Poetry in a Troubled Time

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Original Air Date: 
April 04, 2020

Why do people turn to poetry during troubled times? We saw it after 9/11 and we're seeing it now as the coronavirus travels around the world. When the world seems broken, poetry is often the one kind of language that helps.

Empty New York streets

In Lake Mills, Wisconsin, a retired school teacher named Kitty O'Meara wrote a short poem at lunch one day and posted it to friends on Facebook. A week later, it had been shared by Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey and millions of other people.

"The Tradition" book cover design by Phil Kovacevich

Jericho Brown is an award-winning poet who has been working with religious language for a long time. His poems have titles like "1 Corinthians 13:11" and "Hebrews 13." His book "The Tradition" continues to mine Brown's childhood in the church.


Poet Edward Hirsch has written many collections of poetry and criticism. He wrote the long-running “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post. He spoke with Steve Paulson about his elegy to his son, “Gabriel: A Poem.”

Alice Walker

Hope is a complicated, even slippery, word. One that demands a poet’s voice. Here’s Alice Walker, reading her poem “Hope is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.”

Heart graphic

Poems can hold grief and mark loss. But what about love? Romantic love. Poet Li-Young Lee understands this completely. Because he’s in love.


Ken Nordine is the epitome of jazz poetry, nicknamed "the Voice." Best known for his "Word Jazz" series, this poem is one he did for a paint company. The paint company is long forgotten, but the poem lives on.


Jimmy Santiago Baca was in a maximum security prison. He taught himself to read and fell in love with words. Today he’s a champion of the International Poetry Slam, and the author of multiple books of verse.

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Anne Strainchamps: Alone, all alone. Nobody but nobody can make it out here alone. 12 simple words from the close of Maya Angelou's poem Alone, but they capture what so many of us are feeling right now as we sit quietly in our apartments or houses or hospital beds.

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Poetry can do that. Capture the moment, find words for what seems impossible to express. Maybe that's one reason poetry is traveling the world right now. I could give you dozens of examples, but here's one from my own backyard in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. A retired schoolteacher named Kitty O'Meara, wrote a short poem at lunch one day. She posted it to friends on Facebook and a few days later it was being shared by Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey, and a few million others. I called Kitty and asked her if she'd read it for us.

Kitty O'Meara: Let's see. Oddly enough, I don't have a framed copy next to me but hang on a second. All right. And the people stayed home.

And read books, and listened, and rested,

and exercised, and made art, and played games,

and learned new ways of being, and were still.

And listened more deeply.

Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.

Some met their shadows.

And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed.

And, in the absence of people living in ignorant,

dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways,

the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,

they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images,

and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,

as they had been healed.


Anne: That is so beautiful. There's one line I wanted to ask you about because it is the one line in the poem that is a little dark. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced, some met their shadows. What do you mean by that? Some met their shadows.

Kitty: That's the pivot point of the piece, I think and not dark, but a deep invitation in an experience like this, when we are overwhelmed and disoriented and looking for a center, I think that's when we sit and sit still and meet our shadows. Meet those things that take us to deeper places within ourselves and for all of us, that's the point of transformation in life. In a Jungian sense, meeting the shadow is sitting with what we do not want to be with that is true of ourselves and our lives and it's not bad necessarily. It may be painful.

Anne: I think that's one of the things that's so hard about this isolation. One of the things that's especially beautiful that's coming out of this really difficult time is the creativity people are sharing online. Your poem, but so many other people are writing poems, making songs, sharing concerts, it's amazing.

Kitty: It's beautiful and I think all of those things tap into the mythology, the symbolism, the metaphor that are such a gift to us as human beings. I think in some ways the stillness and the shock of isolation is connecting people to that within themselves and others again and they're co-creating and I love it. I love it. I love the way people are taking my poem and doing all kinds of things with it. As you say, they're creating their own art. I think it's wonderful.


