Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poetic Spirituality

One evening this fall, Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet who lives in Belfast, entered a Bloomsbury bookshop several blocks from one of Virginia Woolf’s former homes. Ó Tuama, who is forty-seven and has a mop of disobedient auburn curls, wore red leather shoes and a belt with a buckle that read “Praise the Lord.” He descended the bookshop’s stairs, passing by a rack offering brief histories of barbarian hordes and Roman legions, to its windowless basement. He was there to celebrate the publication of “Poetry Unbound,” a tender collection of his informal personal essays written in response to works of contemporary poetry, which will be published in the United States this week. “Poetry is a lifeblood for so many people,” he told me. “You’re looking for something on the page, and it’s looking back at you. There’s a phenomenon occurring there that has the quality of mystery.”

The collection was born out of an eponymous podcast that Ó Tuama hosts, which is run under a company created by “On Being,” a podcast about contemporary spirituality. On Mondays and Fridays, for a dozen minutes or so, Ó Tuama recites a favorite poem, dipping it in his County Cork brogue, then riffs on its powers, in a kind of personal meditation, and encourages listeners to reflect on their own interpretations. He closes each segment by reciting the poem a second time. Ó Tuama’s selections span centuries and geographies, and celebrate the work of well-known living poets, such as Marilyn Nelson, Zaffar Kunial, and Joy Harjo, as well as that of the dead: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who died in 2021. In the podcast’s sixth and most recent season, he reads Zagajewski’s “Transformation”:

I’ve lived humbly, reading the paper
pondering the riddle of power
and the reasons for obedience.

“He is a poet who takes responsibility so seriously,” Ó Tuama says, of Zagajewski. “Initially to the question of citizenship in his life. And then, later on, to whether art can speak to power and what language can do for a people—and not just their internal life but their public life, too.” The questions of poetry’s relationship to our interior landscape and our public responsibilities preoccupy Ó Tuama. He began the podcast in January, 2020, hoping, at the time, that it would garner as many as thirty thousand downloads. Now that number has surpassed ten million, and “Poetry Unbound” has become one of the most popular poetry programs in recent history. Although Ó Tuama sometimes poses questions about morality on the program, there’s nothing compulsory or donnish about his endeavor. His primary form is an oral version of the personal essay, which, he told me, “seeks to move easily between analysis and storytelling and gives readers permission to bring their own lives into conversation with the poem.” The poems he selects, and his intimate meditations on them, are intended to offer pleasure. In one episode, he recalls laughing after reading Major Jackson’s poem “Blunts,” in which boys get high on a street corner, bluster to one another, and share their hopes for the future. Ó Tuama asks, “Can I really live into the imagination I have of myself?” Such poetic moments, Ó Tuama told me, create spaces for listeners to pause and turn inward. “People are looking for accidental liturgies,” he said.

The podcast “Poetry Unbound” owes much of its extraordinary reach to its association with “On Being.” That show, which began in 2001, focusses on matters of spirituality, broadly defined. It comes at a time when an unprecedented number of Americans are fleeing their childhood churches. Krista Tippett, the earnest host, has become a patron saint of those seeking meaning outside the confines of traditional religion. On the program, she asks guests—who have included Jane Goodall, Bryan Stevenson, and Desmond Tutu—cosmic questions about existence. Last year, she asked the irreverent essayist Alain de Botton to defend his argument “Why you will marry the wrong person.” On another episode, she spoke to the poet Ocean Vuong about his recent meditation on how to “live a life worthwhile of our breath.” Both Tippett and Ó Tuama repeatedly return to the argument that spirituality need not depend on specific religious beliefs.

At the bookstore, Ó Tuama had invited Raymond Antrobus, a poet and podcast contributor who is also his friend, to share the cramped stage. A large fish pin hung from the lapel of Antrobus’s denim jacket. “I’m hiding a stain,” he confessed as he climbed onto the riser next to his friend. Antrobus reveres Ó Tuama, and credits their friendship, which deepened during the isolation of lockdowns, with getting him through a nearly impossible and uncertain time. “I loved his book ‘Sorry for Your Troubles,’ which I’d taught,” Antrobus told me. “But we grew closer sharing our work and our fears during COVID.” For Ó Tuama, who, for a time, pursued the Catholic priesthood, a series of difficult deaths during COVID required him to lead funerals. “I wrote little liturgies for Zoom gatherings of friends who, in the place of a wake, wanted to find some way to mark the shock,” he said. “God, it was awful, but it was better than nothing.”

