Elizabeth Alexander — Words That Shimmer
January 17, 2013

Poetry is something many of us seem to be hungry for these days. We're hungry for fresh ways to tell hard truths and redemptive stories, for language that would elevate and embolden rather than demean and alienate. Elizabeth Alexander shares her sense of what poetry works in us — and in our children — and why it may become more relevant, not less so, in hard and complicated times.

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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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I loved the conversations about poetry with Elizabeth Alexander. As a working mother whose husband works out of town every week, I have a hectic schedule. There are few things that I do for myself everyday — everyday I listen to Writer's Almanac. I love the tidbits of writers' lives that are giving there but more than anything, I love the poetry. I was introduced to Mary Oliver there, just as I was introduced to John O'Donohue through Speaking of Faith/Being. I find beauty and solace and connection through the poetry I hear and read. Those five minutes are a time of meditation that helps me find a little centering and calm in the chaos.

As a singer, a church musician and a want-to-be poet, the idea of civil conversations in the midst of the vitriolic debate of opposing sides, brings to mind the experience I had in my last choir director position. An organist who had previously been at the church where I was attending was asked to come back when the current organist/choir director left. She agreed, but she did not want to direct the choir or be the music director. I was asked to fill those roles. This organist was an outstanding musician, detailed and diligent in her preparation, a wonderful accompanist. She was a generation older than I and had very set ways about how church music should be done, ways she was constantly polishing by personal professional development. I myself taught voice at a local university that catered to the underserved in our community, an environment where versatility had to be second nature to help our students achieved their goals of a college degree. This variation in how we approached work and music, created a tension between us. We both respected each other but sometimes we had very different ideas of what should be in worship and how to achieve our goals.

In my mind's eye I compare this tension to the contra dancing my husband and I do. When we do a swing, there is a balance point between us, the more we trust the balance point, the more we can use each other's weight in the swing. Out of that nexus, more creativity can be incorporated. The same thing happened with the differences in approach and thought between the organist and myself. We had to live with the tension between our approaches but the result was more creative, more integrated and more inclusive worship than we could have achieved alone. In the same way, for conversations to be civil, it seems to me there first has to be mutual respect. Then those that converse need an ability to live with the differences between them and the stress those differences create. Next needed is a certain stability of self that allows us the solidity to use our weight as a counterweight to those whose opinions are different but no less valid. And finally we need a degree of trust, faith that we can use that balance point, that nexus between our weighted opinions, to allow creativity to grow from the tensi ons being held in balance.

I love the conversations you have on Being. I love the way they expand my understanding of the people and world around me. I love the sense of connection I feel with others that are thinking similar things about issues that are important to me. Thank you for what you do and for the opportunity to add to the conversation.

I was listening to your show this morning (Sunday, 9 January) and you beautifully described the power of poetry to express difficult topics/material. I am a lieutenant commander in the Navy and deployed to Afghanistan.

My wife has recently begun writing poems based upon her experiences of having a spouse deployed and at war. I hope you will please look at some of her work (two were published by The New York Times "At War" blog). Her blog is called "Wife and War:" http://wifeandwar.wordpress.com

My best friend is a Navy SEAL and his wife along with many other military spouses talk about how perfectly my wife's poems express the unique experience of the military spouse in our ongoing conflicts. I loved your show.

Thank you. Jason Phillips, Ed.D. Lieutenant Commander, USN (RC)

I grew up at my grandfather's knee listening to him quote his beloved poets by the hour from memory. I always knew there was a poem welling up when he would throw up his hand and his eyes would blaze as he would launch into yet another verse. Poetry could and would drop into our conversations at a moment's notice under most any circumstance.

The day before he died at the age of 88, we were visiting when suddenly his hand shot up and his eyes began to blaze as he started quoting a beautiful piece I'd never heard before. It went on a rather long time. Finally he put his hand down and asked, "Have you ever heard me quote that before?"

"No Granddad" I replied, "I've never heard it. Who wrote that?"

He looked rather strangely at me as he said, "Why, I don't know. I've never heard it either. Wonder where that came from?"

That was our last conversation. He died that night.

I enjoy telling this story to people who I think need a little magic in their lives. It's my belief my grandfather's poetry muse was quoting its own verse through him that day.

I am a member of a small, mostly Quaker, worship group that meets in the mornings during the week with half an hour of worship followed by half an hour or something else. We had come to the end of ideas somehow for our second half. Sharing poems that meant something to you was suggested. I was not in favor of the idea; somehow I wanted something more "spiritual", or biblical. I could see others were very much in favor &mdash so we started.

I don't know how long we continued, maybe two months or so. It was so rich a time of sharing. Poems actually got us sharing in depth about ourselves and our experience in ways we don't usually.

Reading poems always reminds me of my father. He would read or recite poetry so often as bedtime preparation. I remember his fondness for T.S. Elliot and Auden and all sorts of other poets. He had a recording of Robert Frost, I remember. The poems sometimes made little sense to me but the sound of his voice reading them to me continues even when I read these poems and others today. I can hear him reading to me even contemporary poetry that he has never read. He shared his love of poetry with me before I had words even so that even before my daughter was conceived, I was reading poems to her.

I feel so enriched by poetry. Thanks for this program.