Anne: That's Kitty O'Meara. The poem she wrote as a Facebook post to her friends exploded the internet this week and she's not the only one. So far I've seen poems by a California minister, an Irish monk, and Senator Cory Booker. It's probably not surprising, but a lot of what people are sharing is on the inspirational or spiritual side. Our next guest says poetry itself is a form of worship.



Jericho Brown: Deliverance.

Though I have not shined shoes for it,

Have not suffocated myself handsome

In a tight, bright tie, Sunday comes

Again to me as it did in childhood.

We few left who listen to the radio leave

Ourselves available to surprise. We pray

Unaware of prayer. We are an ugly people.

Forgive me, I do not wish to sing

Like Tramaine Hawkins, but Lord if I could

Become the note she belts halfway into

The fifth minute of "The Potter's House"

When black vocabulary heralds home-

Made belief: For any kind of havoc, there is

Deliverance. She means that even after I am

Not listening. I am not a saint

Because I keep trying to become a sound, something

You will remember

Once you’ve lived enough not to believe in heaven.



Anne: That's Jericho Brown reading from his new book of poems called The Tradition. As a poet, he's been working with and transforming religious language for some time in very unique and powerful ways. His award-winning collection, The New Testament, for example, includes poems called One Corinthians 13:11,Psalm 1:50 and Hebrews 13. Charles Monroe-Kane sat down with him and asked why his poems so often turn to worship, to the Bible and to religion.

Jericho: I grew up in a black church where so much of what I saw and so much of what I heard was a perfect foundation for poetry. There's so much pageantry and pomp and circumstance in the black church with so much reverence for the way things are spoken and the way things are sung and the way worship happens together among the people in the congregation. I think one of the reasons why I'm always turning to religion is that I'm always turning back to that feeling that I would get at church. When I was a kid listening to the preacher or hearing someone sing.

The way form in a poem becomes exciting is because it still has surprises in spite of the fact that we know the poem has a meter or we know the poem has a rhyme. I think that's similar to how in church, in order of service, you know what's coming next and yet you don't really know.

You know some people are going to shout for instance, but you don't know when that's going to happen and you don't know who the spirit is going to fall on. Even at the level of the line breaking a poem, I get to the end of a line and I don't know what's going to come next. I love reading poems for that reason because it reminds me of my relationship to faith and to doubt that we get to the end of the line, holding onto the belief that in that moment of doubt, in that moment of the line break, we will indeed get to a landing.

Charles Monroe-Kane: You're mentioning belief. What about worship in a Baptist church from your tradition? Worship is huge and active and full of vim and vigor. Do you feel that you still have the same level of worship as you would have in the Baptist church?

Jericho: Well, that's part of what happens in this poem. I'm reflecting on the time that worship was paramount in a certain way, and that's why Tramaine Hawkins, that wonderful singer, that really amazing soprano voice comes up in this poem, and I don't think I've lost that. Obviously, it's not the same as it was in the church that I was growing up in, but I know how to seek it out in my life and I know how to have moments of excitement, and joy, singing, clapping of my hands. I do want to say this on this radio show. What's really important I think to each one of us is that we have the opportunity to sit in our moments of gratitude.

No matter how down-and-out we are, we each have some moment where we feel a little good about something. If we are allowed to observe that moment without shame, if we are allowed to say a thank you even under our breaths, I think that makes a difference to the way the rest of the day goes and how much gratitude we can have or experience in the future from that moment. That's really important to me.

Charles: Can I read to you from the Bible? Would you mind something from the Bible [unintelligible 00:10:54]?

Jericho: Yes, sure.

Charles: This is from Romans 12:1. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." You have a poem called Romans 12:1. Can you explain how that came from that verse?

Jericho: Yes. I was really interested in this idea of the sacrifice of the body and that the sacrifice of the body should lead to some form of transcendence or revelation or epiphany that through the sacrifice of our body, you get to heaven. I was like, "What about the enjoyment of the body?" Is it possible to reach heaven without the sacrifice of the body but also through the enjoyment of the body? Through physical through lovemaking.

Charles: Well, let's hear your Romans 12:1 then.

