Poetry podcaster Pádraig Ó Tuama: “Why do we turn to poetry? Because the poems turn to us’

Growing up, I was the boy who read next year’s poetry books during the summer. I don’t know if I’ve told anyone about it, but it’s true. There was something about the poetry in those books that made me feel like I was growing up.

heard my older sister recite Walter de la Mare The traveler once when she was trying to memorize it, and I waited for four years for us to come up with that poem in school. Fifth class, I think it was. I had known it by heart for years anyway, but I longed to enter that dark forest and hear the horses gnawing the grass anxiously as the traveler knocked at the door of a house filled with ghosts. The poem felt adult. It didn’t speak to me. It was like someone was describing a world they couldn’t explain.

A poem is many things: it is an exercise in craftsmanship and clever word choice; sometimes it’s still life with words, or holding an emotion or experience in a way that helps you pay attention. Yes Yes Yes. All these things. But it’s also deeper than that. A poem is something people can turn to when they have to attend a gruesome funeral or a glorious wedding. When I was 16, my friend sat next to me in chemistry class and wrote a long poem on the back of the textbook. He had just broken up with his girlfriend. I knew two things: not to interrupt him and not to dare to peek at what he was writing. Some things are not intended for the public.

I think we turn to poetry because somehow we believe that language has the ability to tell us something about ourselves. It’s not that poetry has to be the be-all and end-all, or have the last or only word. But if you can find the right poem, it can resonate. And an echo says that somehow, while you’re alone, there’s also a voice coming back to you, saying something to yourself.

A poem is “a little self-remembering machine”, as Don Patterson puts it in his 2018 book The poem. He can also remember us.

I studied theology and conflict and then moved to Belfast so I could work on theology and conflict. After years in community dialogue and anti-bigotry projects, I realized that I wanted words to go beyond violence prevention. I wanted the words to be the things we turn to to do something about, not just to keep the hurt from getting worse.

Around this time, I received an invitation to work on a podcast from Krista Tippett, the founder of the American Media Project to be. We had known each other for years, and she had often asked for poetry recommendations. She asked me if I would like to work with her part-time, developing a podcast that explores how poetry can be useful in everyday life.

There are, I think, over two million podcasts now. Why not another? I thought it would be a nice little side project, mostly for me, as I was trying to make sure I could focus on some creativity, rather than violence and menace in the language.

We started recording in 2019 and launched in early 2020 with the Free poetry podcast. We are a small team working on it, and I am proud to be part of this troupe. The music and rhythm are simple. I take someone else’s poem, read it, think about it, and reread it. It only lasts 12 to 15 minutes, on Mondays and Fridays. Start and end your week with a poem. Nice and easy. Free too – even easier.

We were expecting around 10,000 or 15,000 downloads this first season. Instead, we got over a million. Then it increased with the next season and the next. It was amazing to hear people who wrote to us talk about poems we had presented.

Someone wrote that he took a poem that we made an episode of and played it to his mother while she was in hospice. Their last days were filled with small talk about poems.

Someone else took episodes and played them in the prison where they worked as a chaplain. A man wrote to me saying his wife worked in a hospital during the early days of Covid, and a poem helped him break down and feel all the fear and then come together to support his teenagers, who were also struggling.

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Someone else said he liked to listen to him while he walked the dog. Everywhere, people wrote to us saying that they turned to poetry because it helped them to give rhythm to their lives with a rhythm, an accompaniment, a language that was enough.

Often, I think that’s what we’re looking for: something good enough. I don’t know if an adult expects perfection: if he does, he will have a pitch. But it’s such a relief to find something good enough.

Like many of us during Covid, I’ve experienced my fair share of grief. Shocking and unexpected, some of them. Where to turn? The words of Zoom’s funeral liturgies are benevolent, but often leave me wanting. I turned to Mark Burrows’ translations of Rilke, as well as Marie Howe’s poem My mother’s bodywho turns time back on itself and allows him to imagine his own mother as a daughter.

During the pandemic, my own questions about religion have continued to dig deep, and I wonder what the point is. Poem by Kei Miller book of genesis helped me think that maybe the “let there be light” from the Hebrew Bible could also utter a “let there be light” that could resonate in my own life. Looking at what is happening in Ukraine, I turned to Yousif M.Qasmiyeh’s poem write camp, trying to imagine what the temporary or not-so-temporary camps were like. Then I donated.

I needed consolation too. Leanne O’Sullivan wrote a poem, in the form of a letter, to her husband when he was seriously ill in hospital. She needed to leave early one night and left him in the care of the nurse, named Fionnuala. She, like her namesake in Children of Lír, would keep the poet’s beloved safe all night. There was something about remembering the myth, alongside the beep-beep-beep of the intensive care units, that helped me on some nights over the past few years.

American poet James Wright knew too much about war and was a man of conflict. But he also knew the necessity of friendship and beauty. One night he took a friend and they drove to a field near a highway just to visit two ponies that he knew would come out into the meadow and greet them with delight. Her heart almost breaks with the beauty of it all. Mine too. It’s a nice reminder.

Why do we turn to poems? Because the best poems turn to us. They are not necessarily written for one purpose – they are an art form that changes meaning as life changes. A poem I hated when I was young might become meaningful to me in my 40s. It may be a reflection. It’s not about trying to solve the world, it’s just about saying that in another place, a person with a pen and paper wrote something down to make some sense of their world, to open it up a bit. And by opening it up a little, they made room for us too. That’s why poetry seems so timeless to me: it’s because it’s an act of hospitality, an act of seeing, an act of inviting.

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Unbound Poetry by Pádraig Ó Tuama

Unbound Poetry by Pádraig Ó Tuama

“Poetry Unbound” by Pádraig Ó Tuama is now available on Canongate

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