I find that poetry places me in the moment that prose can only describe.

To express my grief and sympathy at the death of a friend, I wrote a poem to accompany a painting she had commissioned me to paint; her favorite image.

This spoke for me when I could not.

Birth & death; death & birth; light & darkness; the grayness of life which habitually invite discomfort.

Writing and sharing poetry plays a role for me in thinking about absence and injustice. Here are three of my poems:

Are we not of interest to each other? No doubt. In as many ways as there are moments, we are utterly bound by questions and curiosity.

Seeking understanding seems to take us deeper and deeper into the unfathomable with many misconceptions along the way. As meaning &mdash making beings, we seem to project meaning onto everything, including each other. Why? Why? Why we ask, expecting an answer. Then we manufacture, as assembling a picture puzzle, because! Because! Because! And so it is.

On some deep evolutionary level or innate knowing, have we given-up trying to understand each other with words and reason? Do we know that as an impossibility? If not, it would not be such a bad idea.

What if we accepted an idea that each person is mystery, an amalgam of blood and bones, thoughts and ideas, feelings, perhaps lifetimes of experiences all imbibed with the animating power of spirit? What if we stopped trying to understand what makes each one of us tick? What if we gazed upon each human life as miraculous mystery? What if, with a certain awe and wonder we celebrated shared moments of simply being together? We are known to each other in the fullness of space, the glyphs, between thought and meaning-making.

I listened with intense feeling and interest to your interview with Elizabeth Alexander. I loved her mention of the contemplative practice of silence that she learned in school, and so wish it were part of our core national curriculum (along with daily exercise).

I especially enjoyed listening to the unedited version which spoke about locating spirituality in the body, as she danced in church, and as her poems sang out. I was reminded also of the poem, Now That I Am Forever With Child, by Audre Lorde which I read at the ritual birthing circle I had before our daughter Leah was born, and which contains the lines "my legs were towers between which a new world was passing. Since then I can only distinguish one thread within running hours you flowing through selves toward you."

Elizabeth Alexander writes and speaks so movingly about the fluid nature of time, life and death and how precise words can yoke us together.

I feel like a blockhead sometimes because I don't read much poetry, but I've always been attracted to songs and lyrics. When I was in junior high and high school, I frustrated my teachers and parents by spending my time in class writing out and memorizing songs. Back then, I was very much into prog rock like: Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jimi Hendrix, Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin and some Rolling Stones. Beatles, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel were part of the mental and emotional environment I grew up in. Later on, especially living for a few years in Austin, TX I learned more about roots and country music and I'm gratified that musicians now draw on the work of Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt. Buddy Holly, Z.Z. Top, Humble Pie, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Little Feat, songs the Fabulous Thunderbirds did (mostly covers) were instructive. Phil Ochs and Fairport Convention, then Richard (and Linda) Thompson's often melancholy visions became examples and touchstones.

I guess I've gravitated toward songs that either articulate a hopeful vision or describe the depths of despair. In my own amateur writings, I've all too often plumbed the latter. I grew up on literate, groundbreaking semipopular music and went back to simpler writing to try to discover where the stuff I liked came from and found tradition and wisdom there. There were years when I stopped even trying to write when everything was coming out as broken-hearted love songs. I figured there are already plenty of those in the world. Lately, I've recognized that that's certainly true as far as it goes, but the craving for love, for sharing and understanding and the need for community are qualities we all have in common and despite my resistance to going to that well all the time, it seems that loneliness is also what all we have in common and although I'm often ashamed to admit how lonesome I've become, loneliness is a feeling that others relate to.

To put it differently, learning songs gave me a way into history and insights into other people's thinking. Writing my own lyrics when I'm moved to has given me a way to work out difficult emotions and sometimes share these feelings with others. When it works, for a moment, I can help to create that connection and community I crave. And while my songs are effective as a tool of seduction less often than I'd like, the emotional charge I feel from writing and singing sometimes still lends me hope.

While visiting my grandmother last year, I wrote the following. Although it began as just a blurted out entry in my journal, I decided to share my thoughts with her in this written form, although we generally tend to keep our conversations on a far less invasive level, and her response has been amazing. We've been able to talk about things we had never discussed before — her childhood, fears, mortality — though the medium of email and words. When we write notes to each other, I believe that our thoughts become poetry. When we speak, our meanings have too often been lost in each other's translations.

June 20, 2010
My grandmother and I speak in code across the Atlantic ocean of her kitchen table. We no longer use the one in the dining room. It feels too formal, and draws attention to the fact that there are only two of us sitting, justifying the pause by eating. Her eyes are uncharacteristically wet tonight, the heat of summer is taking its toll on her ever-dwindling group of friends. And Betty Jelinek, who taught me how to sew over twenty years ago, died in her sleep last night.

My gram is worrying for her neighbor Joe, whose wife was taken away in an ambulance this morning for a 5-day respite stay at the hospital before she is finally to be placed in a nursing home. Joe can no longer care for her — the sleepless nights, incontinent days, the shell of a woman he has dedicated his life to loving. Their boys, both older than me and men on every day other than this one, stood with pathetically idle hands shoved in pockets this morning as the EMTs wheeled her tiny body, strapped tightly and efficiently onto a garishly blue and white gurney, into the paramedic van's cavernous belly. As she slipped, devoid of any movement, into the ambulance's steel maw, the boys clenched their strong teeth, the one with the long hair shifting his weight from side to side; looking straight ahead, while the older boy stared straight ahead, immobile.