The pandemic forced many people to acknowledge our shared vulnerability. Ó Tuama believes that these human impulses helped “Poetry Unbound” to explode during COVID. In their loneliness, and surrounded by grief, people sought solace in brief encounters with poetry. “We are pattern-seeking, meaning-making creatures, us humans,” he told me. “There was, perhaps, something of pattern and meaning in the simplicity of the podcast that seemed to connect with people, particularly during the unpredictability and chaos of the first year of COVID.” The idea to compile these poems and essays into a book came from Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate Books, who, it turned out, was an avid listener. “Jamie e-mailed, and then e-mailed again, and then texted. I thought I was being spammed,” Ó Tuama said. “And there he was, chasing me.”

For the book, Ó Tuama selected a range of the popular poems that spanned the podcast’s six seasons, including work by Ada Limón, Layli Long Soldier, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Ilya Kaminsky, Christian Wiman, Kaveh Akbar. In “Wonder Woman,” Limón’s speaker accepts the ravages of an unnamed illness: “Standing at the swell of the muddy Mississippi / after the urgent care doctor had just said, Well / sometimes shit happens.” In Smith’s, the speaker imagines a lover’s fumbling hands, in childhood, “Learning to maneuver a pencil or struggling / To fasten a coat.” Others explore injustice, or the voices of those on the margins. Trethewey’s “Miscegenation” considers laws that banned interracial marriages, including that of her parents. Alongside them, Ó Tuama offers reflections that include sometimes embarrassing or painful personal anecdotes. “I have a habit, when I’m feeling awkward or self-conscious, of running a sharp edge of a fingernail along the thin skin of my thumb,” he writes. These little confessions often dissolve into aphorism. “If a person is a complex being with many stories, then perhaps poetry should be too,” he writes.

Ó Tuama has become a shepherd in the shambolic tradition of contemporary spirituality, treating poetry as a form of agnostic prayer. “My interest in prayer is where it comes from, not where it’s going,” he told me. “The heart, rather than God.” Poetry, for him, is the language the heart speaks not when it reaches for some externalized divinity but when it seeks to understand itself. “Not all prayers name the god they turn towards,” he writes. In their search for meaning, he believes, poems access the world of the spirit. At the bookstore, Ó Tuama read from his book in front of a rapt audience. “What kind of prayer could ever be trusted without evidence of a free tongue?” he said, reciting a line from a poem by No‘u Revilla, a poet and scholar born on Maui. Then he gleefully repeated the words “free” and “tongue,” trying out their sounds.

Ó Tuama has a plainspoken approach to poetry, and insists, rather fiercely, that discussing poems can be matter-of-fact. Poetry, he argues, isn’t some rarefied calling for the élite; its true nature is raw, and it is no less accomplished when it is closer to folk forms than to those that float down from the ivory tower. Most of the poems he has selected for his book have political themes. “It has never occurred to me that poetry and politics aren’t engaged with one another,” he told me.

Ó Tuama grew up in County Cork, Ireland, during the seventies and eighties. “I didn’t have any money for fancy schools,” Ó Tuama told me. “I just had an ordinary Irish education.” In his community, poetry was treated as a medium for humor, culture, and history, not simply as an object of study for the privileged. By the age of nine, Ó Tuama was learning by heart some seventy poems a year, in English and in Irish. Many of the poems he learned were by old Irish bards who spoke about the land and its creatures; he told me that he believes they were really about mourning these places’ loss during British occupation. Other poems, such as those by Patrick Kavanagh, are funny, tragic, self-deprecating, and dark all at once. In “Epic,” Kavanagh writes, “I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided; who owned / That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land / Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.” Ó Tuama told me, “They’re describing this loved piece of land or this loved animal, but actually they’re also describing what it’s like to have it taken from you through colonization.”

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