Annika Neklason
Annika Neklason
Annika Neklason is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic.
  • Poem of the Week: ‘Jazz’ by Theodore Maynard

    Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

    The first jazz recordings were made a century ago, in late February 1917. Just five years later, Carl Engel reported in our August 1922 issue, “Jazz is upon us everywhere.” The music was spreading into venues across the United States and Europe, and Engel, for one, was not a fan. He found the dancing inspired by “this delirious caterwauling” particularly offensive: “silly, lewd gyrations … the release of tension in a witless, neurotic stratum of society” that were “not precisely setting an example of modesty and grace.” Still, he later acknowledged, “jazz—good jazz—is not devoid of musical possibilities, not wanting in musical merit,” even if the “prurient panders of the musical fraternity” and “deplorable dances of our day” were beyond defense.

    Theodore Maynard, on the other hand, thought modest and restrained dancing was ill-suited to the new music. In “Jazz,” from our January 1922 issue, he describes a cabaret scene in which wealthy patrons rise to dance to a jazz song. Maynard sees none of the “silly, lewd gyrations” that Engel condemned. Instead, he puzzles over the lack of passion and enthusiasm in the dancers, so out of touch with his own reaction to the music:

                                                               Gay
       They were not. They embraced without dismay,
    Lovers who showed an awful lack of awe.

    Then, as I sat and drank my wine apart,
       I pondered on this new religion, which
       Lay heavily on the face of the rich,
    Who, occupied with ritual, never smiled—
    Because I heard, within my quiet heart,
    Happiness laughing like a little child.

    You can read the full poem here.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘The Death of Slavery’ by William Cullen Bryant

    Interior view of a slave pen, showing the doors of cells where the slaves were held before being sold
    Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia Library of Congress

    This year I’ve spent my working hours in a distant American past, reading contemporaneous accounts of abolitionism, civil war, and Reconstruction in the deepest reaches of our archives.

    Over the last few months this position has sometimes felt disjointed from the constant stream of news coming out of Congress and the White House. But this week the two eras collided violently when efforts to take down Confederate monuments were met with protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Confederate generals became the subject of articles, protests, and presidential flim flam, and Frederick Douglass reemerged on our homepage as a powerful political voice.

    So, though it was written more than 150 years ago, William Cullen Bryant’s “The Death of Slavery” feels relevant today. In the poem, published in our July 1866 issue, Bryant hails the abolitionist victory at the close of the Civil War by addressing his words to the institution of slavery itself—that “great Wrong,” that “scourge,” finally at the end of its “cruel reign.”

    Like The Atlantic’s founders, Bryant was fiercely opposed to slavery. He repeatedly gave voice to his abolitionism in the editorials he penned as the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and was an emphatic supporter of the anti-slavery Free-Soil and Republican Parties and particularly of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The grand moral language and triumphant tone of “The Death of Slavery” evince the fervent outrage with which he viewed America’s “peculiar institution,” and the equally fervent exultation he felt when it finally ended.

    The last stanza of the poem, in which Bryant addresses the physical remnants of slavery, feels particularly resonant at the end of this long and difficult week. It reads:

    I see the better years that hasten by
       Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
       Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
    The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
              The slave-pen, through whose door
              Thy victims pass no more,
    Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
       At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
    Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
       Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
    There, ’mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
    Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.

    You can read the rest of the poem here, and find more verse about the Civil War in our archives.

  • AP

    The Atlantic Civil War Reader

    A look back at how the magazine covered the conflict as it unfolded

  • Poem of the Week: ‘August’ by H. H.

    Victor Fraile / Reuters

    It’s August again, and here in D.C., where we’ve had a cool and cloudy week, it’s already starting to feel a bit like fall.

    It’s a time of year that Helen Hunt Jackson (under the diminutive pen name “H. H.”), captured in our pages almost a century and a half ago. In “August,” from our August 1876 issue, she describes the loveliness, and ephemerality, of a summer nearing its end:

    Silence again. The glorious symphony
    Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
    Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
    Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
    Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
    Of color to conceal her swift decrease.

    You can read the full poem here.  

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Among the Redwoods’ by E. R. Sill

    Redwood trees seen from below, with light filtering between their trunks
    Eric Risberg / AP

    This week I left Washington, D.C., behind and returned to the coastal town in Northern California where I grew up for a brief respite from the late-summer heat and humidity pervading the capital. To mark my homecoming, here’s a bit of E. R. Sill’s haunting “Among the Redwoods,” from our December 1884 issue:

    Farewell to such a world! Too long I press
       The crowded pavement with unwilling feet.
    Pity makes pride, and hate breeds hatefulness,
       And both are poisons. In the forest, sweet
    The shade, the peace! Immensity, that seems
    To drown the human life of doubts and dreams.