We are in the kitchen watching this scene unfold through the large bay windows that we usually watch birds through; my grandfather used to make birdhouses in his basement workshop, and since he died Joe has kept them full through the winter. My gram tells me not to feed the birds during the summer, though, it makes them lazy, and they'll forget to migrate south. I don't know what to do with my hands, they feel awkwardly heavy and useless. I begin to make a huge pot of chicken soup that I can freeze in small, portion sized containers. We'll make the soup bland, low sodium. Later she'll drop off pint sized Tupperware next door, even though she thinks that gentiles may not really like matzo balls.

She looks at me, eyes still piercing, but the fog is rolling in and we both know it but say nothing. She talks about the deaths of others, people too removed for their names to choke in our throats, but we are speaking in tongues about my grandfather, who died in a nursing home after we could no longer restrain him when his dementia-riddled mind gave orders that his body could no longer carry out, and he began falling. I say to her that we should all be so lucky as to have people around us that won't let us die, speaking about the familial urge so many of us feel to prolong the lives of our loved ones with modern medicine's invasive advances. We are talking about my own decade-long near-death experience, the prayers she whispered while I sought salvation in every substance I could find.

And when we cannot look at each other, when our placemats become radios and the silence is heavy with Morse transmissions of thought and labored breathing and one quiet cough. We are talking about my mother, about how we were both touching her when her rattling, wet rasps for air finally stopped and she wasn't in pain any more but we wanted her to be because everything seemed to be left unsaid to a woman that we both loved and weren't sure we had ever liked. But across a little kitchen table that I know like the back of my hand, there are no secrets lurking in this quiet. Just code.

I was feeling sad and down today and then I read Ms. Alexander's poem that she read at the Inagural and I started to cry. I felt moved to hope beyond what I cannot see and to believe that there is more than what I am experiencing right now. I feel more like I'm back to myself. That is the power of poetry to me, and I hope to spread it to at least one more person today.

Poetry takes from the whole of language and condenses it into simple, yet complex beauty.

On Being &mdash a Found Poem

We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth
Amid the noise, the chaos, the fury,
Where is the silence, following a thoughtful question?
Is anybody really listening, taking time to ponder or
Only preparing their next bullet point
How do we know truth when we hear it?
How do we turn down the volume of inane rhetoric,
Of daily news: expert commentary, analysis,
in depth coverage (repetition of a few observations,
Legitimate or not, repeated ad nauseum)
We're tired of being bamboozled, hoodwinked,
By slick smiles and coffee talk commentators.

Where did real journalism go, and when?
Where are the individuals with words of power,
Those who dare to ask the right question
And to listen to the sound of silence
Before the answers comes?

Where are those insights that
Shimmer like iridescent scales of a serpent,
The precise language, the paradox, the new twist?

These maddening, burning conundrums
Rattle around my mind as I begin a new
Spiritual practice,
Asking real questions
That I don't know the answer to,
Trying to open up the space of
Interior conversation,
To find another kingdom
In a poem, to understand better
What I don't know that I know .

Exploring this precious human life,
This human condition.

I crave truth tellers. I crave real truth.

I listened to your show, thought-provoking, deeply moving, and connected with a lot that I write about and teach and use in my consulting practice. I returned home and blogged about it on my homepage: www.simonejoyaux.com Thank you for stimulating my thinking for today.

Writing poetry is a way of expressing myself, a venue for asking the difficult questions about life, an opportunity to share my story, a way to cope with my chronic illness, a venue to connect with others, an opportunity to appreciate life.

Thank you for sharing this episode: Words That Shimmer. I was really inspired.

I am a member of a small, mostly Quaker, worship group that meets in the mornings during the week with half an hour of worship followed by half an hour or something else. We had come to the end of ideas somehow for our second half. Sharing poems that meant something to you was suggested. I was not in favor of the idea; somehow I wanted something more "spiritual", or biblical. I could see others were very much in favor - so we started.

I don't know how long we continued, maybe two months or so. It was so rich a time of sharing. Poems actually got us sharing in depth about ourselves and our experience in ways we don't usually.

Reading poems always reminds me of my father. He would read or recite poetry so often as bedtime preparation. I remember his fondness for T.S. Elliot and Auden and all sorts of other poets. He had a recording of Robert Frost, I remember. The poems sometimes made little sense to me but the sound of his voice reading them to me continues even when I read these poems and others today. I can hear him reading to me even contemporary poetry that he has never read. He shared his love of poetry with me before I had words even so that even before my daughter was conceived, I was reading poems to her.

I feel so enriched by poetry. Thanks for this program.

Writing poetry ...is a way of expressing myself ...is a venue for asking the difficult questions about life ...is an opportunity to share my story ...is a way to cope with my chronic illness ...is a venue to connect with others ...is an opportunity to appreciate life.

Thank you, for sharing this episode: Words That Shimmer. I was really inspired...

