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Ordinary Poetry: The New Yorker's Poetry Podcast

In the inaugural episode of the New Yorker’s new poetry podcast, the magazine’s poetry editor Paul Muldoon says he wants listeners to connect to poets “in a strange way—take them for granted.” It’s a task perfectly suited to the podcast form.

Many of us who listen to the radio do so obsessively. We fall asleep to it, wake up to it, cook with it. It’s this ubiquity, this quotidian flavour, that makes radio such a great way to change poets into “ordinary features and fixtures in our lives,” as Muldoon puts it. 

It has been said that radio is the most democratic of mediums. You only have to buy a radio once (as opposed to a newspaper), and a radio is much cheaper than a television. One of the few good remnants of the British Empire, along with soccer and self-lacerating comedy, is the BBC World Service.

It makes perfect sense then, that for the inaugural episode, Muldoon should engage with such a populist and “ordinary” poet as Phil Levine. The poet laureate of the United States from 2011 to 2012, Levine grew up in boom-town Detroit working on the assembly lines for Cadillac and Chevrolet. The lives and activities of ordinary people enthuse him. In one of Levine’s most famous poems, “What Work Is,” a melancholic beauty erupts from a simple and common act: waiting to go to work, and thinking of one’s brother. As Muldoon and Levine discuss poetry in the twenty-minute-long episode, the two poets interests converge on William Carlos Williams’ famous adage, “no ideas but in things.”

One of my favorite Muldoon poems—a five-liner simply titled “Ireland”—conceals its grand ambitions in a very basic image paired with a very basic thought. 

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,

But gently ticking over.

You wonder if it’s lovers

And not men hurrying back

Across two fields and a river.

Wrapped up in a commonplace “thing,” the Volkswagen, is everything about Ireland at the time the poem was written. The Volkswagen is landscape, possibly a car bomb, and it is certainly fear. 

Radio, Muldoon acknowledges in a reflection on the thirteen years he spent as a producer at the BBC in Belfast, was a place where poets “gave us a sense of who we were, which in many ways was even more significant than what the politicians might be telling us, or what the sociologists might be telling us, or the historians.”

Though perhaps not consciously, Muldoon is echoing George Orwell, who wrote in the 1945 essay Poetry and the Microphone that the radio exists as a possible avenue for poetry to be “brought back to the common people.” This in turn, Orwell hopes, might rescue poetry from propagandists and from academic obscurity and navel-gazing. Levine and Muldoon have made a good start.