through. This probably stems from the fact that I thought I was not smart enough to understand what the poems I was reading were trying to convey. But gradually over the semester and particularly after listening to this interview with Elizabeth Alexander my notions about poetry began to change.
In this interview I was most enthralled with the idea of poetry as a luxury. This is a provocative statement that I had never considered. In my self-absorption with my own issues and problems, I forgot that I was lucky enough to be going to a college that I love and that I had the privilege to talk about poetry every day. However, during this interview the idea the poetry was also a “poor man’s art form” began to intrigue me as well. I love this idea that the poems we studied this semester can be luxurious yet also accessible to anyone willing to seek them out.
By far my favorite poem we read this in my class this semester was William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”:
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold”
I think what I love so much about this poem is its ability to be interpreted so many different ways. My class spent many days looking at the tone and examining the line breaks and the word choice but every single person came away feeling differently about the poem because we all had different reactions. This differing of opinions is what has drawn me to poetry this semester and what I think will keep drawing me in the future. I am so captivated by the idea that so many people can have so many reactions to a short simple poem like “This is Just to Say”. This idea of different interpretations of a single poem is what also captivated me about these two interpretations (poetry as a luxury and poetry as a poor man’s art form) in this interview with Elizabeth Alexander. These differing interpretations is what has made poetry accessible to me but it also gives me the courage to know that I can understand and enjoy poetry because even poets and scholars have conflicting views on what poetry is. But more than that I think these two notions of poetry as a luxury and as a poor man’s art form work together to help me understand all that poetry has to offer. They cause me to realize that poetry is accessible to me but that I am fortunate enough to have the ability to seek out poems that I like and inspire me is a luxury. So, thank you Elizabeth Alexander for giving me the gift of allowing myself to enjoy poetry for the rest of my life.

Sometime within the interview, Elizabeth Alexander is asked to read aloud one of her poems, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”. The lines that were particularly provocative were “poetry, I tell my students, / is idiosyncratic” (1-2) and “poetry (here I hear myself loudest) / is the human voice, / and are we not of interest to each other?” (17-19). These snippets of her poem shed some truth on the nature of poetry, especially in the relationships between the poet and his or her readers. Each and every poem is idiosyncratic; they all have particular quirks that make them distinct and individual. Though Alexander also says poetry is “not all love, love, love, / and I’m sorry the dog died” (15-16), the quirks present within poetry can personalize even the most standard of love poems.
I particularly enjoy Alexander’s idea of poems being idiosyncratic because I find this is a wonderful way for readers to find words to fit the feelings that they had previously been unable to vocalize. Of the thousands of love poems that do not strike a chord in a particular reader, there is that one poem that uses just the right metaphor to describe what they are feeling. At the core, many people are probably going through similar situations: lost loved ones, feelings of loneliness, feelings of elation. Though we might all be seeking the same truth, one standard poem cannot be the sole prescription for our troubles. What resonates with one individual might serve no purpose for another. The prospect of finding a poem that is just quirky enough to consume you is reason enough to pursue poetry reading to the full extent.
I recall two poems from my semester studying poetry in college: “Sonnet 130”, by Shakespeare, and Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady”. The very famous sonnet by Shakespeare talks about a woman with whom the speaker does not consider perfectly beautiful. He writes, “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (1). The point of this poem is to note that, though his lover is not perfect in beauty or grace, he still loves her very much. “Dim Lady” begins with the line “my honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon” (1). This line is essentially the same as Shakespeare’s first line. “Dim Lady” was written with “Sonnet 130” in mind, and mimics the themes while also using contemporary diction and crude comparisons. The message of these two poems is the same, yet I resonate much more with Harryette Mullen’s approach. I felt as though I could connect with this poem much easier than I could with “Sonnet 130”.
Not every time will two poems be identical in content and still have the ability to differentiate though subtle quirks, but many have the ability to express certain ideas in ways that have never before been expressed. It is remarkable that a poet can, at any moment in time, write down a phrase that has never been written down before in the history of humankind. Of course, when approaching this idea practically, one could say that anyone could string together a bunch of words in a nonsensical order and achieve that same feat, but the incredible thing about it is that poets can do this while also speaking to a reader on a very personal and emotional level. What’s even better is that new poetry is being created right now and will soon have the ability to touch someone.
Elizabeth Alexander’s poem mentioned earlier says that poetry is “the human voice”, an idea that has worldly applications that reach much farther than probably expected. Alexander asks at the conclusion of her poem, “are we not of interest to each other?” A quick look at the progression of social media over the course of a few years will give an answer. Poetry, much like social media, is an avenue for ideas to be spread to others. Unlike social media, poetry does not have to adhere to a 140 character limit, or abide the etiquette of Facebook. It does not have to put on a mask; it can express thoughts and feelings without restraint or timidity. In our world, I hope to see poetry as the new form of social media. Social media for a society that wants to connect on a personal level. Poetry is a necessity for the world, and has the ability to touch anyone, at any moment.

