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Close Your Eyes and Listen to Poetry Unbound

Photo: The On Being Project

Since the start of the pandemic, prose has been the source of so many of my problems. I spend most of my working and waking hours distracted by words. The relentless upward march of the coronavirus death toll and the bottomless pit of our politics have felt all-consuming. Even when I’m listening to podcasts I love, I’m also doing the dishes or driving or wondering why that person across from me on the train has their nose exposed above their mask. More often, I’m ashamed to admit, I’m simultaneously listening to a show and scrolling through my Twitter feed. So much seems to demand my attention, yet so little seems to reward it.

When Poetry Unbound arrived in my life last year, it was a refreshing reminder of the restorative power of language. Listening to the podcast is like descending into a bubble bath. Your first foot into the water is the music, produced by Brooklyn artist Gautam Srikishan. It warms you with tenderly touched piano keys and finger-plucked guitar strings and soothing synthetic soundscapes. Then comes the voice of the host, Pádraig Ó Tuama, whose satiny southern Irish accent invites you to fully submerge. Within a few moments, the words of a poem are washing over you, and you’re floating.

Poetry demands absolute devotion. Look away for a moment and you might miss the one word around which the rest of the piece rests. But stick with it, and you might come away with a capital-T truth about the human condition. When I listen to Poetry Unbound, I sit on my couch and close my eyes and feel the replenishing power of giving myself to something completely. It’s almost meditative. It’s no wonder the show was downloaded more than 3 million times in a year like 2020.

“Poetry is one of the things that can be a contrast to what you do with attention,” Ó Tuama told me on a FaceTime call from his home in the north of Ireland in February. “What I love about the possibility of poetry on the radio is that hopefully people will listen to it and go, ‘I wouldn’t have thought that the poet would have gone there.’ The possibility of surprise as a public experience, that’s one of the things that might save us.”

There are two main ingredients that make Poetry Unbound so special — that in my mind place it among the projects that might save us. The first is Ó Tuama’s transparent respect for every piece he selects for the show. Although the process for picking the poems is, he jokes, “entirely unscientific,” it is not unserious. He reads about 200 books of poetry to prepare for each season. (Season three will premiere on April 26.) And he will only include a piece if he has read the entire collection it was published in. “It’s not a check and balance, which implies something negative,” he said. “For me it’s about understanding what company the poem keeps with the other poems, and what arrangement it has. Is it facing something else? What place does it have in the population of poems it was put together in?”

Ó Tuama and his producers make a conscious decision to elevate voices from diverse backgrounds. Among the most memorable episodes of Season two was a piece by the Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier. Her 2017 book, Whereas, was a response to the 2009 U.S. Congressional Apology to Native Peoples. The joint resolution, signed by President Barack Obama, was a feckless bureaucratic apology from the United States government for centuries of atrocities it has inflicted upon Native peoples. It was full of antiseptic “whereas” statements, before concluding with a disclaimer that the apology did not open the government to any legal liability.

The other ingredient is Ó Tuama’s transparent respect for the audience. Episodes rarely stretch past 15 minutes. Ó Tuama, is not, to put a very fine point on it, waxing poetic. As with the art of poetry itself, the show’s economy of language is an elegant editorial decision. Although the poems are often profoundly spiritual, the show refuses to devolve into didacticism. And although the show is undoubtedly intellectual, it resists the temptation to be instructional. Where many poetry podcasts spend minutes or hours dissecting technical details — the alliterations and assonances, the similes and the stanzas — Poetry Unbound is an exploration to each piece’s center.

“I listen to many other podcasts that are about the technical features of the poem, and I love them,” Ó Tuama said. “But this isn’t for that. This is specifically looking at what contribution poetry offers to the question of, ‘What does it mean to be alive?’ And, ‘What does it mean to be alive in a time when it can be difficult to know how to do good and how to live well with yourself and others?’ I also think it’s asking: ‘What do we do in times of conflict?’”

Conflict has been a central theme in Ó Tuama’s life. He was born in an Ireland in which homosexual acts between men were illegal. He was raised in a Catholic church in which they were immoral. And yet, when he came out as gay, he continued to work with the very clergy who had told him that the way he loved was sinful. Before becoming a full-time poet and writer, Ó Tuama spent the better part of two decades at Corrymeela, Ireland’s oldest reconciliation organization. He dealt with everything from anti-LGBT clergy to the regional divisions that have hamstrung Ireland since before he was even born.

“For me, conflict, theology and poetry are all circling around the same thing, which is the question of language, and what language will work for us,” Ó Tuama said. “How do we speak to each other? What does it mean to speak to each other? How can we use metaphors and pause and silence and space on a page or space in a room?”

For Ó Tuama, the radio has often been a place of exploration. As a kid, he’d collect the free earphones that were often given away at gas stations. At night, he’d clandestinely discover new ideas or new music in the twilight of his bedroom. He was an avid listener to Krista Tippett’s renowned radio program, On Being. His career in radio began when he commented on a blog for the show, asking readers about their experiences with Catholicism in advance of a pastoral visit of a prior pope. The producers were so moved by Ó Tuama’s comment that they asked him to record it for air. At the time, he hadn’t come out, and they acquiesced when he requested to be identified by his middle name.

Ó Tuama hopes that Poetry Unbound, which is produced by Tippett’s On Being Studios, will be a place where all feel welcome. “What we’re trying to establish is an entry point of narrative hospitality, where the poetry is in conversation with the life of the listener, and the life of the listener is in conversation with the poem,” Ó Tuama said. “And each have a posture of respect toward each other.”

He also hopes it will be relaxing. The website describes the show as “your new ritual.” Episodes are released on Mondays and Fridays, designed to bookend your workweek. It’s a desire to say: I want to introduce something into my life that counteracts the busyness I feel drawn towards. That’s of interest to me. There have always been distractions. The question is: What will you do in the face of those? We want to elevate that idea of writing entirely as a sacred endeavor, as an opportunity to say something amplified about human dignity. Human dignity can call words to account.”

Close Your Eyes and Listen to Poetry Unbound