I grew up at my grandfather's knee listening to him quote his beloved poets by the hour from memory. I always knew there was a poem welling up when he would throw up his hand and his eyes would blaze as he would launch into yet another verse. Poetry could and would drop into our conversations at a moment's notice under most any circumstance.
The day before he died at the age of 88, we were visiting when suddenly his hand shot up and his eyes began to blaze as he started quoting a beautiful piece I'd never heard before. It went on a rather long time. Finally he put his hand down and asked, "Have you ever heard me quote that before?"
"No Granddad" I replied, "I've never heard it. Who wrote that?"
He looked rather strangely at me as he said, "Why, I don't know. I've never heard it either. Wonder where that came from?"
That was our last conversation. He died that night.

I enjoy telling this story to people who I think need a little magic in their lives. It's my belief my grandfather's poetry muse was quoting its own verse through him that day.

Writing and sharing poetry plays a role for me in thinking about absence and injustice. Here are three of my poems:

completely

cover me
cover me

ribbons of red
assault me

bones
break me

sacrifices
to lesser gods

drops of rain
in the southern sun

i renounce
what minds have wrought

cover me
cover me

completely

a white kite flying

a white kite flying
in the billowing breeze

i cannot hear voices
from the sandy soil
i cannot hear voices
from the rich black earth

i cannot taste salt
in the lapping sea
i cannot taste salt
in the plate of greens

i cannot smell magnolias
after June�s last rain
i cannot smell magnolias
when they�ve fallen to the ground

i cannot touch that robin�s egg
in the top of the tallest spruce
i cannot touch that robin�s egg
even after it hatches and breaks

i cannot see you
where you used to be
i cannot see
i cannot see

a white kite caught
in the newly-leaved tree

It's only the survivors

not clavicles crushed under layers of sandstone
healing its human scars

not oxygen-starved lungs practicing
the inexorable law of diminishing returns

not light-hungry eyes buried
in stagnant pools of blood and limbs

not sun-bleached skulls staring row upon row
in that eighty-thousand square-foot warehouse

who calmly declare
"it's all for the best."

all poems copyright Charles Thomas
publication credits:

completely (Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, no. 34, Spring/Summer 2010, p. 31)

a white kite flying (Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, no. 28, Spring/Summer 2007, p. 99)

It's only the survivors (Poem, no. 96, November 2006, p. 53)

I feel like a blockhead sometimes because I don't read much poetry, but I've always been attracted to songs and lyrics. When I was in junior high and high school, I frustrated my teachers and parents by spending my time in class writing out and memorizing songs -- back then, I was very much into prog rock like Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jimi Hendrix,Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin and some Rolling Stones; Beatles, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel were part of the mental and emotional environment I grew up in. Later on, especially living for a few years in Austin, I learned more about roots and country music and I'm gratified that musicians now know draw on the work of Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt than they did when I was a younger fella in the late 1970s and early '80s. Buddy Holly, Z.Z. Top, Humble Pie, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Little Feat, songs the Fabulous Thunderbirds did (mostly covers) were instructive. Phil Ochs and Fairport Convention, then Richard (and Linda) Thompson's often melancholy visions became examples and touchstones.

I guess I've gravitated toward songs that either articulate a hopeful vision or describe the depths of despair. In my own amateur writings, I've all too often plumbed the latter. I grew up on literate, groundbreaking semipopular music and went back to simpler writing to try to discover where the stuff I liked came from and found tradition and wisdom there. There were years when I stopped even trying to write when everything was coming out as broken-hearted love songs. I figured there are already plenty of those in the world. Lately, I've recognized that that's certainly true as far as it goes, but the craving for love, for sharing and understanding and the need for community are qualities we all have in common and despite my resistance to going to that well all the time, it seems that loneliness is also what all we have in common and although I'm often ashamed to admit how lonesome I've become, loneliness is a feeling that others relate to.

To put it differently, learning songs gave me a way into history and insights into other people's thinking. Writing my own lyrics when I'm moved to has given me a way to work out difficult emotions and sometimes share these feelings with others. When it works, for a moment, I can help to create that connection and community I crave. And while my songs are effective as a tool of seduction less often than I'd like, the emotional charge I feel from writing and singing sometimes still lends me hope.

For Krista Tippett. I listened to your show of 01-09. Thought-provoking, deeply moving... And connected with a lot that I write about and teach and use in my consulting practice. I returned home and blogged about it on my homepage. www.simonejoyaux.com Thank you for stimulating my thinking for today. Peace, Simone Joyaux

Poetry: 911- War and Innocence

This is man’s work
the killing of innocent people
Crimes in the name of God

The dust and fire rise up swirling
in uncontrolled and unleashed fury
as our world slides down
into nothingness
with graceful and horrifying beauty

Screams and cries for help and running feet
Is the music we die by

It echoes through the ages
as it did in Dresden,
and London,
and Tokyo,
and Nagasaki,
and Hiroshima

The killing of innocent people
Crimes in the name of God

God does not witness or know this world

The killing of innocent people
This is man’s work

Dear Krista Tippett, I was listening to your show this morning (Sunday, 9 January) and you beautifully described the power of poetry to express difficult topics/material. I am a lieutenant commander in the Navy and deployed to Afghanistan. My wife has recently begun writing poems based upon her experiences of having a spouse deployed and at war. I hope you will please look at some of her work (two were published by the New York Times At War blog). Her blog is: www.wifeandwar.word press.com My best friend is a Navy SEAL and his wife along with many other military spouses talk about how perfectly my wife's poems express the unique experience of the military spouse in our ongoing conflicts. I loved your show. Thank you. Jason Phillips, Ed.D. Lieutenant Commander, USN (RC)

Birth & death; death & birth; light & darkness; the graynesses of life which habitually invite discomfort.

