Of Poets and a President

Was Walt Whitman right when he said that America’s “common referee” is not its presidents but its poets?

Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Flickr/Thomas Hawk

The Slowdown

“If there were one single poem that made me want to become a poet it would have to be …”

This is how U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith opens episode 23 of her daily podcast, The Slowdown, produced by American Public Media and, as of January 14, broadcast on public radio stations in seven different cities. The show’s seamless format consists of Smith choosing a poem, explaining why she chose it, and reading it. Every episode runs for five minutes and Smith’s narration exudes a depth of wisdom enhanced by a warm speaking voice that makes it all but impossible not to slow down, put away the phone, and listen. Appropriately, the poem always has the last word.

Each episode’s payoff comes not only in the poem itself, but also in the way that Smith weaves a context around it, drawing on disparate reflections, many of them personal, to unify poetry and life. After identifying Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” as the poem that brought her to poetry, she explains how it highlights the theme of work, particularly the labor applied to Ireland’s landscape by generations of forebears battling, in Heaney’s words, “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat.” She moves from the narrator’s potato-digging father (“his straining rump among the flowerbeds”) to American workers, some of whom Smith notes were “brought here against their will,” and the plight of the American labor movement in general. “I think of hardscrabble stories,” she says, “of humble folk making due, making a life.” The episode concludes with Edgar Kunz’s poem “My Father at 49, Working the Night Shift at B&R Diesel,” which ends by blending beauty and loneliness to capture a commonplace but unforgettable image:

there’s no one to witness the slap
of a wet rag tossed in the break-
room sink or the champ of gravel

in the empty lot. How the stars dim
as morning comes on. How a semi downshifts
on the overpass and the shop windows rattle

as it goes.

Whether or not these episodes encourage greater attention to the buzzworthy notion of mindfulness is a less interesting question than what they do for our national understanding of language and humanity. At a time when the literal grammar of our lives is under sustained assault, Smith’s daily affirmation of poetic expression reminds us of Whitman’s assertion that America’s “common referee” is not its presidents, but its poets. And when something as universal as work can be elucidated through the interacting poetic voices of an African-American woman with roots in Alabama, a man from Northern Ireland, and a young kid from New England, so much the better.

The Age of Jackson Podcast

Daniel N. Gullotta somehow manages to churn out a well-wrought weekly podcast while dealing with the incessant rigor of being a Stanford PhD student in religious studies. I can’t imagine such a juggling act. However he does it, we are all better off for it. Although, as I listened to one engaging episode after the other (there are now 60 in all), I often wondered who Gullotta’s “we” might be. His explorations of seminal academic books about the antebellum era, discussed with professional historians and sometimes the authors themselves, all hit a target in the murky netherworld between academic and popular history. For most scholars, this region is a black hole.

But not for Gullotta. Although I’m a professional historian, I still found the historiographical debates over slavery, Christianity, and Andrew Jackson—which are discussed in most episodes—consistently engaging stuff that I hadn’t heard since graduate school. Plus, there is something refreshing (and often revealing) about experts discussing methodologies and interpretive strategies in conversation. Historians are a tribe that typically communicates their scholarship through professional writing, a mode that favors stern authorial command, rather than the ambivalence that can creep into conversation. The Age of Jackson Podcast, in this respect, reminds us that history is written by flawed humans who are often beset with doubt. (Although there was decidedly little of that evident when Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, deemed a half-century of interpretations of the American Revolution “all wrong” in episode 56. Good stuff.)

But it’s with the History Channel crowd—those who enjoy the subject but have no stake in it professionally—that I think The Age of Jackson Podcast has the most to offer. Too much of history is dumbed down and sensationalized when it’s played out in popular venues. Hagiographic accounts of war and great white men too often dominate the public consumption of history at the expense of more intricate and diverse topics with wider social and cultural implications. Gullotta, by contrast, assumes that the interested layperson can handle, and even relish, a historian like Joshua Rothman discussing, with great passion and insight, the scholarly legacy of Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (episode six—perhaps my favorite), or Swarthmore’s Yvonne Chireau discussing the strengths and weakness of her mentor Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion (another standout episode). It’s a refreshing assumption on Gullotta’s part.

In an age when historians are increasingly accused of being insular and out of touch, Gullotta’s decision to lift the lid on the profession, and make it look pretty damn good in the process, is a welcome move indeed.

The Slightly Foxed Podcast: Reading off the Beaten Track

Perhaps the best detail with which to characterize the East London magazine Slightly Foxed is the stitching on its sturdy spines. Neither glue nor staples taint the binding of this self-possessed quarterly, founded in 2004 by veteran book editors Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood. Now on its 60th issue, this understated but fiercely independent publication, which favors the backlist over best sellers, has decided to produce what they call “an audio version of the magazine.” That is, a podcast.

Only three episodes in, the podcast is showing its youth. Witty chitchat and an occasional lack of focus delay the book-related content we itch to hear. Host Philippa Lamb opens episode one by asking Pirkis and Wood to tell us “what’s caught your eye recently in your world.” Within two minutes, a farrago of disparate topics is ricocheting around the kitchen of the Hoxton Square office where the podcast is recorded. A promise to explore the tension between “the vast literary back catalogue and ephemeral best-seller lists” goes largely unfulfilled before the episode ends, pleasantly enough, with a lovely (big word on this podcast) reading of a review of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris published in the first Slightly Foxed volume.

Fortunately, this situation improves dramatically. The third episode strikes a finer balance between admittedly fascinating bookish persiflage and a grave exploration of the struggles underscoring the book world. Hearing Pirkis and Wood share war stories about the editing process—supplemented by novelist Sue Gee’s account of being edited—reminds us that it takes of a lot of dedicated people to publish a book and, every now and then, everyone ends up at an impasse where, as Wood describes it, “the authors were furious, I was reduced to tears, and their dog bit me.” It’s also in this stellar episode that the host asks the editors if there was a Slightly Foxed issue that just kind of biffed. “If I’m honest,” Wood said, “I don’t think so.” In time, they may be justified in saying the same thing about this promising bibliophilic podcast.

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James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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