As I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander, “Words That Shimmer,” I found myself closing my other open tabs on my computer, limiting my distractions visually, and putting on headphones so that I would not miss a word of the interview. I have listened to this interview four times now and each time I have paused and replayed sections that stuck out to me. One of these sections that I felt drawn to was when Elizabeth Alexander described her effect on the crowd at President Obama’s inauguration.

As Elizabeth Alexander sound checked, she read “Kitchenette Building.” This poem was not her own creation, however she was a vehicle for its impact on the crowd. People stopped and gathered to hear a poem describe such a simple setting in such an extraordinary way. In Alexander’s words, “ I continued with the poem which asks about could a dream rise up through onion fumes and yesterday's garbage ripening in the halls?” When Alexander read her own poem about different forms of love, she once more moved the crowd to cheering. As her interview progressed, Alexander connected the first poem to snatching time to write poetry. Even as she nursed her child, Alexander wrote what remained after sleep deprivation took away her mind’s filtering. I find this extraordinarily simple, yet dumbfounding complex notion. Beautiful poetry is not linked to beautiful moments.

To me, this is exactly what I imagined happened to W. S. Merwin, who wrote “Present Company.” While I don’t think Merwin stayed up at three a. m. nursing a child, I believe he also took advantage of the ordinary “mundaneness” of life. In each of his poems, he titled them “ To…….” By writing about what was before him, it immediately caused panic in the reader’s mind. “Why is he talking to his legs” Why is addressing time?” This panic forces the reader to pause and look for the intended (or perhaps unintended) significance of the addressee.

Together, I believe these poets prove that appreciating poetry sometimes requires stopping and replaying what confuses us as readers. Elizabeth Alexander did not create the poem she sound checked with, yet it stood out by its own merit, not by its creator’s presence. The crowd was not held captive by the authority emanating from a public speaker. They were engaged and focused on the setting presented through the poem, not what chaos currently surrounded them. Just like the men and women who paused a moment that cold day to hear Alexander’s voice above the roar of the crowd, I too have paused to reflect on the austerity of a podcast about words that shimmer.

In this interview, “Words that Shimmer” Elizabeth Alexander’s description of her own personal life and her connection of it through poetry denotes a connection almost mystical between the two. When Krista Tippet asked alexander where did she begin to realize where poetry came from, it drew me back to my time in my spring poetry class my first year of college. My teacher Dr. Maupin asked me what type of poetry I liked, and how I viewed this powerful art form. My reply was a little unconventional I might add, I told her that I grew up watching spoken word and viewing the world that I saw in a similar fashion because as Alexander said “we crave truth telling, we crave truth”, and when I saw these men/women speak I was fascinated not so much with their words but more so with the truth in their words. I was amazed by their large vocabularies and the “shimmering words that came from their mouths. Alexander speaks on the importance of the truth in poetry that makes it so free and liberating to listen to. As she recites one of her poems she says that “Poetry is God in the details,” she says that” poetry is the human voice”. Ist as if she’s saying that poetry is another form of communication that seems to connect people, and in my own life poetry isn’t very practical, but when the people around me would hear it they all know that what they’re hearing is beautiful and true. And being constantly enveloped in a world that lies and manipulates you it’s nice and refreshing to hear something beautiful and innocent come from the human soul. It reminds me of a quote I would hear growing up “ what comes from the heart goes to the heart” . Now in the literal sense this is referring to blood but, in the metaphorical sense of the word the saying refers to something true and innocent leaving the human body and entering and resonating in the body of another. I believe that this is the concept that Alexander is trying to depict for us here, or at least this is what I personally draw from the interview. She also goes on to elaborate on how valuable the quiet was to her, and how much she valued those moments when she had it. This brought me back to a time in my class when my teacher had us read Seamus Heanys’s “Poem” aloud and immediately after we read the poem she instructed us to sit in absolute quiet for about five minutes. And even though we had read the poem countless times before, but there was something about hearing this poem and then being exposed to such a beautiful silence. I was given the ability and mental focus to fully expound on the meaning of the poem we were reading in such a way I never thought possible before, this quiet space was almost like breathing for the first time, it was breath-taking and exhilarating. And even more interesting is that I find it hard to receive this kind of connection with anything other than poetry, it’s as if the poetry gives the silence its own language: those shimmering words echo throughout the silence making them even stronger until they find solace in the craving cavity of the listeners mind

