I recently began listening to podcasts to give my eyes some relief from screen and print. These podcasts represent a range of my regular listening—two are concerned with language itself, while the following two focus on book reviews and poetry readings, respectively. I’ve found them to be a great way to explore and revisit language, poems, and books. It’s my hope that you enjoy them as well!
The Allusionist—Helen Zaltzman. From swear tablets found in bogs around Bath (68, 2017) to how transfolk maneuver their words to match their experiences of gender (56, 2017), The Allusionist focuses on language in its funny, serious, creative, and everyday functions. There is an entire episode devoted to how apples get their names and another about polari (99), which was the argot that many gay men in England used to reveal and conceal identity simultaneously.
Zaltzman also includes additional material for each episode on the podcast’s website, https://www.theallusionist.org/. For the episode about polari, materials include a link to the Polari Bible, a link to Round the Horne (a polari-loving radio program that aired from the mid-to-late 1960s), gay language in the Philippines, and much more. Zaltzman might also be the funniest person around formally trained as a Medievalist.
A Way With Words—Martha & Grand Barrett. This podcasting duo composed of an author/journalist and lexicographer/linguist talk about family expressions, where words come from, current slang, and classic sayings. They’re like the teachers we all love the most—lively, engaging, thoughtful, and warm. More about the podcast can be found at: https://www.waywordradio.org/about/
In “Pie in the Sky” a 6 foot 8 listened shares his favorite pithy remarks to strangers’ comments about his height (2012). The same episode also covers why leg cramps are called charley horses, and where the phrase “pie in the sky” originated. “Had the Radish” (2019) centers on a phrase commonly used by a listener when fed up or worn out. The phrase came to the upstate New York listener from France by the way of Quebec. The French phrase je n’ai plus de radis—which translates to “I don’t even have a radish”—originally expressed poverty.
The New York Times Book Review Podcast—Various Hosts. Wide-ranging as The Times itself, the Book Review Podcast explores fiction and non-fiction alike with a variety of hosts guiding the program. Trends in the publishing world and literary criticisms are also common subjects. In the episode “The Angry Children Are Our Future,” an interview of Lydia Millet, author of A Children’s Bible—an allegorical novel about climate change and a family vacation—precedes a discussion of Barry Gewen’s The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.
The background of what constitutes a children’s Bible and how Millet’s novel departs from typical conventions of a coming-of-age tale offers material for contemplation for readers and writers alike. More about the podcast, including the option to stream content, can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/column/book-review-podcast.
Poetry Unbound—Pádraig Ó Tuama. “I need to feel the air in my throat and vocal cords constrict to make the poem real,” says the podcaster himself before he reads the poem “1383” by Emily Dickinson. He reads it well and follows the reading with his interpretation of the poem—how the fire described in the poem is like the fire that keeps friendship alive across distance and time. It’s a topical episode from late March of 2020, following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Other episodes are topical as well, though in a more general way. The episode “A Poem to See What’s Overlooked” offers a reading of a poem by Lemn Sissay that addresses what becomes forgotten. It’s a poem that demands remembrance, according to Ó Tuama, of the flat beer and missing buttons alike. “Like” is the word Ó Tuama brings our attention to throughout its repetition in the poem and his experience coming out as a gay man. Attentive and thoughtful, this podcast rewards the ears and the mind. More about the podcast can be found at https://radiopublic.com/poetryunbound-69qD3w/s1!30fd6.
Since we were unable to meet in person for a social event this semester, our staff connected through a virtual book spine poetry reading, a great option that was both bookish and fun. Over video chat, each staff member shared a picture of their book stack, where they’d arranged the titles into a poem of their own. We found our results engaging and thought we would share them below!
big, little lies
While creating this book spine poetry about the steadfastness of lies, I had to keep reminding myself to work with the titles I had on my bookshelf and to not get distracted by my wandering imagination. I needed to restrict my vocabulary to that of the authors in my library. In this challenging writing practice, I was reminded that limitations force us to be creative in new ways. What at first seems to be an unfortunate obstacle can actually help us to think differently and to create uniquely. As many of us find ourselves in uncertain and seemingly impossible situations during this new season, I think one hopeful silver lining is that this resilient, creative force we each have is able to thrive in moments of limitation.
Payton, Managing Editor
Dispatches from the
other side of the scoreboard;
Girl, wash your face,
Eat, pray, love,
I'd give anything.
My poem is about the struggle with perfectionism (very close to my heart) and the growth/pain of learning to accept weaknesses, picking yourself up, and not letting accomplishments or met/unmet expectations define your worth.
Makenna, Communications Coordinator
This is What Happy Looks Like
This is what happy looks like:
a light in the attic,
love and gelato,
our family recipes.
Happier at home:
no one can take your place.
I dedicated this poem to my twin sister, who recently returned from eighteen months away from home on a service mission in another country. It represents our experience in two-week quarantine at home which was full of love and happiness through our reunion together as a family.
Diary of an Oxygen Thief
A Dance with Dragons,
A Wrinkle in Time,
The Fault in our Stars.
Two by Two,
The Tenth of December.
The process behind this poem was a little chaotic. I essentially pulled out all of the books I have from my bookshelf at my college housing and stacked them in various ways, but it took a while to find a combination that I liked. Finally, I decided Diary of an Oxygen Thief was a great poem title, so I started there and moved down the line. I wanted to make sure it flowed like a poem, so I made sure some titles had determiners in them like “a” and “the” to add some separation. While it is still kind of list-like to me, I liked that it almost reads like thoughts or words someone (an oxygen thief?) jotted down quickly in a notebook. It adds an element of mysteriousness and that kind of became the mood of the poem in the end!
Edward, Staff Writer
Pity the Reader We the Animals In the Dream House
I composed my poem specifically about the sound, wanting to put unique titles together.