I listened with intense feeling and interest to your interview with Elizabeth Alexander. I loved her mention of the contemplative practice of silence that she learned in school, and so wish it were part of our core National curriculum (along with daily exercise). I especially enjoyed listening to the unedited version which spoke about locating spirituality in the body, as she danced in church, and as her poems sang out. I was reminded also of the poem, Now That I Am Forever With Child, by Audre Lorde which I read at the ritual birthing circle I had before our daughter Leah was born, and which contains the lines "my legs were towers between which A new world was passing. Since then I can only distinguish one thread within running hours You flowing through selves toward You."
Elizabeth Alexander writes and speaks so movingly about the fluid nature of time, life & death and how precise words can yoke us together.

On Being – a Found Poem

We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth
Amid the noise, the chaos, the fury,
Where is the silence, following a thoughtful question?
Is anybody really listening, taking time to ponder or
Only preparing their next “Bullet point”
How do we know truth when we hear it?
How do we turn down the volume of inane rhetoric,
Of daily “news”: “expert commentary”, “analysis”,
“in depth coverage” (repetition of a few observations,
Legitimate or not, repeated ad nauseum)
We’re tired of being bamboozled, hoodwinked,
By slick smiles and coffee talk commentators.

Where did real journalism go, and when?
Where are the individuals with words of power,
Those who dare to ask the right question
And to listen to the sound of silence
Before the answers comes?

Where are those insights that
Shimmer like iridescent scales of a serpent,
The precise language, the paradox, the new twist?

These maddening, burning conundrums
Rattle around my mind as I begin a new
Spiritual practice,
Asking real questions
That I don’t know the answer to,
Trying to open up the space of
Interior conversation,
To find another kingdom
In a poem, to understand better
What I don’t know that I know .

Exploring this precious human life,
This human condition.

I crave truth tellers. I crave real truth.

Anne Plyler

Are we not of interest to each other? No doubt. In as many ways as there are moments, we are utterly bound by questions and curiosity.

Seeking understanding seems to take us deeper and deeper into the unfathomable with many misconceptions along the way. As meaning &mdash making beings, we seem to project meaning onto everything, including each other. Why? Why? Why we ask, expecting an answer. Then we manufacture, as assembling a picture puzzle, because! Because! Because! And so it is.

On some deep evolutionary level or innate knowing, have we given-up trying to understand each other with words and reason? Do we know that as an impossibility? If not, it would not be such a bad idea.

What if we accepted an idea that each person is mystery, an amalgam of blood and bones, thoughts and ideas, feelings, perhaps lifetimes of experiences all imbibed with the animating power of spirit? What if we stopped trying to understand what makes each one of us tick? What if we gazed upon each human life as miraculous mystery? What if, with a certain awe and wonder we celebrated shared moments of simply being together? We are known to each other in the fullness of space, the glyphs, between thought and meaning-making.

I find that poetry places me IN the moment that prose can only describe.

To express my grief and sympathy at the death of a friend, I wrote a poem to accompany a painting she had commissioned me to paint-her favorite image.

This spoke for me when I could not.

Virginia Daley

Meditations on Nature:
Art healing mind, body, planet

http://virginiadaley.com

I loved the conversations about poetry with Elizabeth Alexander. As a working mother whose husband works out of town every week, I have a hectic schedule. There are few things that I do for myself everyday, but everyday I listen to the Writer’s Almanac. I love the tidbits of writer’s lives that are giving there but more than anything, I love the poetry. I was introduced to Mary Oliver there, just as I was introduced to John O’Donohue through Speaking of Faith/Being. I find beauty and solace and connection through the poetry I hear and read. Those five minutes are a time of meditation that helps me find a little centering and calm in the chaos. As a singer, a church musician and a want-to-be poet, the idea of civil conversations in the midst of the vitriolic debate of opposing sides, brings to mind the experience I had in my last choir director position. An organist who had previously been at the church where I was attending was asked to com e back when the current organist/choir director left. She agreed, but she did not want to direct the choir or be the music director. I was asked to fill those roles. This organist was an outstanding musician, detailed and diligent in her preparation, a wonderful accompanist. She was a generation older than I and had very set ways about how church music should be done, ways she was constantly polishing by personal professional development. I myself taught voice at a local university that catered to the underserved in our community, an environment where versatility had to be second nature to help our students achieved their goals of a college degree. This variation in how we approached work and music, created a tension between us. We both respected each other but sometimes we had very different ideas of what should be in worship and how to achieve our goals. In my mind’s eye I compare this tension to the contra dancing my husband and I do. When we do a swing, there is a balance point between us, the more we trust the balance point, the more we can use each other’s weight in the swing. Out of that nexus, more creativity can be incorporated. The same thing happened with the differences in approach and thought between the organist and myself. We had to live with the tension between our approaches but the result was more creative, more integrated and more inclusive worship than we could have achieved alone. In the same way, for conversations to be civil, it seems to me there first has to be mutual respect. Then those that converse need an ability to live with the differences between them and the stress those differences create. Next needed is a certain stability of self that allows us the solidity to use our weight as a counterweight to those whose opinions are different but no less valid. And finally we need a degree of trust, faith that we can use that balance point, that nexus between our weighted opinions, to allow creativity to grow from the tensi ons being held in balance. I love the conversations you have on Being. I love the way they expand my understanding of the people and world around me. I love the sense of connection I feel with others that are thinking similar things about issues that are important to me. Thank you for what you do and for the opportunity to add to the conversation.