I found this interview with Elizabeth Alexander to be very thought-provoking on ways that I view poetry and how poetry will continue to persist throughout time. One intriguing part of this interview was when Elizabeth Alexander described her sound check in Washington before the inauguration. As she read lines of poetry people all around stopped what they were doing, listened, and clapped when she had finished. Even though none of the pedestrians knew her or what poem she was quoting, they all recognized her words as type of art. As Alexander said in the interview the poem asked for the audience’s attention. I think poetry does grab people’s attention. Poetry allows us to reflect on others experiences while contemplating our own and that’s why it’s topical to everyone. The fact that poetry is so inherently enthralling to people brings me to my next point of this interview when Alexander stated that poetry is a poor person’s art form.
I agree with Alexander’s statement that poetry is an art form for anyone regardless of economic status. As she stated, a novel takes time and money to produce, however, anyone can steal some time to write poetry. Alexander stated that poetry is a way to snatch snippets of time from life. The fact that poetry is not time consuming allows for anyone to indulge in the art. As Alexander stated poetry can be written at any moment in life, whether waiting in line or feeding kids. The fact that poetry can be applied to everyday life situations allows for anyone to become a poet. Poetry as life events reminds me of the poem “This is just to say” by William Carlos Williams:
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poem captures an everyday life event that many people throughout the word have experienced. Poetry allows the writer to capture this snippet of time and present it as an art. This could be applied to many people capturing many of their life events.
A line from this interview that stuck out to me is when Alexander was reacting one of her poems that said, “Poetry is the human voice are we not of interest to each other”. Poetry is an art form that anyone can take advantage of to tell their story. Alexander was using her poem at the inauguration to tell the stories of the hardships those in poor housing conditions faced, Williams was using his poem to tell his story of eating plums. Poetry is truly an art for each of us to use to tell our tales and share our experiences. Since poetry is applicable to anyone and any situation it will persist throughout time.
Elizabeth Alexander mentions in her interview that poetry, like music, will always be passed on. I enjoy this comparison of poetry and music. She mentions that poetry will persist even in difficult times in our world. Difficult times provide experiences to share through poetry. In Williams poem he shares his tale of what happened when he took the plumes and how he felt. Expressing thoughts in this form is much needed and will continue to grow throughout the years.