Jericho:Romans 12:1. I will begin with the body in the year of our Lord, porous and wet, love-wracked and willing. In my 23rd year, a certain obsession overtook my body or I should say I let a man touch me until I bled, until my blood met his hunger and so was changed. Was given a new name as is the practice among my people who are several and whole, holy and acceptable.

On the whole, hurt by me. They will not call me brother. Hear me coming and they crossed their legs. As men are wont to hate women. As women are taught to hate themselves. They hate a woman they smell in me. Every muscle of her body clenched in fits beneath men, heavy as heaven. My body, dear, dying, sacrifice, desirous as I will be black as I am.

Charles: Wow. Oh my God, that's such a powerful poem.

Jericho: Thank you so much.

Charles: As a gay man, don't you just want to just scream at the church to let you in the door and not judge you?

Jericho: No. Interestingly enough, there are things that I want for people in the church but they're the same things I want for everybody and that's freedom.

Charles: Right.

Jericho: I want people to be free to encounter other people whole and to love them. There was a point in my life where that did manifest itself in a feeling of wanting to scream but I don't think I feel that way now. I thank God for getting older so that I'm not carrying around anger about something I have nothing to do with. It's really none of my business. I don't like being in situations where people want to legislate my body. Why are you making decisions for other people's life? I don't understand.

Charles: I don't have one but if you could pick a-- I guess let's use the word good news. If you could pick a poem of the good news and read us one more poem to take us out on that note, would you mind?

Jericho: You want a happy poem?

Charles: Not-- I didn't say that. I didn't say happy. I said good news. I'm just saying a poem that has that spirit, the way they've heard the whole interview now. Now, the point is let's take them out.

Jericho: Well, there is a poem. I love poetry. I think this interview made that evident but there's one thing that I love more than poetry and I've always been trying to figure out how to get it into my poem. The one thing that I love probably more than poetry is cuddling. I think it's the best thing in the world when you can just hold somebody or get held. Anyway, so I wrote this poem and it's about cuddling. This is the good news. Are you ready?

Charles: I'm ready.

Jericho: Stand. Peace on this planet or guns glowing hot. We lay there together as if we were getting something done. It felt like planting a garden or planning a meal for our people who still need feeding. All that touching or barely touching, not saying much, not adding anything, the cushion of it. The skin and occasional sigh all seemed like work worth mastering. I'm sure somebody died while we made love.

Somebody killed somebody black. I thought then of holding you as a political act. I may as well have held myself. We didn't stand for one thought, didn't do a damn thing. And though you left me, I'm glad we didn't.


Charles: Amen.

Jericho: That's the good news.

Charles: That's the good news.


Anne: Jericho Brown is the author of award-winning books of poetry like The Tradition and The New Testament. He directs the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta. Charles Monroe-Kane talked with him.


Anne: I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Like many of you, our producers are working from home. In bedrooms, on kitchen tables with microphones under pillow forts, Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour of poetry from his basement in between baking cookies and cakes with his kids. Hey, Chuck.

Charles: Anne, how are you?

Anne: I'm good. I'm good. What have you been reading this week, poetry wise?

Charles: It was funny, I had all these ideas of novels I was going to read and so did my wife. I'm going to read this novel and we're going to watch this 10-hour movie series. I can't focus. I'm unable to read something that's very long. I'm consumed with my phone, with the virus. I've been reading a lot of poetry. They have different meaning during this time. It's interesting.

Anne: Read me one.

Charles: This one's by Charles Bukowski and it doesn't have a title. It goes like this. All theories like cliches shot to hell. All these small faces looking up beautiful and believing. I wish to weep but sorrow is stupid. I wish to believe but belief is a graveyard. We have narrowed it down to the butcher knife and the mockingbird. Wish us luck.

Anne: That's pretty dark.

Charles: It is except for the end words wish us luck. I was watching a neighbor in front of my house go to great lengths walking their dog to avoid another person. I thought that's so depressing. It's so depressing but then when they turned with their dogs because one dog had to go into my yard, they looked at each other and smiled. Not like a little smile, an authentic smile. Then I bought chocolates for my neighbor.

