Here’s a treat for your poetry-craving brain: We’ve just added two new audio recordings to our “Poetry of America” series. As of today, you can now tune in to hear Linda Gregerson discuss Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem Out of Childhood,” and Elizabeth Willis as she explores Lisa Jarnot’s “The Bridge.”
First launched in 2013 as a counterpart to the Library of Congress’ “Songs of America” project, “Poetry of America” is a collection of field recordings made by contemporary American poets. Poets choose a singular poem written by another American poet from any time in the nation’s history, record themselves reading the poem, and provide commentary that probes how the poem connects to, deepens, or re-imagines a sense of the nation. Each participating poet also contributes a poem of their own, which is included alongside the recorded feature.
We’ve provided an excerpt from each new recording below, but make sure to click through, read, and listen to get the full experience.
“‘Poem Out of Childhood’ is the very first poem in Rukeyser’s first book, Theory of Flight, and it features, front and center, the political manifesto from which she would never depart. ‘Not Angles, angels,’ ‘Not Sappho, Sacco.’ Rukeyser had no patience for the artificial sequestrations of poetry and politics, private imagination and collective history. She was six months old when Gavrilo Prinzip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; she always considered herself to have been born under the sign of war.
We are creatures of history, she believed; we take it in as we take in air and milk. And, although there is ignorance aplenty, some of it deadly, there is no such thing as perfect innocence, if to be innocent means to be untouched. Rukeyser was fierce in her insistence that the world was one: a tsunami born in Asia moves across the waters to North America; a shooting in Sarajevo means slaughtered millions from the Caucasus to France; the dividends paid to pensioners by Union Carbide are just a little larger because miners in West Virginia have been allowed to die of silicosis.”
“There’s an underlying imperative here to fulfill the immense potential of the poem, and the poet isn’t given the space to do this—she has to make the world of the poem, to say the thing that only she can say, to fulfill the assignment that she has been given in the night, as if her life depends on it, as I think it does. And that assignment seems to touch on every aspect of relation, of social and domestic life, of the history of poetry and the history of this country, which is still being written, and which like that of the Peloponnesians who appear at the end of the poem, is at war, with the world and with itself.
The poem is considering what survives and what is momentary, what lasts and what the poem has the opportunity or responsibility to represent. There are relational patterns that survive, there is poetry that survives, but also a history of violence, which means, among other things, that the task of the poet, to create something counter to that history, is undiminished.”