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A collection of field recordings by a wide range of award-winning contemporary poets. Each poet reads a singular American poem of his or her choosing, and also speaks to how the poem connects, deepens, or re-imagines our sense of the nation. The feature includes a print version of the poem to complement the recording, as well as a piece by the participating poet. The authors are expressing their own opinions in these commentaries, which may not necessarily reflect the position of the Library of Congress.

Matthew Zapruder reads and discusses James Tate’s “The Argonaut”

Matthew ZapruderJames Tate

“Often in Jim’s poems, beyond the antic hilarity, there is also a sense of undefined dread, a gradual unraveling of the conventions we depend on, and our assumptions. This double consciousness, that whatever is ‘normal’ barely covers up something deeper, wilder, stranger, more anarchic, and beyond our ordinary ken, strikes me as characteristic of much of the best of American literature.”

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Elizabeth Willis reads and discusses Lisa Jarnot’s “The Bridge”

Elizabeth WillisLisa Jarnot

“I think ‘The Bridge’ is saying something about American identity and what it means to be an individual within a work in progress, which is what any nation or coalition or relationship is, and what it means to be an artist in this culture, fully alive to the complexities and disappointments and possibilities of what that might mean.”

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Linda Gregerson reads and discusses Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem Out of Childhood”

Patricia Spears JonesGwendolyn Brooks

“Rukeyser was fierce in her insistence that the world was one: a tsunami born in Asia moves across the waters to North America; a shooting in Sarajevo means slaughtered millions from the Caucasus to France; the dividends paid to pensioners by Union Carbide are just a little larger because miners in West Virginia have been allowed to die of silicosis.”

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Patricia Spears Jones reads and discusses Gwendolyn Brooks’ “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell”

Patricia Spears JonesGwendolyn Brooks

“Gwendolyn Brooks . . . represents what American poets should continue to be like. She worked on her craft, she deeply cared about the ways in which the ideals of this nation rarely served its citizens, and her work demanded that we attend to those ideals and create the environment to make them real.”

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Juan Felipe Herrera reads and discusses Denise Levertov’s “Making Peace”

Juan Felipe HerreraDenise Levertov

“I’ve always loved Denise Levertov—her writing, her position as a poet, her relentless giving of her poems to the people . . . she responds to a bigger picture.”

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Mary Jo Salter reads and discusses Richard Wilbur's "A Plain Song for Comadre"

Mary Jo SalterRichard Wilbur

“The poem’s first journal appearance was in Poetry in February 1954, half a year before I was born, and it was then collected in Wilbur’s third book, Things of This World, in 1956. I don’t think a single year has gone by in the last forty when I haven’t read it at least two or three times, or discovered a few lines from it echoing in my head—particularly ‘It is seventeen years /Come tomorrow //That Bruna Sandoval has kept the church /Of San Ysidro…’”

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Peter Gizzi reads and discusses James Schuyler’s “February”

Peter GizziJames Schuyler

“There’s a deeper cold behind the ‘gold and chilly’ weather as he chronicles a major American city from his window. We see beauty and power twinned, ‘the UN building on big evenings,’ and ‘the green leaves of the tulips on my desk like grass light on flesh.’”

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Sally Keith reads and discusses Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Owl”

Sally KeithEllen Bryant Voigt

“It is the complexity of the innovation in combination with the tender humanity which makes me feel the poem as American.”

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Carol Muske-Dukes reads and discusses Jon Anderson’s “Rosebud”

Carol Muske-DukesJon Anderson

“This poem is about history and identity in that it is about, as Jon Anderson says, the ‘last important victory’ of the tribes, for the tribes, and also about living in history.”

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Diane Seuss reads and discusses Emily Dickinson’s “508 (I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —)”

Diane SeussEmily Dickenson

“Still, yet, for a woman writing from the middle of the 1800s, a woman who rarely ventured from her father’s house, the self-claiming in this and so many of her poems is extraordinary, and strikes me as quintessentially American, at least as Americans dream themselves to be.”

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Afaa Michael Weaver reads and discusses Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Little Brown Baby”

Afaa Michael WeaverPaul Laurence Dunbar

“. . . in this particular poem, I find the treasure of the love of the father for the child, and I think of African American men and their evolution as men in the context of the racial history of this country.”

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Gillian Conoley reads and discusses Lorine Niedecker's “Swedenborg”

Gillian ConoleyLorine Niedecker

“While her experimentation was cosmopolitan, and her range of reference global and century-spanning, her idiom was of the folk.”

