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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
suffering, 

sometimes
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: http://davidanthonymartin.wordpress.com/

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."

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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.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

Senior Producer: David McGuire

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Producer: Nancy Rosenbaum

Associate Producer Online: Susan Leem

Coordinating Producer: Stefni Bell

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