In Krista Tippett’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander, I found several parts of the interview to be very intriguing and different from my own understanding of poetry. After listening to this interview for the first time, I had to listen several other times to capture these ideas of poetry that were so different from my own. Alexander talked about poetry’s purpose in today’s world and how it is becoming more relevant. One interesting point that she mentions in the interview is that poetry should not only be read in happy times but is often more relevant in hard times. This was brought up by Tippett when she mentioned that poetry seems to be something that is brought up more in day to day conversations even during the rough economic time. I never thought about poetry being read during time of distress and have always thought of it as something to be enjoyed in a certain mood. However, this does make sense because of poetry's ability to teach deep meanings to those who are going through the same struggle as is portrayed in the poem.
One of my favorite parts in the interview was when Alexander talks about how she likes to write questions in her poems even though she doesn't always know the answer. She says at one point that, “I ask questions relatively often in poems and I ask them because I don't know the answer.” This was very eye opening to me because I have always thought that poets only wrote things that they know. I have always dissected poems in order to find their meanings and answer these questions and never thought that there might not be one. Alexander mentions that because these questions do not have answers, the reader is forced to ask themselves the question. This way, the reader is not just reading information, he/she is having to ask themselves that same question that the poet was pondering.
This idea made me think about one of the most difficult poems we read this year and how much it confused. The poem “Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 71” by Sir Phillip Sidney, was one of the most confusing poems we read this year because I could not answer some of the questions surrounding the poem. After listening to this interview, I now understand that maybe I should have asked myself the questions instead of searching in the poem for the answer. Another poem this idea might have helped me understand this year was a poem that only had one line. It said, “in a thin voice.” This poem forces the reader to search for meaning because there is nothing else in the poem.
I found this interview to be very insightful and eye opening to the understanding of poetry. I think that Elizabeth Alexander is a very interesting person and I appreciate how she views poetry's influential role in today’s society. Alexander explained that poetry could be influential today during hard economic times because it can touch deeper emotions and help create a better understanding of the world and people around us.

Krista Tippett’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander, “Words That Shimmer” is definitely an interview that is expiring and if there was thing I learned for Elizabeth Alexander, I would have to say listening was the most important. The poem I recently worked with, “To the Present Tense”, is a poem that you have to analyze closely. You also have to allow the speaker to convey his or her message. This requires the audience to not assume as well. If I had to take a guess at how Elizabeth Alexander would put this into two sentences, I would guess that she would say that you have to allow the poem to come to you instead of looking for things that aren’t there. Don’t be so quick to assume if your assumption is shown in the usage of diction, syntax, or line.
The first thing that I noticed was the fact that Elizabeth Alexander background pointed to everything but poetry. Her family is very “practical” in her words, so her decision to dive into poetry was one that was totally uninfluenced by family. Elizabeth Alexander talked about how her family didn’t mind her being a poet, as long as she remained practical. She stressed the importance of being able to live while approaching this profession. Another interesting thing that caught my ear was when Elizabeth Alexander told Krista Tippet in the interview that she enjoyed listening growing up, particularly her grandfather. His formal language usage was something that interested her because she would read language from books that he used. From this information it can be inferred that her grandfather played a role in her approach of poetry.
As the interview continued Elizabeth Alexander shifted gears to a new topic, the fakeness displayed by the “media world”. Her fascination with this topic grew once she realized her children were very attentive to the world around them. “They’re also drawn towards language that shimmers” was the single phrase that stuck with me after listening to this interview. She talked about how her children were extremely attentive of what others said to them and around them. She was alike them in this aspect because she always felt like words had importance, ranging back to her youth days with her grandfather. I happened to listen to this interview after working on my second essay in my poetry course. I found that reading the poem multiple times helped my understanding of the material. This helped me put a stop to my assumption making and also allowed me to focus on the relationship between the addressee and the speaker.
Throughout this course my understanding of poetry has been a rollercoaster ride. I struggled with the understanding of poems because I would always assume instead focusing on how the speaker set the tone in the poem. I found that once I interpreted the tone of a poem, the understanding of it would be more accurate. Diction, syntax, and line structure also helped with my understanding of the poem. Once I found who the speaker was addressing and the tone he displayed, interpretation of the lines were much easier. I wish that I encountered Elizabeth Alexander earlier in the year because she helped me view poetry in a new way, by telling me to listen to the words that shimmer.