Poetry takes from the whole of language and condenses it into simple, yet complex beauty.

I was feeling sad and down today and then I read Ms. Alexander's poem that she read at the Inagural and I started to cry. I felt moved to hope beyond what I cannot see and to believe that there is more than what I am experiencing right now. I feel more like I'm back to myself. That is the power of poetry to me and I hope to spread it to at least 1 more person today.

While visiting my grandmother last year, I wrote the following. Although it began as just a blurted out entry in my journal, I decided to share my thoughts with her in this written form, although we generally tend to keep our conversations on a far less invasive level - and her response has been amazing. We've been able to talk about things we had never discussed before - her childhood, fears, mortality - though the medium of email and words. When we write notes to each other, I believe that our thoughts become poetry; when we speak, our meanings have too often been lost in each other's translations.

June 20, 2010
My grandmother and I speak in code across the Atlantic ocean of her kitchen table. We no longer use the one in the dining room; it feels too formal, and draws attention to the fact that there are only two of us sitting, justifying the pause by eating. Her eyes are uncharacteristically wet tonight, the heat of summer is taking it’s toll on her ever-dwindling group of friends, and Betty Jelinek, who taught me how to sew over twenty years ago, died in her sleep last night. My gram is worrying for her neighbor Joe, whose wife was taken away in an ambulance this morning for a 5-day respite stay at the hospital before she is finally to be placed in a nursing home. Joe can no longer care for her; the sleepless nights, incontinent days, the shell of a woman he has dedicated his life to loving. Their boys, both older than me and men on every day other than this one, stood with pathetically idle hands shoved in pockets this morning as the EMTs wheeled her tiny body, strapped tightly and efficiently onto a garishly blue and white gurney, into the paramedic van’s cavernous belly. As she slipped, devoid of any movement, into the ambulance’s steel maw, the boys clenched their strong teeth, the one with the long hair shifting his weight from side to side; looking straight ahead, while the older boy stared straight ahead, immobile.
We are in the kitchen watching this scene unfold through the large bay windows that we usually watch birds through; my grandfather used to make birdhouses in his basement workshop, and since he died Joe has kept them full through the winter. My gram tells me not to feed the birds during the summer, though: it makes them lazy, and they’ll forget to migrate south. I don’t know what to do with my hands, they feel awkwardly heavy and useless; I begin to make a huge pot of chicken soup that I can freeze in small, portion sized containers. We’ll make the soup bland, low sodium; later she’ll drop off pint sized Tupperware next door, even though she thinks that gentiles may not really like matzo balls.
She looks at me, eyes still piercing, but the fog is rolling in and we both know it but say nothing. She talks about the deaths of others, people too removed for their names to choke in our throats, but we are speaking in tongues about my grandfather, who died in a nursing home after we could no longer restrain him when his dementia riddled mind gave orders that his body could no longer carry out, and he began falling. I say to her that we should all be so lucky as to have people around us that won’t let us die, speaking about the familial urge so many of us feel to prolong the lives of our loved ones with modern medicine’s invasive advances; we are talking about my own decade long near death experience, the prayers she whispered while I sought salvation in every substance I could find. And when we cannot look at each other, when our placemats become radios and the silence is heavy with Morse transmissions of thought and labored breathing and one quiet cough, we are talking about my mother, about how we were both touching her when her ratting, wet rasps for air finally stopped and she wasn’t in pain any more but we wanted her to be because everything seemed to be left unsaid to a woman that we both loved and weren’t sure we had ever liked. But across a little kitchen table that I know like the back of my hand, there are no secrets lurking in this quiet. Just code.

I have always been a poet at heart, encouraged by a mother who loved poetry and whose soul understood its value for connections with others. Writing poetry and sharing it has been a marvelous vehicle to express hard truths as well as shining moments from my own heart. Sometimes I may not know what my own heart has distilled from my experiences until I hear myself verbalize it in a deep conversation with a trusted friend, or as it flows through the inkpen onto the page or trickles from my fingers onto the computer screen. Since the purest form of expression for me has always been poetry, and my heart lets forth its deep with a rush of words that seem to always want to first arrange themselves poetically, poetry has literally been the deepest, easiest language for my soul to speak.

