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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.