The Academy of American Poets, in partnership with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City, presents a free conversation series each fall exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations pair some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines.
On September 25, 2017, the series featured Academy of American Poets Chancellor Elizabeth Alexander, who recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, and Maria Popova, founder of the popular newsletter and website Brain Pickings, discussing the resilience, strength, and infinite possibilities of poetry and language—in the best of times, and the worst.
Maria Popova: After the election in November, the Academy of American Poets and I cohosted a little pop-up event called Verses for Hope in New York City, at which you read. Some two hundred people showed up at Washington Square Park out of nowhere and stayed for more than two hours. I was too frazzled by the organizing aspect to fully drink it in, but the one moment when I was so pulled into presence was when you read “Praise Song for the Day.” I remember thinking what it must be have been like for you to have read that nine years ago, in front of a completely different landscape of possibility. What was it like for you?
Elizabeth Alexander: That was a very surreal time, and not just for me. We continue to be in surreal times, though not times that are unique in the depth of their challenges. One of the benefits of always remembering to understand yourself on a historical timeline is that you can appreciate the particular shape of the monster of now but also understand that this isn’t the first time human beings collectively have faced tremendous adversity. So the question is, what next? I think it’s words and poems read aloud, which hopefully arrest people and draw them into community, even in very small communities. When we read in books and on our own, we are in community, but when we read out loud, we’re in community in a different sort of way. I think, also, turning to and reminding ourselves that the thing that was true, that got Barack Obama elected, that force, that sense of collectivity, that human goodness, that wish for something better, that vision of a United States that’s not governed by supremacy, all those people who believed those things in the millions, are here, are alive, so how are we going to remember that light? Not in a Pollyannaish kind of way but rather in a way that harnesses the force I truly believe is brighter than the ragtag violence that, while very empowered right now, is still not made out of sustaining stuff. We’ve got something better than that spew that comes out; we’ve got something more precise; we’ve got something that names one another; we’ve got something that sees one another. We’ve got something that connects people instead of separating them. This is what we’ve got, so let’s use it. Let’s believe in it.
MP: The interesting thing for me has been to observe how poetry has been suddenly held up as this adrenalizing force. I’ve been partly heartened by it but partly troubled by it, because I don’t think poetry comes to significance only at moments of despair and turmoil, and these kinds of fleeting political movements are really a blink in civilization’s history that will pass. But I do think it speaks to us most when we’re most porous emotionally. That is why people send each other poems when they’re in love, write poems when they’re in love, why they congregate with strangers when they feel hopeless and disoriented; it’s this deeper human motive that I think makes it resonate so.
EA: I believe that human beings want to be seen and want to be known. Want to be recognized, want to feel true. And that is what poetry strives to do. It’s the big namer, the big describer, the way of fixing in time by description with tremendous precision. There’s the great black expression “Don’t call me out of my name.” Every day is an assault of being called out of our names from on high and all around. So what does it mean to say, “I see you; I call you by name?”
MP: There’s a lovely essay that [James] Baldwin wrote about why Shakespeare is still read and still speaks to people in the way that he does, and he said that “the greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people.” He goes on to say that we think Shakespeare’s time was easier than ours, but every generation’s time is hard because you have to live through it. He was just unafraid to call things by their names—what he saw, the truths that he saw. The poetry that resonates, that elevates, always has this in common.
EA: One of the things I experience as a kind of nerd’s delight when I read Brain Pickings is that there is so much that is archival and that are your discoveries; you’ve been to the Academy of American Poets archives and found this extraordinary letter or something that literally has never been seen before on the internet.
MP: I have such a personal vendetta against the belief that all that is on the internet is all that exists. There are generations today that believe if it’s not findable on the internet, it doesn’t exist, but the internet is a sliver on top of the enormous canon of human thought and contribution, and whatever little bit of drilling I can do, I’m very glad to do it.
EA: The thing that is so beautiful is that the discovery of something dusty is presented with the same kind of pleasure and joy and excitement as something more familiar, but you’ve contextualized it or told us something about it.
MP: But you do that in poetry all the time. I think all great things once created never leave us. Beethoven never leaves us. Shakespeare never leaves us. And then there’s something like your poem “The Venus Hottentot,” in which you take something that is a historical fact, that is kind of obscure, but so rich, and you bring it to life in a way that doesn’t feel like archeological digging; it’s so alive. I think artists do that all the time.
EA: One of the things about history that I’ve always found really exciting as a space to find poems is that there is so much. Particularly if you’re thinking about the history of women, the history of people of color, or the history of people who aren’t affiliated with institutions or who aren’t affiliated with any kind of structure that values the word. I’m thinking mostly in an American context, thinking about which stories are American stories and what we are told is our history. What does it mean to try to make more space for the complexity of all the voices who make up this really fascinating country? It seems to me that the thing that we have to fight for is empathy and feeling like we belong to one another, and that is also what I feel so ravaged about. What does it mean to actually belong to one another? What does it mean to come outside of your identity, to belong to someone else?
MP: It’s impossible not to feel the everything-ness of everything, the complete connectedness of our fates, and it’s reminding me of those lines from “Praise Song for the Day”: “What if the mightiest word is love? // Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light,” and yesterday those lines came to me as a kind of visitation, the way that great poems lodge themselves in our consciousness and come out when a certain moment beckons them.
So you’re on the train, watching the low late-afternoon light flow through the window, reflect off the golden surface of the Hudson, onto a familiar brown spot on an olive knee that belongs to somebody you love, and you are seized with this realization that the sun and the river and the knee and the person are all one; they’re inseparable. Whatever boundless, senseless, uncontainable love you may feel for one belongs to them all, and it makes you want to weep. I think that is what great poetry does; it awakens us to this inherent poetry of existence and the interconnectedness of it all, and it makes us feel unafraid to feel life living itself through us.
EA: That’s beautiful, to think that we make these things—poets make these words—and if they’re made well, then they last longer than the bodies that made them. And that’s just the truth. So much of what we’ve read and listened to—work that was made hundreds and hundreds of years ago—is in our bodies. The poetry we love, it belongs to us; it comes out in our voices. It is absolutely enduring, long after the body is gone. So do you believe—thinking again about the present moment and all the foul and debased language that is creating such toxicity in the waves right now—that better language can have an actual mitigating effect against poisonous language?
MP: Well, we think and feel in language, so of course language matters. I do think that the language we use to name a certain fact can change how that fact is integrated into the network of facts that is understanding. Understanding is a relational thing; it’s how we fit facts with one another and how we integrate them into our existing framework of how the world works. I think language helps navigate that in a way that can be healthier or the opposite.
EA: I know that all sounds are not heard at once, but I guess another piece of that question is, how can language hurt people?
MP: Hurt is such a grab-bag term, because it also means offend or irritate or injure, but the things that injure are the things that are untrue or insincere. Anything other than that, I don’t think can injure. It can do many other things, but untruth and insincerity are really the weapons of injury that we should look out for. I think there are ways to make language more truthful and gentler in its truthfulness. We can guard against untruth and insincerity in that way.
This interview originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.
Listen to the full audio of the event: