A Space For Thought: A Podcast Review of Poetry Unbound

March 2, 2021
Title: Poetry Unbound
Broadcaster: On Being Studios
Narrators: Pádraig Ó Tuama
Start Date: January 7, 2020
End Date: December 18, 2020

Simply put, Poetry Unbound is a treat. Hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama—an Irish poet and theologian—and part of the fleet of podcasts produced by On Being Studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Poetry Unbound provides a rare experience. It offers its listeners an immersion into a single poem. Each short 20-minute episode adopts the simple, yet elegant format of a read poem, some reflection and curious investigation into the writing by Ó Tuama, and ends with a second reading of the poem, providing the listener with a chance to hear it alongside the new information they’ve learned.

A significant portion of the appeal of this podcast is the time spent with the host Pádraig Ó Tuama. Ó Tuama’s gentle voice and contemplative tones invite the listener to an almost meditative space. In that space, he creates a kind of rare intimacy and hospitality that enriches the listener simply by virtue of existing there for a short time. Furthermore, his research and insights into the poems he reads are deeply moving and open up doors into the beautiful, hard, elegant, and messy lives of the poets represented in the podcast.

The poems themselves are also deeply moving. Ó Tuama picks from a wide variety of poets, both contemporary and traditional. As such, the subject matter of the podcast swings dramatically from episode to episode. One episode concerns itself with honest accounts of the poet’s struggle with religion; another focuses on hard family relationships; and the next might be a passionate love poem. Each episode seems to be more honest and revealing than the last, uncovering more and more about the human condition with each passing poem.

Ó Tuama states in one episode that, “Poetry invites us to make public that which is private…” and that is truly the case here. Poetry serves the unique purpose of allowing its reader (or listener) into an entirely new world, a very personal world, and one which the reader only gets to visit for a very small amount of time. Almost no other art form behaves in this fashion. Only poetry allows you to go as deep and as personal in such a small amount of time.

As Christians, this is one of the great gifts reading poetry can give us. We are called as Christians to engage with the world, to live curiously, and to understand those around us. This allows us to explore how the gospel can speak into the lives of different communities—both communities of faith and secular ones. However, there are always limitations to our abilities to have cross-cultural experiences. Most often, these limitations are time, location, or, right now, the communal risk of a global pandemic. While poetry cannot fully take the place of spending time with someone from a different belief system or culture than your own, it does open an incredibly intimate view into the life of someone else—someone from a completely different world than the one around you. Engaging in the poetry of another culture opens the door for curiosity and the deep richness of cross-cultural interaction.

Poetry Unbound certainly provides this kind of content. The rich variety of poets bring all types of perspectives to the audience, while also offering poems of resonance for a wide variety of listeners. Via the words and minds of the poets on the podcast, the listener will hear from many cultures: poems by American poets, African poets, poets from all over the economic spectrum, LGBTQIA+ poets, historical poets, Christian poets, agnostic poets, lapsed Catholics, and Irish mystics. Simply by spending time with the host, Ó Tuama invites the listener into his own life as a theologian, a poet, a gay man, a writer, a deep contemplative thinker, and a conflict resolution specialist, providing a spectrum of cross-cultural opportunity.

This work is not always easy. Some of these poems may make the listener uncomfortable. Poems in general are often unabashedly vulnerable, and that is certainly true of the poems included in Poetry Unbound. However, it is exactly this sort of vulnerability that invites the listener to experience deep compassion for others—something that should be familiar to followers of Christ. This podcast provides an opportunity—and a fairly convenient one at that—to engage a wide array of perspectives with compassion and curiosity for others and oneself. As Ó Tuama says in one episode:

…the longer that I’ve written poetry and read poetry, I realize that poetry is asking me to be brave, to go into the moments of my own failure and to narrate those, not as projects of self-hatred, but as projects of observation, in the possibility that I might be able to offer some kind of compassion in the space of a poem to the self that’s writing, as well as, from that, begin to offer compassion in the wider world.

Poetry Unbound has been a delight to listen to. Engaging with the deep and wide variety of poems has been such a rich experience for me. The short episodes are easy to fit into any commute or lunch hour, and the robust collection of perspectives has stretched my mind and opened up worlds of poetic thoughts I wouldn’t necessarily have found otherwise.

Lastly, Poetry Unbound provides a bit of slow space in a very fast-paced world. The episodes are beautifully crafted with meditative music, a spacious poetic landscape to think in, and language spoken in a gentle and rich manner. If nothing else, tune in to an episode to experience the hospitable space Ó Tuama crafts for his listeners. It is truly a gift in the midst of any busy day.

About the Author
  • Jackson Nickolay is originally from the North Woods of Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior, but has lived in Holland, Michigan for the last 6 years. He completed a Master of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary with a focus on worship design. He has a passion for living into the dual vocation of an artist and a minister and finds application for these callings in worship music, embodied scripture, theatre, writing, and liturgical arts. He is married to Hannah Barker Nickolay who also graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Western Theological Seminary. Together with some close friends they run a small liturgical arts company called Wayfolk Arts, which focuses on crafting liturgies, scripture enactments, prayers, songs, and blessings for small and large ecclesial communities. Jackson is also the co-host and co-founding member of the Podcast No Script, a weekly podcast which centers on unscripted conversations about theatre's best scripts.

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