He's 90 years old and we couldn't bake him cookies of course in this climate, but we sent him chocolates. At the same time, there's people breaking into cars. I'm like, "Wish us luck," right? This could be great. it could make things better. Do we die or do we love each other? Do we be cruel to each other? Are we nice to each other? Will the greater side of humans come out of this or will the bad side of us come out of this?

The other poem that I got into, this is a good one because she was actually a guest on our show. Her name is Jennifer Forester. She's a member of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma. She wrote this poem. It's only four lines and I have been thinking about this poem for a week. I think it's really powerful. It's really simple. It says, "Words are not bones. We are what comes before words. What comes between them when the light changes in the forest." I think that she has a great insight even though she wrote it before this crisis that words are not bones. There's more to it than that, there's meat on them. I've been thinking about that poem as well.

Anne: Okay, so Charles, I have one more question for you. When you put the show together and the next interview we're going to hear is with the poet Edward Hirsch, it's an interview he did a while ago with Steve shortly after Hirsch came out with a book-length poem that is about the death of his son. When you said you wanted to put this in the Pandemic Poetry Show, I thought, "Why?" I thought we were trying to use poetry as a refuge, as a consolation. This sounds really sad.

Charles: I think for a lot of people, a lot of people, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, the legacy of the coronavirus will be that they couldn't attend their mother or father's funeral. There's a lot of sadness happening in the world right now. I can't imagine my parents, one of them having the virus and dying and I not being able to attend or my kids not being able to attend their funeral and they get buried alone. That's absolutely heartbreaking. That heartbreak is where poetry is. That's where poetry comes in. That's what it can do. Look, poetry also helps us in healing. You don't need to be healed if you don't have pain. You got to have an injury that need the healing, so there's going to be a lot of injury in this as well.


Edward Hirsh: The funeral director opened the coffin and there he was alone from the waist up. I peered down into his face and for a moment I was taken aback because it was not Gabriel. There was just some poor kid whose face looked like a room that had been vacated, but then I looked more intently at his heavy eyelids and fine features. He'd always been a restive sleeper. Now, he was weirdly still my reckless boy.

Steve: Wow. Edward, that is a pretty brutal beginning to your poem. In fact, you bookend the poem with two scenes from your son's funeral. Why was that important to take us there to witness that scene?

Edward: First of all, I didn't want it to be a mystery story. I didn't want to be coy about what happened. I wanted to set out from the beginning that it was about the death of my son and I was writing an elegy, but I wanted to break down the decorum of the elegy, which is usually somewhat polite and offers certain kinds of consolations. The reality for me was much more devastating and I wanted to try and catch that devastation right at the beginning to begin on that note so that whoever was reading this would know what's at stake.

Steve: Well, I would think the very decision to write this book to tell Gabriel's story must have been awfully hard for you for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, it meant that you had to enter into your pain, into your grief. What made you want to go ahead and write this poem?

Edward: I felt that a tsunami had hit me personally and that I needed to try to stand up. I've spent my life in poetry and I'm not a religious person. After I'd been mourning for some time, I was left alone with my grief and I really didn't know quite what to do with myself. I thought that if I could call on my resources as a poet, then it would give me something to do with my grief. It would be something active and I felt I could reach out to other people.

Steve: Well, you also mentioned that you are working within that old tradition of poetry that deals specifically with death, theology going back centuries, which you have defined elsewhere as a poem of mortal loss and consolation. How did you work with this particular literary tradition?

Edward: Well, first of all, the elegy, the lamentation, a form of keening has always been part of poetry. There's never been a poetry without it. I think that it's extremely hard for us to come to terms with our mortality. The fact that we'll die and the people we love die and that one of the functions or purposes of poetry is to try to give us some ways to feel and think about that. That's always been part of my thinking about poetry.

Steve: You've said elsewhere that the heart of poetry is the idea of death. You're not just talking about elegies, you're talking about poetry in general.