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Douglas Kearney reads and discusses Harryette Mullen's “We Are Not Responsible”

Douglas KearneyHarryette Mullen

“Harryette Mullen oftentimes engages language as a kind of a plaything, but is always aware that it’s volatile, like somebody juggling nitroglycerin.”

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Dana Levin reads and discusses Brenda Hillman's “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways”

Dana LevinBrenda Hillman

“Hillman . . . reminds us that one of the functions of art is to disturb: to startle us out of the ossified, inflexible forms of the routine and conventional. In this, she has a particularly American genius.”

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Camille Dungy reads and discusses Airea D. Matthews' “Sexton Texts Tituba from a Bird Conservatory”

Camille DungyAirea D. Matthews

“. . . the poem speaks into the future in this way, using the text message form, which just seems like such an American thing to do—to kind of think forward into the future but also into the past, speaking through Tituba, who happened to be the first person who died in the Salem Witch Trials.”

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Jane Hirshfield reads and discusses Adrienne Rich's “XIII (Dedications)”

Jane HirshfieldAdrienne Rich

“The poem is a litany of community-summoning and blessing. It holds an album of lives, and of longings, recognized and unrecognized both.”

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Mary Jo Bang reads and discusses Allen Ginsberg's “Howl, Part III”

Mary Jo BangAllen Ginsberg

“It’s rare that a single event results in permanent social change, and more rare, yet, when that single event is the publication of a poem. ‘Howl’ is one of those few poems.”

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Ron Padgett reads and discusses Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them”

Ron Padgett Frank O'Hara

“. . . this poem, to me, sounds almost like a letter to a friend: it has a personal tone, it’s conversational, it’s very open and unguarded.”

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C.D. Wright reads Besmilr Brigham’s “Heaved from the Earth”

C. D. Wright Besmilr Brigham

“She drives into her poem at an unexpected angle—exits without explanation. She gives the reader ample space to expand and elaborate on her intentions. This is stubborn, backcountry matter—predators and prey.”

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James Tate reads Charles Wright's “The Other Side of the River”

James TateCharles Wright

“ … he seems like he’s locked into some very narrow thing, namely the self, but in truth, it gets very large and wide thanks to his great use of language, and his love of language, and the rhythm …”

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Carl Phillips reads and discusses Walt Whitman’s “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing”

Carl Phillips Walt Whitman

“And what I am particularly struck by is how, so early in our country’s history, he is making, or trying to make, a space for difference by showing how much we have in common, mainly, the need for love, the need for company and companionship, whoever we are.”

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Joy Harjo reads and discusses Jennifer Elise Foerster’s “American Coma”

Joy Harjo Jennifer Elise Foerster

“… in this poem, she’s putting the story of a broken people back together; she’s making a road home, maybe even cleaning the road home for the people, for the person in this story who’s been broken, and for her own brokenness and the brokenness of a whole country.”

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Rosanna Warren reads and discusses Herman Melville’s “The March into Virginia”

Rosanna Warren Herman Melville

“It’s a poem much concerned with identity: North or South? Youth or age? What is it to be an American? What is it to be living? What is it to be dead? What is it to be ignorant? What is it to be (as the poem says) ‘enlightened?’”

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Forrest Gander reads from and discusses Will Alexander’s “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome”

Forrest Gander Will Alexander

“For him, migration is a mode and means of identification with others, and so, of self-discovery.”

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D. A. Powell reads Frances E.W. Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”

D. A. Powell Frances E.W. Harper

“A tireless suffragist and abolitionist, Harper saw the transformation of this country from a land of inequality to a place of promise and hope.”

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Fanny Howe reads and discusses John Wieners’ “The Acts of Youth”

Fanny HoweJohn Wieners

“John Wieners’ poems are the means by which he rescues himself. The poems relieve his anguish as they offer rhythm in the ritual of writing…”

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Naomi Shihab Nye reads and discusses Lisa Suhair Majaj’s “Guidelines”

Naomi Shihab Nye Lisa Suhair Majaj

“It reminds me of the power of language to ease situations of potential conflict. Instead of backfiring with fury, the poem gently engages and expands.”