    Far off the massive portals of the wood,
       Buttressed with shadow, misty-blue, serene,
    Waited my coming.

    I was born and raised just a short drive from the sort of forest Sill describes. He captures the experience of standing among the redwoods that I can still clearly recall from when I was younger: the incredible vastness of the trees; the mist and the light filtering through their close-grown trunks; the resounding sort of quiet they exude, so ancient and so far removed from anything man-made.

    Even with all the 19th-century tokens of its romanticism and rhyme scheme and formal language, Sill’s poem vividly evokes that familiar place and those familiar feelings. It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve found in our archives, a little bit of my home set down a century before I was born.

    And it’s not the only reminder I’ve found. John Muir described the same woodlands in his 1897 case for saving “The American Forests”:

    The redwood is the glory of the Coast Range. It extends along the western slope, in a nearly continuous belt about ten miles wide, from beyond the Oregon boundary to the south of Santa Cruz, a distance of nearly four hundred miles, and in massive, sustained grandeur and closeness of growth surpasses all the other timber woods of the world. Trees from ten to fifteen feet in diameter and three hundred feet high are not uncommon, and a few attain a height of three hundred and fifty feet, or even four hundred, with a diameter at the base of fifteen to twenty feet or more, while the ground beneath them is a garden of fresh, exuberant ferns, lilies, gaultheria, and rhododendron.

    These forests were not destroyed by the clearings Muir denounced—by which, he wrote, “these vigorous, almost immortal trees are killed at last, and black stumps are now their only monuments over most of the chopped and burned areas.” Instead, when I was younger I was able to walk into much the same woods as Sill and Muir described in the late 19th century, and stand at the foot of some of the world’s tallest and most ancient trees. I can read these old writings and find something familiar, some sense of home. And when I return to the California coast the redwoods are still there, waiting my coming.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ by Julia Ward Howe

    Thomas Nast / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Earlier today, The Atlantic debuted its flagship podcast, Radio Atlantic, along with its theme song: Julia Ward Howe’s iconic Civil-War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” reinterpreted by renowned jazz musician Jon Batiste.

    The lyrics of the “Battle Hymn” premiered in our pages in February 1862, a little more than 155 years ago, for the price of four dollars. The song captured the spirit of the young magazine, which had been founded less than five years earlier with the aims of ending slavery and advancing “the American idea.” And it resonated similarly with the moral and patriotic ideals of the embattled Union. As Dominic Tierney wrote in 2010:

    During the Civil War, the “Battle Hymn” became a rallying cry of the northern cause, reprinted a million times, and sung on a thousand marches.

    Like The Atlantic, the song endured long after the abolitionist cause won the day. Of its lasting impact, Tierney observed:

    The story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. The song … is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem. We have turned to it repeatedly in national crises. The “Battle Hymn” has inspired suffragists and labor organizers, civil rights leaders and novelists—like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

    But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. … It would endure as America’s wartime anthem long after the guns fell silent in 1865.

    The song has retained a special significance for us at The Atlantic, too, embodying the remarkable history and guiding principles of the publication even now, a century and a half after we first published it. As our editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg says on Radio Atlantic, “Julia Ward Howe’s poem was the best investment of four dollars our magazine has ever made.”

    Here are the opening lines of the “Battle Hymn”:

    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
    He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
                           His truth is marching on.

    You can find the rest of the lyrics here. Then, watch Jon Batiste reinterpret the classic melody and read about the meaning behind his modern arrangement. And don’t miss the first episode of Radio Atlantic, where you can listen to Batiste play the song in full, hear the story behind the original composition of the “Battle Hymn,” and learn more about its significance to The Atlantic.


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  • Austen in the Archives

    Photos.com / Getty

    This week at The Atlantic we’re marking the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death with a celebration of her life and legacy. Our cofounder Ralph Waldo Emerson might have been less than enthused about these digital festivities; as Lee Siegel reported in our January 1998 issue:

    Austen irritated Emerson: he found her novels “vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society.” All that her characters cared about was “marriageableness.” “Suicide,” the great Transcendentalist proposed, "is more respectable.”