Edward: That's right. I think that the premise of poetry is we're trying to save something that is ephemeral, that's passing and there's something scandalous. It's an ordinary scandal, but it is a scandal. There's something shocking in the fact that everything passes away and poetry is a way to try and enact something, to try and keep the experience, to try and render something so that it doesn't just pass away to say we were here, we lived. Poetry is a particularly powerful way of dramatizing the experience so that you don't know, just someone doesn't then tell you what it was like, but they tried to show you how it felt like to be here and that's the work of poetry.

Steve: To go back to that definition that you have written of the elegy, which is a poem of mortal loss and consolation, did you find consolation writing this particular elegy to your son?

Edward: Yes. While I was dwelling in it, it was a kind of consolation and comfort for me because I felt I was with Gabriel, but afterwards I was still didn't have Gabriel. I had only my poem.

Steve: We should talk some about Gabriel, about what kind of person he was. How would you describe him both as he was growing up and also the young man he became?

Edward: I would say that Gabriel was wild, impetuous, extremely impulsive, very funny. I think the success of Gabriel's life was that he took his various neurological disorders and problems and turned them into a kind of personality.

Steve: He had been diagnosed with all things. Attention deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome, maybe bipolar disorder. There are a lot of stuff that he was living with.

Edward: There's a whole menu of things. At one point in the poem, I list all the diagnosis that he was given and finally they ended on pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified, which I know is a clinical diagnosis, but I didn't think told you very much. He took these various compulsions and disabilities that he had and he used them and incorporated them into his personality and he became quite a charming, charismatic young guy. I always thought that was the success of his personality.

Steve: Well, you have a great passage that gets at this irrepressible and impetuous nature. Could you read it for us?

Edward: My pleasure. I'm now talking about Gabriel and late teens, early twenties when he was just so impulsive and moving around all the time. It was impossible to keep track of him at all hours. He spent whatever money he had, whenever he had it spendthrift gambler. I could never stay mad at him for long. He just shrugged his shoulders and laughed helplessly. I couldn't help it. I had to Dad. He wasn't made for a world of checkbooks and savings accounts, stockbrokers, investment bankers. Charlie called him a clown of God. He wasn't a monster of subtlety like the two of us. He would try anything once he hazarded. He was sometimes scared. He was never scared enough of scoundrels and drug dealers. He thought teachers and supervisors and psychiatrists were the enemy. Policemen riled and we had rights, a love for a posse of friends. No one could restrain him. King of the sudden impulse, Lord of the torrent, emperor the impetuous.

Steve: That is wonderful.

Edward: It's funny.

Steve: Well, what was the hardest part about writing this poem?

Edward: Well, the hardest part wasn't with writing the poem. The hardest part was that you're trying to face a loss that is unendurable to you. Some things in life feel unendurable and yet they have to be endured. They're unbearable and yet they have to be borne. Every day that I was working on this poem, I was trying to endure something that felt unendurable to me. That's the hard part.

Steve: Your poem builds in its sorrow, its grief. There are references to your own Jewish background though my understanding is that you are not an observant Jew in any sense, but there is a Jewish tradition of dealing very explicitly with mourning by saying kaddish. I'm wondering if that had any influence on either you or on the writing of this poem.

Edward: Both. I think kaddish is a wonderful tradition in which someone says kaddish every day, for a year, for 11 months after someone has died. I'm Jewish, but I have not been able to find comfort in the traditional rituals of the religion, but I'm aware of them and I understand their power and their authority and why they work. I think all of religion is set up in a way to bring people into a community at moments where they find the greatest desolation. I honor that but more secular-minded myself.

Steve: Well, by the end of your poem, I had a sense that you were practically wailing and certainly raging against the God you don't believe in.

Edward: That's right. I don't believe in God, but I can't give up the idea of him either. I want someone to complain to. There ought to be a higher force to complain to. I'm enraged. I'm in a kind of fury. A lot of people, when someone has died, they offer you the consolations of it's all for a purpose and there's a reason behind it. People offer you a lot of religious consolations and I found them for me, unacceptable. My poem rages against the idea. It rages against the deity. It's a kind of furious outcry against God.