Life has breathtakingly lovely times, and it has dark, difficult times. Reading others' poetry that expresses their feelings about both sides of life furnishes aha! moments, as my soul is comforted and nourished by the universality of our unique experiences. When I read a poem exploring what someone else has felt and it resounds deep inside me, I know I am not alone. I am connected. I am supported by the us-ness of life. Poetry, with its plethora of form and shape, style and tone, celebrates the tapestry of eloquence hidden in each of us, using the vehicle of well-chosen, meaning-laden, intentionally shaped words - no matter the language. I am always enriched by and thankful for poetry, whether it's created by another or birthed from my ownsoul.

I'm listening to the program with Elizabeth Alexander and am blown away by the use of language by these two women. I think one forgets, or perhaps never knew, the beauty of words when they are uttered by people who understand how to use them.

I want to thank you for the power of the poetry show. I had just been broken up with the Friday before the airing of the show and it helped me immensely with my healing. I wrote two poems after hearing the show and I think I recovered significantly more quickly because of it. Thank you! Here is one:

Grieved Heart

Collapsing in to build density
Until I explode to fill the place that you
won’t

My legs float away from my body
As my hips become lead and I am stuck on your couch
unable to escape from my tears

You want friendship
I want to love you until I hate you

I want too

I just finished listening to a podcast about poetry ... Words That Shimmer. I'm a digital artist who visually experiences the world. I just wanted to share a bit of the visual counterpart ... images that shimmer, if you will. Cheers!

I loved the interview with Elizabeth Alexander and woke up inspired to write down a few poems I have been carrying along in my mind-- and, especially with all the acrimony coming out of Washington, I have been so despondent about human conversations. This piece lifted me back up. I loved the notion of poems being a poor person's artform. I would add that it is the busy person's means to express the soul, too. It made me wonder if there is a compendium of Tweet Poems. It might be an interesting follow-up, or a link or an idea. Let me not close without telling you that your program has inspired me weekly. It helps me find my better self and connect with others in a more wholesome way. Thank you.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hello Krista,

My name is Seline Franklin. I'm writing you this brief letter to state that I published my first novel entitled the Neptune, in December 2010. The story was published via online. For your convenience, shown below is the address that can link you directly to the webpage address as well as provide you with a brief synopsis of the story:

www.selinefranklin.com

Also, for your reading pleasure, I've provided you with one of the poems from the Neptune. The poem is entitled "The Cradle of Life."

Some folks say I'm pear shaped
Others say I'm elongated, and
Some Folks say my only purpose is to bear fruit.
Others say I'm a woman's spiritual connection to the
universe.
Some folks say I should be removed from the body once
I become diseased, and
Others say eradicate the disease but keep me!
Some folks say I'm worthless once I become middle aged,
and
Others say I'm the cradle of life for all ages!

In closing, if you'd like for me to provide you with an explanation as it relates to the poem as well as other poems displayed in the Neptune, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.

Best regards,

Seline Franklin

P.S. Love your show.

When Poets Die - Remembering Adrienne Rich

When poets die the conscience of a nation falters
Havlav left his native land bereft but not without a legacy still unsurpassed

A poet’s death is pause for deep refection, for even deeper grief at hearing of their passing
Because they live as measurable barometers of our times and of our lives

If we are graced to carry them along our journey
We're moved to inner life awakenings that change our selves
Our nation states, our very souls

A poet’s death diminishes the life force of us all

To catch our breath again
We must breathe deep
We must reach deep to ask how will we all go on
Without their words of newer poetry
To give us hope, to shame our lack of empathy, inaction
To move us well beyond our yet to be defined civil or social rights movements
That they and only they imagine as in “a dream for a common language”

When poets die some part of us is torn away from mooring on our sea of life
And we must seek an anchor somewhere once again within their words

On Seeing, a poem, written after listening to Krista's interview with Elizabeth Alexander.

On Seeing

Of
the unflinching eye I am
afraid, awed.
Come close, peer
into what depths, dark
or full of color, depths
that rile, fester, balloon
with joy:

the aged hand, the bugling
belly, the lingering smile
quickly leaving, at the window
a touch of frost.

The eye of vigilance,
of brave quaking
notes in mid-strike
what it wants
to forget, what it will
not forget.

Each stolen moment—

the map tree branches etch
on fog
peas frozen in their traces
dried blood on
her lips
the newborn’s warm—

is a thing that was
but was not the same
having been seen.

The Gwendolyn Brooks poem "Kitchenette Building" evokes in me thoughts of Mary on the cusp of the incarnation. Thank you!

Another wonderful program that will continue to remind me that poetry is not a luxury. Since listening to John Paul Lederach last year on this show, I have written "conversational haiku" daily. Here are two that I wrote recently that I was reminded of while listening to Elizabeth Alexander.

These haiku are
gifts I give myself each day
presents of presence

Warning-be NOT ICE
NOTICE what is happening
instead of freezing

Intuitive intelligence mighty with language and allied with the discursive mind: So very much "there" there. We need language, both written and spoken, that identifies itself unabashedly as metaphorical, figurative, evocative, and indicative of the transcendent, banishing (if only for a while) the dreary, scary literalism with which this era pelts us. This installment of "On Being" is abundant with the shimmerings of language that long ago hooked me on poetry in its diversity, depth, play, and deeper speaking. Most of us think of poetry (very briefly) from a Square One bounded by greeting-card verse, pop-song lyrics, labored rhymes, and schooled solemnity -- a starting point, but only that. I am grateful to have known poets and other writers who explore and present the deeper capabilities of language with a living voice. Their work is a lifeline. Thanks for the chance to grasp it again.