    Emerson wasn’t alone in his distaste for Austen. Readers—whether they be other well-known writers, academics, or everyday consumers of literature—have long been divided in their opinions of the author. Some love her. Some hate her. Some hold her up as a literary icon, while others dismiss her as a chick-lit writer who concerned herself too much with marriage and not enough with pressing world affairs. Some admire the gentility and romance of the late-18th-century British society she portrayed, even as others praise her for satirizing and subverting the values of the same society.

    Discussing what makes the author feel relevant even now, 200 years after her death, Nicholas Dames writes in our upcoming September 2017 issue:

    As Austen’s own Emma Woodhouse put it to her querulous father, “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” … in the case of Austen, that misunderstanding seems to have an urgency that isn’t attached to any other canonized, pre-20th-century literary figure.

    Put simply, as Siegel observed, “No one, it seems, has ever been neutral or aloof about Jane Austen.”

    In our own pages, contributors have expressed a consistently positive opinion of Austen over the past 154 years. Mrs. R.C. Waterston complimented her in our February 1863 issue on her “rare intuition” and “peculiar genius,” while Ferris Greenslet, writing nearly 40 years later, called her “after Sappho the most unquestioned genius of her sex” and praised her wit, her sensibility, and her “chief literary virtue, her unique and never adequately to be praised power of imaginative realization.”

    In 1998, Siegel had similarly laudatory words. “No other author,” he wrote,

    goes with such casual intimacy as she, for all her delicate soundings of formal social relations, into the vulnerable spot where society touches the root of self. And few authors are at the same time so quietly fearsome and so intensely consoling. …

    Austen’s style is one of English literature’s marvels. Her repartee is sometimes as dazzling as anything in Sheridan, and is one reason that her perpetual hope of seeing exciting theater was disappointed whenever she went. …

    She had a flawless ear for moral counterpoint, for the hidden chords of how things ought to be and really were. She pitched her delicately endangered sentences, her psychology, her dialogue and drama, to some invisible key way at the back of her language, just as Mozart pitched his compositions to a frequency beyond human range, way at the back of his music.

    And Dames is just as complimentary of her style, writing:

    Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities.

    “Austen,” he asserts, “has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet.”

    But the debate over Austen’s literary prowess has nevertheless cropped up beside this stream of praise in the archives, as our admiring contributors have collected the opinions of other readers, some of whom were recognizable literary figures themselves.

  • Your Favorite Jane Austen Characters

    C. E. Brock / Hugh Thomson / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

    Last week I asked readers to tell us about their favorite characters from Jane Austen’s body of work. Janeites responded with praise for characters ranging from Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet to Lady Susan’s Susan Vernon—characters who made them laugh or cry, or gave them strength, or taught them something about themselves.

    Like me, and Jane Austen herself, many readers loved Emma Woodhouse despite—or even because of—her evident flaws. “Emma is rich, pretty, and thinks more of her matchmaking abilities than she should,” Kristina Gregerson summarized. “But,” she added,

    she is also a devoted daughter, a loving friend, and above all is someone who is willing to own up to her mistakes and attempt to right them. Emma is a heroine you root for as she not only finds love (as any great Austen heroine must), but also as she matures from an often inconsiderate girl to a sincere and kind young woman.

    Katrina Toth-Green was similarly impressed by Emma’s maturation, writing:

    There’s something about Emma Woodhouse’s growth that I think is incredibly realistic, even now. She wants to be empathetic and wants to live out her values of love, sympathy and caring, but doesn’t know how. She’s young and just trying to figure out how to be the best she can be. but like most of us, she has to experience the worst of herself first. She struggles with the fact that the best people in your life aren’t always those who make you feel good about yourself, but it’s those who make you into a better person despite how hard it is to confront your flaws and mistakes. Her transformation highlights that admiration is worthless if in the end your actions don’t reflect your values. Emma has been one of my favorite books for years and the more I read it, the more I love this character.

    Leah not only enjoyed Emma’s complexity, but has also drawn wisdom from her experiences. “I’ve always related to the flawed character of Emma,” she wrote. “As a young teen, I learned from Emma and her mistakes and flaws, and as a young adult I still benefit from reading the novel.”

    Other readers similarly opted for characters they could identify with. Maeve, writing from Connecticut, cringed my way through Northanger Abbey” with its heroine, Catherine Morland:

    Catherine is a dramatic, gothic-novel-loving teen who is desperate for drama and tries to turn her own life into a ghost story, offending and upsetting her friends in the process. Throughout my teens I did my best to make my life something in between a fantasy novel and a Sofia Coppola movie—I can relate.

