In early 2020, poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama launched the Poetry Unbound podcast with On Being Studios. On each episode (about 15 minutes), he invites listeners to join him in contemplatively engaging with a single poem.
Ó Tuama reads the poem at the center of the episode once—slowly, carefully, with his pleasing Irish lilt. He then shares his reflections—what he notices, feels, and appreciates. His tone is openly observational rather than strictly analytical. He pauses on single words and hovers on phrases. Instead of merely guiding listeners to a set conclusion, he prompts the listener to ponder the work and find personal parallels.
While most of the poems are contemporary selections from living poets, there are older masters included too, such as Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, and Rumi. Some of the poems directly explore religious figures, images, and practices, and others delve into entirely different subject matter. Several of the featured poets are well known for exploring themes related to their Christian faith—such as Christian Wiman, Marilyn Nelson, and Marie Howe.
On each episode, Ó Tuama demonstrates an approach to poetry that is sincerely informed by his own journey of faith, including his years of leading conflict resolution and belonging to Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland, a peace and reconciliation organization. He has an exceptional gift for mining poems for meaning that can apply to nuanced and at times mystifying experiences of belief and disbelief.
In an episode about the poem “I Feel Sorry for Jesus,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, Ó Tuama observes, “She’s looking at this character of Jesus and taking him really seriously. Allowing him to have a desire for solitude, to be unowned and, even deeper than that, un-commodified.” In another episode, he admires the way that Donika Kelly’s poem “In the Chapel of St. Mary’s” holds “an extraordinary line in it about what it means to believe—in anything, not just in religion: in love; in a relationship; in what you can’t see right in front of you.”
Recently, Ó Tuama published Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World, a collection of new essays inspired by the podcast. The book is an absorbing companion to the show with enough additional anecdotes from Ó Tuama to satisfy even those who have been listening along. He maintains the same expansive approach in his enlightening commentary. “All the poems are a testament to the process of noticing,” he writes in the introduction. “Sometimes that opening is a challenge, sometimes it’s a comfort, other times a question. Very occasionally it’s an answer.”
Those who enjoy Ó Tuama’s tender reading voice will be happy to know the collection is available as an audiobook. There’s an appeal, too, to having a hard copy to place on a bedside table or another central spot where it can be regularly opened for a quiet, everyday moment of connecting to perceptive words about works of poetic genius. In any case, joining Ó Tuama in “unbinding” life through poetry is an enriching practice that might just open your understanding of the world. (Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other popular platforms)