Abhilasha, Staff Writer
Matters of the heart
Trouble the saints—
The cheapest nights,
When we’re emotionally involved, the lines between right and wrong get blurred. Matters of the heart need a margin of human error. Also, the most imperfect things can be beautified by a loving gaze—the cheapest nights, a stretch of barren land.
Jade, Staff Writer
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living:
Now that you're here,
Don't be a stranger.
Rise and shine,
Chasers of the light:
Start something that matters.
When creating my book spine poem, my mind immediately went to the current state of the world and the fear and anxiety we are all undoubtedly feeling. My poem is meant to be a response to this and a reminder that the important things in our lives (connection, love, meaning) still exist amid the uncertainties. While worrying is an inevitable part of life, it’s important to remind ourselves that we can still choose to focus on the important things in life that bring us joy and a sense of meaning
Mackenzie, Staff Writer
One Hundred Years of Solitude: The Stranger Ruins All the Bright Places
My process for creating this poem was to try to construct a narrative, so I looked for a book title that contained a verb and worked from there. I also tried to incorporate different genres of books I liked so that it represented what I like to read.
Erin, Staff Writer
On Earth we are briefly Gorgeous
My book spine poem was created by grouping together titles that evoked similar feelings or images. Although I was working with a limited collection of my books, I enjoy how the poem turned out. My untitled poem is about the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that are plentiful in the world right now. For me, the poem acknowledges the beauty of being human in a largely chaotic world.
Sharon, Staff Writer
As my daughter turns 18, her thoughts are consumed with the “no rules” lifestyle that she believes college will bring her. My poem is about my acknowledgement that these are indeed exciting times, but hey kiddo, you have to look both ways and not get tripped up by your own sense of freedom.
Amanda, Staff Writer
Into the wild, wise child
What dreams may come
With wicked, reckless
My inspiration came from Reckless and Beautiful Creatures being next to each other on my bookshelf. This poem is about being a writer, and how the writing process includes a little bit of chaos and darkness.
Bonus: Mackenzie, Staff Writer
A Dark History, The Tudors. The Source: Six Wives. —The Executioner's Journal.
I used my history books to construct a little joke about the craziness that is Tudor history. Enjoy!
In the modern age, we’ve seriously begun to take the wonder that is a well-written line or quote for granted. From our Instagram bios to epithets and even TV shows and movies, our world is framed around the words of others. To pay homage to the beauty of some of these memorable quotes, I’ve compiled a list of books (and a couple of poems) that are chock-full of swoon-worthy quotes that promise to stick with you and change the way you think about the world. Some of my selections are more modern, and some have stood the test of time, but they are all sure to leave you astonished by the brilliance of written word.
The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock – T.S. Eliot. This existential poem is one of Eliot’s most famous and oft-quoted works, and for good reason. The narrative is fairly concrete in comparison with the author’s usual abstract style, and it’s mainly centered around the monologue of an narrator who finds himself paralyzed by fear and anxiety. This poem is justifiably well-known and finds its universality in our tendency as humans to try to control our own fate, and the feeling of being perpetually on the outside looking in. Because of the multiple interpretations of this poem that are available, it has appealing aspects for all audiences, but will be especially enjoyed by those with an appreciation for philosophy and the human experience.
Memorable Quote: “For I have known them all, known them all: Known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is another commonly quoted author, and The Great Gastby is one of his most popular works. The narrator, Nick Carraway, often provides memorable quotes through his pessimistic musings about the human condition. The titular protagonist, Gatsby, by comparison often speaks to the starry-eyed idealism that lives inside of each of us, and the innate desire to ceaselessly pursue our personal happiness. Together, these two characters create a beautiful juxtaposition and many meaningful dialogues. This novel tackles themes such as love, isolation, and a desire to relive or change the past, with these themes combining into a melting pot of outspoken quotes about living in a world enraptured by materialism and status.
Memorable Quote: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Looking for Alaska – John Green. Oh, John Green. Where would we be without your lighthearted but candid reflections on life? Looking for Alaska was Green’s first novel, but delights readers with so many strident ideas concerning the nature of life, death, and attempting to make the unknowable known. As a bonus, this novel also contains many great lines in the form of famous last words of men and women, as well as a reference to Gabriel Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, and Auden’s As I Walked out One Evening. While this is one of Green’s more graphic works, it provides many thought-provoking observations on the inherent interconnectedness of people and the unseen ways in which we impact one another throughout our lives.
Memorable Quote: “We need never be lost, because we can never be irreparably broken.”
Jane Eyre– Charlotte Bronte. For fans of romantic writing, Jane Eyre provides a gold mine of ethereal and mesmerizing lines. Jane herself manages to be simultaneously timid and bold, and this balance is reflected in both her spoken words and her introspective thoughts. The novel is centered around themes such as independence, morality, and the struggle between rational thought and emotional feeling, making it relevant today for all audiences.
Memorable Quote: “I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse.”
The Laughing Heart – Charles Bukowski. I have to admit, I am a huge Bukowski fan, and I couldn’t resist adding him to this list. While most of his works tend to be laced with a fair dose of cynicism, The Laughing Heart is uncharacteristically hopeful and optimistic. This poem manages to convey a powerful message in just a handful of lines, and has a duality to it that allows it to be both soft and stern, reminding each of us of the power that we hold within ourselves. On a good day, this poem is an affirmation that we are already equipped with everything we need to succeed in life, and on a bad day it reminds us to keep fighting and never yield to the darkness that sometimes threatens to encroach our vision.
Memorable Quote: “your life is your life. know it while you have it. you are marvelous the gods wait to delight in you.”
Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019 Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 256 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life.
From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it.
What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety.
At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.