In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson called for a new poet who would reflect the spirit and potential of America. In 1855, a then-unknown poet named Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, his attempt to fulfill Emerson’s wish. In this episode, Jacke looks at Whitman’s early life and career, contrasting Leaves of Grass with the works of a pair of poets that Emerson may have had in mind when he railed against “men of poetical talents…of industry and skill in meter” who nevertheless failed to be what Emerson called “true poets.”
Do not go gentle into this good episode! Rage, rage against the dying of the… well, things fall apart there, don’t they? (Because we’re not gifted poets like Dylan Thomas!) In this episode, Jacke talks to producer, playwright, and performer Scott Carter about his lifelong passion for the Welsh bard who took the U.K. by storm in the mid-twentieth-century and America by even stormier storm soon thereafter. Which poems are best? What’s good about them? How did they feed into the mythic reputation of Dylan Thomas? And what does it all mean for us today?
Questioning the nature of the self is a standard trope in literature and one of the hallmarks of the Modernist movement. But no one pushed this to the extreme like Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). While the use of a pseudonym or two is common enough, Pessoa wrote poems as more than a hundred “heteronyms” (as he called them), giving many of them their own richly developed biographies, writing styles, and distinct subject matter. The wild cast of characters, who sometimes argued with one another and who occasionally inserted themselves into Pessoa’s life, fooled many literary critics into thinking that they were individual poets. Although Pessoa was nearly unknown when he died, he left behind a rich body of work to pore through and analyze – and a trunkful of his papers, gathered by later editors intoThe Book of Disquiet, has rendered him essential to a consideration of twentieth-century literature. In this episode, Jacke takes a look at the poet who exploded his self into literary fragments, only to find that he had filled a galaxy with stars.
In 1961, poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath rented their flat to a Canadian poet and his wife, the beautiful, accomplished, and slightly mysterious Assia Wevill. Soon afterward, Ted and Assia began having an affair. Within a year, Assia was pregnant with Ted’s child and Sylvia, after years of suffering from depression, had committed suicide. Six years later, Assia would do the same.
It’s a horribly tragic tale, like something out of Shakespeare, with genius and artistic ambition and love and sex and poetry entangled with themes of power dynamics, infidelity, and mental health problems. The poetic gifts of Ted and Sylvia – and the tragic ending of their marriage – has kept biographers and essay writers busy. But what about the third woman, Assia Wevill, a successful professional with ambition of her own? What did she write? How did she fit into this triangle? In this episode, Professor Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and Peter Steinberg, editors of The Collected Writings of Assia Wevill, join Jacke for a discussion of the “Other Woman” in the Plath-Hughes marriage.
Ultimately, the marital relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was filled with pain and ended in tragedy. At the outset, however, things were very different. Within months of their first meeting at Cambridge, they had fallen in love, gotten married, and started having children – all while writing poetry and supporting one another’s art. What did they see in each other as people and as poets? How did they inspire and encourage one another? In this episode, Jacke talks to Plath’s biographer Heather Clark, author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, about the creative partnership of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
(A NOTE OF CORRECTION: At one point during this episode, the host mentions the years of Plath’s birth and death and gives her age as “sixty.” That should, of course, have been “thirty.” Please accept our apologies for his singular incompetence.)
C. Subramania Bharati (1882-1923) is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Known to his fellow Tamils as the “Mahakavi” (“Supreme Poet”), his works modernized and rejuvenated Tamil literature. Bharati, who knew several languages, also wrote in English, and it is in these writings that one can see and appreciate his range of interests, the depth of his thinking, and his passionate advocacy for social reform. In this episode, Jacke is joined by Bharati scholar Mira T. Sundara Rajan, editor of The Coming Age: Collected English Writings of C. Subramania Bharati, to discuss the poet’s life and legacy. Professor Rajan is also the host of the Bharati 100 Podcast, which explores the life and work of Bharati in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his death.
When the poet Gwendolyn Brooks “writes out of her heart, out of her rich and living background, out of her very real talent,” said The New York Times, “she induces almost unbearable excitement.” From her “headquarters” in Chicago, Brooks spent her life writing poems about the joys and struggles of the Black Americans on the streets around her. A consummate artist with full command of her craft, along with an insatiable curiosity and a deep well of empathy, Brooks produced more than 20 volumes of poetry and other works over the span of a 70-year publishing career. She was the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize (in any category); the first Black American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a national poet laureate; the poet laureate of Illinois for 38 years–and those are just some of her many accomplishments and honors. In this episode, Jacke takes a look at the life and works of this indelible American poet. PLUS we get another visit from Professor Mira Sundara Rajan for a sneak preview of our forthcoming episode on the “Supreme Poet” C. Subramania Bharati.
Yes, John Milton was important, and yes, Paradise Lost has been part of the canon since the 17th century – but why should we read anything by John Milton today? Do we imbibe his poetry like medicine? Is it a slog through cerebral but sterile prose? Or is there something wilder, more compelling, more alive? In this episode, Jacke talks to biographer Joe Moshenska, author of Making Darkness Light: A Life of John Milton, about the poet beloved by everyone from Virginia Woolf to Jorge Luis Borges to revolutionaries all over the world.
More listening ideas:
Want more Milton? We’ve got you covered in Episode #154 John Milton. Ready for more wild poetic visions? Try our episode on William Blake. Poetry not your thing? Check out our interview with Samantha Silva about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft.
The American poet Dana Gioia calls Charles Baudelaire “the first modern poet,” adding “In both style and content, his provocative, alluring, and shockingly original work shaped and enlarged the imagination of later poets, not only in his native France but across Europe and the Americas.” In this episode, acclaimed translator and poet Aaron Poochigian joins Jacke to talk about his new translation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, or The Flowers of Evil. ALSO: Jacke bets on himself! Happy Halloween!
German artist Charlie Stein joins Jacke for a discussion of art in literature, including her series 100 Paintings Imagined by Authors, in which she and her partner Andy Best use textual clues and historical context to reimagine artworks that are described in great works of literature. You can see examples of their work at charliestein.com/100-paintings-imagined/