Rank #1: Episode 48: William Blake, "The Tyger"
Here's one of the most anthologized poems out there, almost a cliché by this point. Yet William Blake's "The Tyger" is my conversion story. I can locate the moment I ditched one life and started another right in these words. Because that's what words can do. Should do. Will do.
May 28 2020
Rank #2: Episode 28: Tracy K. Smith, "The Universe As Primal Scream"
Smith's intensely physical metaphysical poem (lyric? ode?) is an exploration of the noise we call the universe, the background sound around us, including the kids screaming upstairs loud enough to shatter the good crystal. Check out this fabulously skeptical and whimsical poem about ultimate things, including the sheer racket of chopping onions.
Aug 25 2017
Rank #3: Episode 5: Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring and Fall"
The old Victorian poet/priest wants to give a young child a lesson about life's transitory nature. All is decay! Except his own poem which escapes him and becomes so much more.
Nov 02 2015
Rank #4: Episode 38: Emily Dickinson, Poem 282 ("We play at paste")
Emily Dickinson's short poem, the third of the four she sent to Thomas Wentworth Higginson to begin their relationship, is a salvo right across his bow. She either takes apart his misogyny, or his elite editorial status, or both, and more--because, after all, this is Dickinson's writing. It never says just one thing--except her rage at and acceptance of her situation.
Dec 20 2019
Rank #5: Episode 29: Galway Kinnell, "The Correspondence School Instructor Says Goodbye To His Poetry Students"
What's left when the communication between a poet and his reader is finished? Understanding? Compassion? No, loneliness, the beating heart of every work of art that seeks to bridge the gap between its creator and its audience.
Mar 26 2019
Rank #6: Episode 12: Sharon Olds, "Sex Without Love"
Olds' poetry can be rawly honest, brutally straightforward. But in this questioning poem, she comes at some age-old questions that lead out to surprising--and emotionally satisfying--answers. Can you make something out of nothing? Yes, you can make loneliness. And sex without love.
Dec 20 2015
Rank #7: Episode 13: Galway Kinnell, "After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps"
Kinnell's honest, quiet, private poem about sex--and its constant reminder in the physical world in the body of the child you create. A gorgeously realized meditation in the finest transcendental fashion from this burly New England poet.
Dec 27 2015
Rank #8: Episode 40: Emily Dickinson Poem #124 ("Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers")
Dickinson's meditation on the safety of the grave is a theological bombshell. The members of the resurrection sleep safe in their tombs. But when you make your life about safety, don't you miss out of the mad chaos of time and the world itself? And what if the resurrection doesn't come? You're still safe. And cold. Listen in for my take on this incredibly volatile and well-crafted poem.
Jan 24 2020
Rank #9: Episode 14: William Shakespeare, Sonnet #1
Shakespeare's first sonnet in his sequence sets the tone for all that follows--and begins the exploration of unfulfilled love. Or perhaps unfulfilled aestheticism. Or simply repression. And the foibles of a May/December relationship. Get busy, young man. Get married. Bear a child. So we can have more of you in the world.
Jan 03 2016
Rank #10: Episode 32: Ellen Bass, "Indigo"
Ellen Bass's haunting poem "Indigo" is as raw and honest a poem as I've read in a long time. It twists and turns to end at a place no one could predict, from sexual fantasies to the most real and horrifying moment a person can have with a family member. It's somehow still comforting and gorgeous, real and honest, painful and gorgeous. In other words, it's a testament to the fact that poets can say what no one else can.
Oct 18 2019
Rank #11: Episode 15: Wallace Stevens, "The Snowman"
An exploration of Stevens' metaphysical poem about snow and winter--and the misery therein. Or perhaps not. Because you can see it without thinking it's miserable. But then you'll be left with the void.
Jan 10 2016
Rank #12: Episode 16: Matthew Olzmann, "Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised As A Love Poem"
Olzmann does a brilliant job of summing up the small things that make up love--and the tenuous nature of the truce that is at the very heart of love. It's not the commercial, the consumer culture ending. At least not at first. But it gets there the hard way. The real way.
Jan 24 2016
Rank #13: Episode 20: Pablo Neruda, "Ode To The Present"
I've been away but I'm coming back to this little podcast. I'm starting again with one of Neruda's odes, a wonderful, redemptive statement about the present, this moment, the only one we have--except for all the ones that have been and are to come.
Jun 19 2017
Rank #14: Episode 19: Emily Dickinson, Poem 269
Celebrate Valentine's Day with this short poem, Emily Dickinson's intense expression of passion, the hope of physical connection in a stormy world.
Feb 14 2016
Rank #15: Episode 17: Adam Zagajewski, "Try To Praise The Mutilated World"
Percy Bysshe Shelley was wrong. Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They are the world's voice, saying the things we can't, reminding us that light goes out and returns with shocking abandon.
Jan 31 2016
Rank #16: Episode 18: Sharon Olds, "Adolescence"
A sexy and raw poem about sex in adolescence--or if not sex, then getting ready for it, preparing for it, reaching and reaching. A mature poet finds her former self in a place far removed from the mature world--and perhaps more interesting, more dangerous, or at least more honest.
Feb 07 2016
Rank #17: Episode 31: John Keats, "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"
I've always interpreted this old chestnut, a sonnet by Keats, as the poet's response to gorgeous things: they make me think I'm going to die. But what if the poet was more clever than that? What if he encoded his politics into these short, fourteen lines. What if the answer to the Grecian statuary is to find in it both an aesthetic experience and a political one?
Oct 11 2019
Rank #18: Episode 22: Kay Ryan, "Things Shouldn't Be So Hard"
This small lyric poem is a quiet yet ironic meditation on what's left after a life--specifically, the marks that should be there but that are not. It's a plainsong evocation of loss with a subtle ironic undertow, a beautifully said poem from one of the United States' best lyric poets.
Jul 10 2017
Rank #19: Episode 24: Elizabeth Bishop, "Sandpiper"
Elizabeth Bishop's lyric poem "Sandpiper" is a metaphysical exploration of the search for "something" in a world where everything is in flux. The little sandpiper runs along the tide, looking for its meal. But he's also a "student of Blake," the eighteenth-century visionary poet William Blake, able to see lots in a tiny grand of sand. What matters in a world where nothing stays the same: it's almost nothing, it's not everything, but it is something--and it's right between your toes.
Jul 25 2017
Rank #20: Episode 27: Percy Bysshe Shelley, "England In 1819"
Percy Bysshe Shelley is angry--angry at the disenfranchisement, political unrest, authoritarian rule, and top-down rot in the England of his day. But he might as well have been talking about ours, predicting us almost two hundred years ago. Join me, Mark Scarbrough, in reading and thinking about this provocative sonnet, less a lyric poem than a primal scream about the injustice of the world, set directly in his historical moment and yet ever so prescient.
Aug 17 2017