Poetry Unbound

Your new ritual: Immerse yourself in a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing. Anchor your week by listening to the everyday poetry of your life, with new episodes on Monday and Friday during the season.

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How do you speak of and toyour body?

This is a poem dedicated to the body. “The body is a nation I have not known,” Chris Abani writes. Throughout the 21 lines of this work, he describes lungs, skin, bone, touch, smells, sweat, armpits and hunger. For all the embodiedness of the poem, there is disembodiedness too: the poem continues to question how to truly be in your own body.

Are there places you’ve lived or visited that others would disregard? What do you see in them that others might miss?

This poem takes place at night, describing a scene from a town on the edge of a city. The poet feels at home in a “nowhere” town, with cattle pacing in the fields, boarded houses, and rowdy filling stations. This is a place that through the eyes of some would be considered a “shit town,” but to the poet it is home. 

Is there a character (from history, politics, or literature) whose story you want to tell from a new perspective? 

This poem is told from the point of view of “Lot’s wife,” a biblical character who was turned into salt because she looked back to see the burning of Sodom, her home city. The poet shows us what Lot’s wife sees: towers swaying, guitars popping, dogs weeping and roosters howling. By mixing the modern with the everlasting, Lot’s wife is humanized and justified. 

Were you born during a time when laws were different? What impact did those laws have on you? 

In this poem, Natasha Trethewey recalls the story of how her parents crossed state lines to wed because Mississippi forbade interracial marriage at the time. It is written in the form of a ghazal, with birth and belonging, names and death coming together.

Is there a moment of beauty you can recall that’s like a blessing for you? 

This poem takes place at twilight in a field just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, where the poet and a friend encounter two ponies who come “gladly out of the willows / To welcome my friend and me.”  

What’s a chance encounter in a city that’s never left you?

In this poem the speaker is asked a question by a stranger while standing near the water outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Pardon me Old School he / says you know is this a wishing well?” He initially brushes off the stranger, but something happens: a shared coin, a well, a wish that is answered as it is made.

What stories or myths bring you strength?

This poem tells the story of a person living with invisible chronic pain who finds unexpected fortitude from a girl dressed as a superhero. Their encounter, “at the swell of the muddy Mississippi,” doesn’t have a fantasy ending, but instead finds strength and glory in bodies and myth. 

In Leanne O’Sullivan’s poem “Leaving Early,” the poet writes to her ill husband, entrusting him into the care of a nurse named Fionnuala. As the novel coronavirus sweeps the globe, many of us can’t physically be there for loved ones who are sick. Instead, it is the health care workers — and all involved in the health care system — who are tirelessly present, caring for others in spite of exhaustion and the risk it brings to their own wellbeing.

We offer this episode of Poetry Unbound in profound gratitude toward all who are working in health care right now.

Poetry Unbound will be back with new episodes this fall. We’re so grateful to those who welcomed the podcast into their lives, and we’d love to hear more about your listening experience. What did you love? What can we improve? And what poetry, poets, or topics would you like to hear host Pádraig Ó Tuama talk about? Take the short survey at onbeing.org/pusurvey.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “1383” honors the friendships that endure across time, circumstance, and even misunderstanding. Akin to fire, the connections in these friendships may be strong enough to burn or hurt us, but Dickinson acknowledges that their light continues to draw us in regardless.

After listening, we invite you to reflect on this question: Think about a friendship that has remained steady for you across the years, even as both of you have changed. Why do you think your relationship has endured?

Raymond Antrobus’s poem “Miami Airport” bears witness to the disempowerment that comes when you’re not believed. The voice of the poet is absent, and all we hear is an interrogator seeking to disrupt and displace. This space of suspicion creates anxiety, transporting us to the places and times when someone has questioned the truth of our story.

A question to reflect on after you listen: When have you felt disempowered by questions about yourself? Did you find your voice again? How?

Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “The One” is about seeing beauty in the ordinary places of home. One of Ireland’s most famous poets, Kavanagh grew up in rural County Monaghan and moved to Dublin as a young man. This poem revisits the boglands of his home, which he once hated but came to love.

A question to reflect on after you listen: Think about where you’re from. How has your understanding of it changed over time?

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poem “Kulila” insists on remembering as a moral act. Through the poem, the Aboriginal poet mourns the loss of Indigenous cultures in Australia and how they have been damaged and changed by colonization. Cobby Eckermann calls her readers to a place of listening and lament as a way to keep alive the memory of who we are and who we could’ve been.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What in your culture or community needs to be lamented, honored, and told?

Kei Miller’s poem “Book of Genesis” asks us to imagine a God who makes things spring into life specifically for us. Just as the poet of Genesis proclaims, “Let there be,” Miller wonders what freedom and flourishing we’d find in imagining a “Let” pronounced not for the person others say we should be, but for the person we are.

A question to reflect on after you listen: How can you begin to let yourself flourish today, just as you are?

Lemn Sissay’s poem “Some Things I Like” celebrates what we might consider discardable — like cold tea, ash trays, and even people. Raising a joyous toast to the forgotten and the forgettable, Sissay recognizes the power we give to what we pay attention to and invites us to look anew at all that has been undervalued.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What is something you like that others may not value in the same way?

Joy Harjo’s poem “Praise the Rain” makes space to appreciate all the nuances of our lives. Echoing Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” she asks us to be present to this moment — the crazy or the sad, the beginning or the end — to greet it all with the powerful word: “Praise.”

A question to reflect on after you listen: What can you praise today?

Ross Gay’s poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” uses an everyday task to examine what is made and unmade in small moments. He imagines his fingers opening and closing things, like buttons, the eyes of a dead person, relationships. In doing so, the poem asks us to simply pay attention, today, to what we’re doing with our hands — to understand them as intimate pathways into the stories of our bodies and the stories of our lives.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What have you done with your hands today? What are you opening? What are you closing?

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