Steve: You have a passage right near the end of your poem that gets at that. Could you read that?

Edward: Close the prayer book. I will not pretend that God brings peace upon us and upon all Israel. I don't want to hear anyone scolding me from her wheelchair because I'm crying too hard. I'm not worried about a heart attack, nothingness. You've already broken my heart. I will not forgive you. Son of emptiness, sky of blank clouds. I will not forgive you, indifferent God until you give me back my son.


Anne: Poet Edward Hirsch has written many collections of poetry and criticism. He wrote the long-running Poet's Choice column in the Washington Post and he was talking with Steve Paulson about his elegy to his son, Gabriel, a poem.


Anne: The ancient Greeks had a myth to explain why the world is full of things like toxic viruses. Pandora's box. Pandora was the first woman on earth and the gods gave her a present, a very special box, but they warned her not to open it. When curiosity got the best of her and she did, sickness, jealousy, famine, and death came flying out, but at the very end, there was one last saving grace in that box. Hope. Here's Alice Walker reminding us about hope.


Alice Walker: Hope is a woman who has lost her fear. [unintelligible 00:32:03] Iraqi mother with my love and our despair that justice is slow. We sit with heads bowed, wondering how even whether we will ever be old, perhaps it is a question only the ravaged, the violated seriously ask and is that not now almost all of us, but hope is on the way. As usual, Hope is a woman herding her children around her. All she retains of who she was.

As usual, except for her kids, she has lost almost everything. Hope is a woman who has lost her fear along with her home, her employment, her parents, her olive trees, her grapes, the piece of independence, the reassuring noises, ordinary neighbors. Hope rises. She always does. Did we fail to notice this in all the stories they've tried to suppress?

Hope rises and she puts on her same unfashionable threadbare cloak and penniless, she flings herself against the cold, polished protective chainmail of the very powerful, the very rich. Chainmail that mimics suspiciously silver coins and lizard scales and all she has to fight with is the reality of what was done to her. To her country, her people, her children, her home. All she has as armor is what she has learned, must never be done, not in the name of war and especially never in the name of peace. Hope is always the teacher with the toughest homework, our assignment to grasp what has never been breathed and our stolen Empire on the Hill. Without justice, we will never be healed.

Anne: That's Alice Walker with music composition by Wendell Patrick.


Anne: Her latest book is called Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart. In our interview with her, she said that you do have to acknowledge the arrow first, the arrow in your heart. Good advice. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne: We've been talking about all the ways poetry can heal your heart. Sometimes, of course, it just sounds good and sometimes that's enough. Here is Ken Nordine's Yellow.


Ken Nordine: In the beginning,

Oh, long before that.

When light was deciding who should be in and who should be out of the spectrum.

Yellow was in trouble.

Even then it seems that green, you know how green can be, didn't want yellow in.

Some silly primal envy I suppose, but for whatever cause,

The effect was bad on yellow.

And caused yellow to weep yellow tears for several eternals, before there were years.

Until blue heard what was up between green and yellow

And took green aside for a serious talk,

In which blue pointed out

That if yellow and blue were to get together,

Not that they would but if they did (a gentle threat),

They could make their own green.

"Ooh" said green with some understanding.

Naturally by a sudden change of hue green saw the light and yellow got in.

Worked out fine,

Yellow got lemons and green got limes.

Anne: We've been talking this hour about poems that give us hope, poems that can hold grief and mark loss, but somehow to me, poetry always seems to be about love. Whether it's love of language itself or love of human frailty or best of all, romantic love. How do I love thee, my mistress's eyes? I carry your heart with me. I carry it in when I too long have looked upon your face. Poet Li-Young Lee understands all of this completely because he's in love.

Li-Young Lee: It seems to me that every time we encounter love, it's a kind of experience of greater visibility. You might be walking around feeling invisible to the world and somehow then you fall in love, whether you're a teenager or whatever age you are and you suddenly feel more visible and it's this encounter I think with the other that makes us experience our own selves more, that somehow grants has greater presence to ourselves even as we experience the other more vividly. That's a kind of mystery to me and especially in terms of romantic love. It seems to me that the face to face that is enacted in romantic love.