Elizabeth Alexander's reading from "Neonatology" touched me. To say that she touched me is an understatement.

This morning I was standing at the stove, stirring oatmeal and listening to your show. Elizabeth's words washed over me and through me such that I gasped, my eyes welled with tears, and I sobbed. She touched memories a lifetime old. I remembered holding my firstborn, all pink and warm. She who left this world a few weeks before her first birthday. I remembered my second child and my youngest, now 18. I was holding him, gazing down into his face. How could words bring out such memories and emotions?

Thank you.

Still Waters

Still Waters on a sunlit screen
Is time moving?
Or is it me I'm feeling--
The River
Flowing, steady...
Feeling Serenity,
Forgotten wounds of yesterday
Washed away now,
Flowing into Oneness.
Still waters and
Moving Clouds of gray.

Joanne Marie DeAngelis

Retiree

I thought I'd be tired when I retired
Staring at the sea, sipping cups of tea
Lonely old me.
Well, not so--
I dance tango,
Ride a bike, paint and hike
I can cook, read a book--
There's cupid, and e- harmony...
Art and Photography...
Friends for company
Learned the language of family.
Woodland walks, jogs by the sea,
Enjoying each day merrily--
I am free!

Joanne Marie DeAngelis

Summer Whispers

Up on the bluff by the sea one day,

Four winged butterflies, came my way--
Two, spinning toward me-- whirling in dance
Somethng to tell me? A message per chance?

Rather than shoo them, I banished my fear;
My heart opened up to what I could hear.
Millions of years they come and go,
South to Mexico to mate and sow.

Oh Monarchs, so splendid, what do you see?
I know you see some things better than me.
Your simple brain has a message to be told,
Your life is short, you don't grow old.

Gentle yet sturdy the message came through,
Live, Be Free,
Be Happy
In what you do.

Joanne Marie DeAngelis

I was listening to your segment on words that shimmer and was so drawn in to the different ways poetry we respond to poetry. It made me realize how universal it is. I write my feelings in poetic form sometimes because it is just in me somewhere. here is one.
Thanks for the good years

knocking silently on the door of coincidence
seeing you in the scent of a candle or the merging colors
you make yourself known and rekindle the years of memories

Pressing on belief and flying on the wings of confluence
we can see each other again.
Reaching out and pressing our palms on the membrane of time I can feel a glimpse of you.

Thanks

If you have read, listened to, or watched "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," then you may be familiar with Vogon poetry. That's what I call my stuff. Nevertheless, it helps me to choose my words more carefully and boil an idea down to its essence. Here is an offering of my Vogon Poetry, regarding the observation of Martin Luther King's Birthday. I call it "MLK Day Holiday."

by bew!

On MLK Day holiday
My kids stay home with me
As off to work my wife must go
Much to her dismay
For only banks and schools and government
Observe this special day

MLK Day holiday
My neighbor does not understand
Or Lincoln, Washington or for that matter
Anyone not sainted by his church
Holidays should be for spirituality
He firmly does believe
For a concept or a great event
Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Veterans Day

MLK day holiday
A powerful concept it does represent
Of equality not just for folks of different hue
But rather for all within the red, white and blue
All genders, cultures, and beliefs
And status of socio-economics

MLK day holiday
Celebrates civil equality
That nourishes the cultural diversity
That helps to make the United States
a special place to live

MLK day holiday
Along with all birthday holidays
Washington, Lincoln, and dare I say
Blessed Jesus Christ
Are worthy of our observance
For exactly the same reason…
Of what that person represents

As with MLK day holiday
Isn’t in fact all of human history
Largely a history of its people,
And even more specifically
Those around whom others have rallied
To further a noble cause

MLK day holiday
Within has an enigma
As with the observance of all birthday holidays
Why not merely dedicate
To the concept, or even to the event
Rather than to a mere person?
To put it bluntly, I believe
Most people have too much trouble
Holding near and dear to their lonesome hearts
A simple abstract concept
People need something more easily perceived
Such as a person of flesh and blood.
Concreted with a name

MLK day Holiday
Dares us all to dream
Of something beyond our humdrum lives
And the contents of our essence
As with every great event
Inextricably bound with a great person
Who championed Herculean ideals
And devoted their whole life
To giving substance to an abstraction

MLK day holiday
Therefore, and by all means
Merits celebrating this great man’s birthday
Most appropriately

MLK day holiday
Prompts my personal musing
A I lay awake at night
In the wee hours of the morning
Shamed and haunted by my dreams
Arousing myself from my bed
I went to write down these very words
About my inner conflict
Taunted by the hazy faces
Of those whom I had called friend
And with whom I had lost touch
over many years
I could not even put the names
To some remembered faces
The prompters of my memories

On this MLK day holiday
Whenever I remember an honored name
Determines to remember as I tuck it away
As a treasure in my conscious mind.
Names never seemed important
Till this MLK day holiday
I learned that a name oft remembered
And linked with fond memories
As too with histories important men and women
imparts immortality
I vow to remember all the names
and treasure the memories
And not let the world to come between us

Pages

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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