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Tony Hoagland reads and discusses Kenneth Patchen’s “The Orange Bears”

Tony Hoagland Kenneth Patchen

“This seems to me to be a beautiful social and political act performed through poetry, which is the act that really lies at the heart of pacifism and our ideas of justice, and reminds us of our right to feel outrage …”

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J.D. McClatchy reads and discusses Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps”

J.D. McClatchyWalt Whitman

“The Civil War remains the most cataclysmic and tragic event in our history. Behind the struggle, driving its purpose and passions, loomed the greatest of issues: the fate of a country and the rights of its people.”

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Nikky Finney reads and discusses Margaret Walker’s “For My People”

Nikky Finney Margaret Walker

“If I could tell you how much I miss her presence, her courage, her strength, her non-compromising eyes and intellect, I would.”

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Amy Gerstler reads and discusses James Tate’s “Wild Beasts”

Amy Gerstler James Tate

“America is, as we were all taught in elementary school, a melting pot. There are no countries named in this poem, there are no religious groups named in this poem. The speaker is a kind of everyman . . .”

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Gerald Stern reads and discusses Samuel Greenberg’s “The Tusks of Blood”

Gerald Stern Samuel Greenberg

“The poem, aside from being fascinating and brilliant, perhaps a great poem, is illustrative also, in its way, of the huge wave of immigration coming from southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the last century …”

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Marilyn Chin reads and discusses Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues”

Marilyn Chin Bessie Smith

“The blues poems remind us that the American poetic tradition can be traced to African American oral tradition, that great art, great poems come from deep suffering that is personal, historical, and political …”

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Laura Kasischke reads and discusses Randall Jarrell’s “Come to the Stone...”

Laura Kasischke Randall Jarrell

“Robert Lowell called Randall Jarrell the most heartbreaking poet of our time. I would say that this is his most heartbreaking poem …”

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Arthur Sze reads and discusses Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

Arthur Sze Walt Whitman

“Whitman’s poem closes the gap between poet and reader. The poet’s speaker asserts his identity through physicality. I, too, received identity by my body and the crowd on the ferry soon becomes everyone who has ever traveled, anyone who has ever gone home, anyone who will ever go home.”

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Sharon Olds reads and discusses Lucille Clifton’s “won't you celebrate with me”

Sharon Olds Louise Clifton

“Lucille Clifton: 'Won’t you celebrate with me?’ Yes we will, Lucille. I love this poem.”

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Rhina P. Espaillat reads and discusses César Sánchez Beras’ “Areíto por todos”

Rhina P. Espaillat César Sánchez Beras

“Those of us who intermarry know perfectly well that "identity" is not a stable construct but an ongoing process, and that the blood of those who were once "enemies" is now mingled forever with our own.”

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Dana Gioia reads and discusses Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”

Dana Gioia Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“And the sheer compassion of Longfellow’s vision suffuses the poem with an emotion, an emotional music that is quite powerful. And that is what makes this poem matter most to me personally: the strange beauty and evocative power of its language and its imagery that draw a special resonance from Jewish cultural history.”

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Alicia Ostriker reads and discusses Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”

Alicia Ostriker Emma Lazarus

“It is an amazing poem. It claims that we represent, not war and conquest, but freedom, enlightenment, and compassion.”

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Charles Harper Webb reads and discusses Richard Garcia’s “El Zapato”

Charles Harper Webb Richard Garcia

“Just because my mother didn’t throw shoes at me—her weapon of choice was the hairbrush—and wouldn’t have called them zapatos if she had, doesn’t mean I can’t relate.”

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Edward Hirsch reads and discusses William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie”

Edward Hirsch William Carlos Williams

“So Williams gives us a kind of diagnosis of a situation in America in 1923 (and America afterwards as well), and a kind of solution: we need contact with the earth.”

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Rae Armantrout reads and discusses Fanny Howe’s “9/11”

Rae Armantrout Fanny Howe

“What happens if we see the deserts of Utah as the same as the deserts of Iraq? We become they, I becomes you, and finally, in the most radical move of all, we all become it.”

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Charles Bernstein reads and discusses Charles Reznikoff’s “II. from Amelia”

Charles Bernstein Charles Reznikoff

“He took the legal story of Amelia, which no doubt went on for pages and pages and pages, and he eliminated anything that was not necessary to experience the event.”

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Marilyn Nelson reads and discusses Badger Clark’s “A Cowboy’s Prayer”

Marilyn Nelson Badger Clark

“. . . this poem expresses a reverence which is evoked by the land. It’s an ecological poem, I suppose one might say . . . one might say it’s a green poem. It’s a poem about loving America as a land. As a landscape.”

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