I have this theory that that kind of face to face is at the quantum level of materiality, what holds the whole cosmos together. Forces of attraction and repulsion.

Anne: It's kind of the force that animates everything, isn't it?

Li-Young: Right.

Anne: You have a poem. It's a love poem. That's also partly a meditation on the nature of love that I get that some of this, it's called the Virtues of a Boring Husband.

Li-Young: Oh yes, shall I read the whole thing?

Anne: That's a lot of [unintelligible 00:38:13]. Well, it's a very long poem. I was thinking maybe you could read the beginning of it.

Li-Young: Okay. I've been thinking in trying to feel my way through these things for so long and this is just-- I'm a little ashamed because this is almost just nakedly autobiographical. My wife tends to nod off every time I start talking and so I thought I'd write a poem about that. It's called Virtues of a Boring Husband.

Whenever I talk, my wife falls asleep, so now when she can't sleep I talk, it's like magic. Say she hasn't had a good night's sleep in a week, feels exhausted and lies down early in the evening, but begins to toss and turn. I just lie down beside her, prop my head up in one hand and say, "You know, I've been thinking." Immediately, she calms down, finds a fetal posture and tucks her head under my arm. I know she lies dispersed though in one body, claimed by rabble cares and the need to sleep. "Will you stay?" she asks. "I'm right here," I answer.

"Now, what were you saying?" she wonders, and so I talk

Anne: It's a beautiful setting. I love the first three lines alone whenever I talk, so says it all, the poet is the alchemist, is the magician. Because something beautiful happens in just those first three lines. Whenever I talk, my wife falls asleep. You're in a marriage and there's always something that bothers you about the other person. Now when she can't sleep, I talk. In a good marriage, a long marriage, I think you take precisely those things that bother you about somebody else and you manage to find a virtue in them.

Li-Young: Yes, you make them work. [laughs]

Anne: Well, what I also love is that it's this little moment of grace here. You and she are lying in bed and you're talking and her words, your words are helping her find the place she wants to go. The poem is also partly about the magic of words. You're talking to her through the whole poem.

Li-Young: I had the sense when I was writing the poem that I was writing a lullaby. In fact, I thought this whole book was in a way a book of lullabies, maybe ultimately, lullabies are a way to tell those of us who have a hard time sleeping that it's okay to sleep and maybe ultimately, it's okay to be mortal and it's okay to you know.

Anne: It's okay to die.

Li-Young: Yes, it's okay to die.

Anne: Sleep being a breath away from death?

Li-Young: Yes.

Anne: There's a part I wanted to ask you about. It's the next section of the poem. Could you read a bit more to us?

Li-Young: Sure.

Anne: The next section is some of what he's talking about, right?

Li-Young: Yes. And so I talk, it isn't that lovers always meet in a garden and already her eyes get that dizzy look like she can't focus. "Go ahead," I tell her, "close your eyes." "Okay," she says, "but keep talking." And so I do. It isn't that lovers always speak together in a house by the sea or in a room with shadows of leaves and branches on the walls and ceiling. It's that such spaces emerge out of the listening. They're speaking to each other and genders. I mean maybe and she sighs, her breathing begins to slow. And I remember something I heard somewhere.

Every so many breaths, a sigh, every so many sighs, sleep or was it every so many sighs, death? I go on talking, now stroking her head, pushing her hair back from her forehead, clearing her bright brow and listening for her next sigh.

Anne: What I really, really love is that image of the lovers who are speaking together in a house by the sea or in a room with shadows of leaves and branches. You're suggesting that such spaces, the lovers almost create them themselves. Their words are creating them. What a gorgeous image and an image of poetry, isn't it? Of the poet as magician, a divine magician?