Poetry is one of the few things that I know of that can make me think, laugh, cry, get angry, become confused, reminisce, feel connected with others, and get excited about life all at the same time. Poetry is one of those things that I think can really connect people and bring them together. It is something that can be about literally anything! It is an art form that many can do, but few can master. I truly envy those masters. They have such a way with words that they know just what to say and how to say it that it seems like they know so much about life and the world. But, in reality, they are just like the individuals that read their work. They have questions and fears and hopes and dreams just like their readers. That is one of the reasons why I think poetry is so beautiful, it connects readers to a deeper human experience, whether they know it or not.
What stuck with me the most from this interview was the portion about the “truth” of poetry. Alexander said it perfectly when she stated that a poem’s truth “is actually much deeper than whether or not something really happened”, rather, “what matters is [the] undergirding truth” of it. In T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, it does not matter if the speaker did or did not actually walk along the beach wearing pants made of white flannel. What matters is that he has finally come to terms with his life as it is at that moment. He has accepted his life for what it is; something that many people (in reality, or fantasy) cannot always bring themselves to do. I believe that all poems have this quality about them, some sort of “undergirding truth” as Alexander puts it. I think that is why poetry has the ability to appeal to so many people.
In a majority of the poems I have read, I have been able to find something in it or about it that speaks to me. One such poem is one that I read not too long ago by W. S. Merwin called “To the Old”. The first stanza of “To the Old” reads “[b]y now you could almost / be anyone and by now / it seems that is who you are”. Even though I have read this poem, this stanza, many times over, I still cannot quite put my finger on what it is that makes it stick in my brain as profoundly as it does. Maybe it is because I cannot help but think of someone saying this to me many years down the road when I am old and gray and how I would feel about it. I am not saying that I want to go down in history as the ‘woman who saved the world’, or even that I want to “go down in history” in general. I do not want to be forgotten, though. Essentially, my philosophy is that if I can help at least one person, or positively impact at least one person’s life and be remembered for it (even if it is all that I am remembered for), then I can say that I have served my purpose. Ironically, this is very similar (although much, much less eloquently worded) to Emily Dickinson’s poem “If I can stop one heart from breaking”.
When I read or listen to a piece of poetry, I am surrounded by this bubble of words and taken to a place that is just me and the poem, nothing else is there if I do not want it to be. It is in this place that I have learned (and still continue to learn) many things about life, the world, and myself. Eventually, I have to leave my little paradise, and come back to reality, but the words, images, memories, and lessons I learned follow me everywhere I go. As long as I have poetry, I will never be alone.

Poetry is an often overlooked, but essential part of life. In this interview, Elizabeth Alexander has several anecdotes that serve to prove this point. For example, when talking about the sound check before the inauguration, Alexander says that she recited a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. While reciting this poem, many people stopped and listened, without even knowing what was being read or why it was being read. Alexander said that she didn’t demand their attention; the poem itself demanded their attention. After she read it, they all applauded. They recognized it as a performance and appreciated it for what it was and what it meant to them. The poem was a work of art with carefully chosen words that created a wonderful piece. The combination of words and word choice that happens in poetry creates a type of art different from anything else. The example she gives of this is that children are drawn to words and want to know how these words function. They want to expand upon their vocabulary and find new ways to communicate with people.
Poetry is a way of communication; it is simply a method of speaking to the souls of other people. We crave this kind of communication. The words shimmer and work together in a way that they could not do without poetry. We, as humans, crave this experience. Just as our bodies crave food, our souls crave the experience of music or poetry. We want something to speak to us in a way that normal words cannot.
Individual poems affect different people in different ways, but I feel that every person can be touched by at least one poem, if not more. People just need to be receptive to poetry and allow it to reach them. Poems will always be a source of comfort if people simply allow them to do so. Poems can also help people to realize that other people feel the same way about certain things, and they don’t stand alone. For example, I can truly relate to “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room” by William Wordsworth. The idea of having small spaces and strict rules can be oddly comforting at times because I know what is expected and the structure puts me at ease. Many people enjoy having freedom and want to structure their own lives, but having an unchanging structure can be comforting at times. Reading this poem helped me to see that I wasn’t alone in this sentiment.
Poetry is an art form that communicates feeling in a beautiful way. It can be comforting to some, confusing to others, but it is an art form nonetheless. People crave this art. They may not be explicitly aware of this, but it is in human nature to crave this. Just as Alexander said, poetry is a form of music, and it’s something we, as humans, have always been doing. If we didn’t crave this experience, it would never have become an established art form. Poetry is still an active field, filled with wonderful poets like Elizabeth Alexander. If more people would take even just a few minutes to appreciate poetry for what it is, they may find more solitude than simply taking time away from people. It is not simply quiet that we seek; it is a sense of peace. Poetry can offer us this peace.


Voices on the Radio

is a poet and professor of African American Studies at Yale University. She wrote and delivered "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Her most recent book of poems is Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010.

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