Li-Young: Yes, I think so. I'm looking at this now and I'm thinking ultimately maybe the poem is a meditation on the number two and what it means, all the ramifications, all the outcomes of two, two-ness. That out of that two, all these other worlds emerge. The Chinese say out of the zero comes the one and out of the one comes the two and then out of the two comes the three and then after that it's the 10,000 things. We begin to lose count and so when we're down to that two, it seems to me that that's a building block of not only imaginative reality but maybe material reality

Anne: That makes me think so much of another of your poems Living With Her. There's a section I really love. It's the second section of that poem, which does seem to be, if you're writing it to your wife, this is what it would be like to see your wife as a disclosure of the divine. I guess that's what I thought. Maybe you could read that section for us?

Li-Young: Sure. She opens her eyes and I see she counts the birds and I hear the names of the months and days. A girl, one of her names is change and my childhood lasted all of an evening called light. She breathes my living share of every moment emerging called life. She is a pomegranate picked clean by birds to entirely become a part of their flying. "Do you love me?" she asks. "I love you," she answers and the world keeps beginning.

That section in this poem, it troubles me actually whenever I look at it-


Li-Young: -because I have this in my mind, my wife is conflated somehow with a goddess or something like that, so that my sense is that God or goddess or something in the cosmos, that the whole phenomenon of the cosmos is basically a divine being asking, "Do you love me?" and answering, "I love you." Back and forth just like that.

Do you love me? I love you. This separation of the one being divided into a question and answer. Out of that comes the whole cosmos. I can't even explain this. This sounds insane, I know, but I had the sense that my own world existed just because of my beloved's asking that question "Do you love me?" and answering, "I love you." Out of that, my very existence arises and I know that that would just be, I mean, a psychotherapist would tell me I'm insane.

Anne: I'm thinking your wife is a very lucky woman.


Li-Young: Well, no, because--

Anne: Doesn't everybody want their partner, their mate, their love to look at them and just every once in a while look in their eyes and see the divine there, see their eyes [crosstalk]?

Li-Young:I can't get my head around it because then you end up projecting a lot of superpowers right onto this very human being.

Anne: Yes. Well, you've also written poems about making the bed with her. You also have a real life.



Anne: Poet Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta to Chinese political exiles. His great grandfather was the first President of the Republic of China. Lee is a Presbyterian minister in the small community of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. His most recent book of poems is called The Undressing, and he's in love.

You know what? We love making radio for you, for everyone who hear it, To The Best of Our Knowledge: Angelo, Charles, Mark, Joe, Steve, Shannon.

We wish you solace in these difficult times and we offer you one more poem. This one is by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Once illiterate, he taught himself in prison the power of words and they changed his life.

Jimmy Santiago Baca: This poem is a prayer candle lit 20 years ago one night when life seemed so lonely, a forsaken place, and the world an altar I knelt at with the bums and addicts and gutters dying in the freezing night. Children weeping with stark cries of hopelessness. When faith in the heart of man seemed to abandon each soul, leaving it open like an ugly wound, a shattered door, the occupant destroyed and pillaged, leaving only pained howlings of people blind to their brothers and sisters suffering.

And it was 20 years ago this night that wings of a divine presence lifted me from my own despair. Brushed ashes of grief from my shoulders gave me the gift to see beyond my own pain. Blessed me with empathy and my soul like an old stick to find water and ground, twisted, brittle, leafless soul shivered me toward the mystery of my own breathing, leading me back across the wasteland of my life to marvel at my own experience and those around me whose own humble lives graced me with assurance that if I stayed on the path of seeking the good in people of trying to be an honorable man, I too would one day have the love of friends and be a part of life as it spun like a star in the dark, radiating light on its journey.

There's one thing I know with certainty that there is a great, great power within us when used unselfishly causes miracles. Now assist me in my journey and this gift given me 20 years ago, I now give back as a poem to you who let me write of your lives. I now give back to you as a poem, as a candle kept lit through all the tears and sadness is sometimes unattended and barely giving any light, but always letting go as I let go of its light and giving and compassion for others, sharing it with others in the night to those who dream for peace, for those who cherish the light. I now pass it on.


Last modified: 
April 15, 2022