    She’s funny, outgoing, and magnificently stupid. But Catherine, in her ridiculousness, just wants to make life a fun story. She is the angsty suburban girl who invites you to join her book club with a message written in invisible ink. I would join in a heartbeat.

  • Your Favorite Jane Austen Lines

    Africa Studio / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

    “There are too many favourites,” begins the very first response to my callout for favorite Jane Austen lines, from Gillian in Ontario. Readers shared an admirable assortment of them: wisecracks and ironic turns of phrase, expressions of affection, assertions of independence and strength, small bits of wisdom. They drew their selections from a motley array of books and characters, ranging from the ever-quotable Emma Woodhouse to a lesser-known side character in Austen’s early epistolary novel Love and Friendship. (The line from the latter, which I had never before read: Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.) But like me—and my parents—most readers chose satirical lines from Pride and Prejudice.

    Writing from Germany, Claudia reflected on her first encounter with that book’s famous first line:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    It is the first line from the book which was my first contact with Jane Austen’s writing, at age 19 during my first month at university. When I read that perfect first sentence, endless possibilities appeared in my mind: this book, my new life, oh, the thrill of it all!

    Pride and Prejudice was the first of Austen’s novels that I read, too, and I remember feeling something similar as I read the line, finally easing open the door to her literary world for myself. But my introduction to Austen—and Pride and Prejudice in particular—came years earlier, as I watched the 1995 BBC series and listened to my dad quote Mr. Bennet’s best quips. So I felt most nostalgic when re-reading those lines, chosen by several readers with a shared affection for his witticisms.

    Ashley King, for one, favors this “slam Mr. Bennet gives Mr. Collins”:

    It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?

    “It is the most outrageous thing anyone has ever imagined a human being saying to another,” she wrote. “Oh, I wish it were real and that it really happened! My jaw still drops to the floor when I read it/watch it. The cojones on Mr. Bennet are legendary.”

    You can watch the exchange here, among other absurd interactions between Mr. Collins and the Bennet family:

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Memo’ by W. G. Sebald

    Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters

    W. G. Sebald was born in Germany just a year before the end of World War II, and grew up in the conflict’s long shadow.  In his prose, he explored the landscapes of postwar Europe—the ruined cities, the lethal machinery of the Holocaust, the vast collections of records—and the themes of memory, loss, and decay that they embodied. Though he wrote them decades after moving to England to work as a university lecturer, his books deal largely with the Holocaust and the shame and reticence that pervaded post-war Germany, and he grappled often in his writing with his own German identity.

    His poetry, though more abstract and concise, confronts much of that same subject matter with a similar tone of understated grief. At times—as in “The Secrets,” posthumously published in our January/February 2012 issue—his verse is opaque, constructed of references to and snapshots of Germany without much explication of their thematic or emotional weight.

    But in others, like “Memo,” which appeared in our pages later that same year, the significance of Sebald’s phrases is clearer, even in their abstraction. In six increasingly short couplets, the poem lays out a bare-bones guide for mourning, or moving forward, or a little of both.

    Translated from the original German, here’s “Memo” in its entirety:

    Build fire and read
    the future in smoke

    Carry out ash and
    scatter over head

    Be sure
    not to look back

    Try out
    the art of metamorphosis

    Paint face
    with cinnebar

    As a sign
    of grief

  • Tell Us: Who’s Your Favorite Jane Austen Character?

    C. E. Brock / Hugh Thomson / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

    Just before she began writing Emma, Jane Austen called the novel’s young protagonist “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Emma Woodhouse is privileged, self-involved, often frivolous, and sometimes even (unintentionally) cruel. In her overconfident attempts at matchmaking, she repeatedly misinterprets signals and muddles relationships to the point of catastrophe. She lacks the wise-beyond-her-years insight and the intellectualism of most of Austen’s protagonists. She’s also my favorite of all Austen’s characters.

    When I was younger I loved witty, headstrong Lizzy Bennet and the diametrically opposed Dashwood sisters, self-contained Elinor and passionate Marianne. I enjoyed the pompousness of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the sometimes awkward charms of love interests like Mr. Darcy and Colonel Brandon. I watched the 1996 film version of Emma and Clueless, a contemporary adaptation of the novel, but never felt much attachment to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma or to Cher, who came off as shallow and lacking in genuine compassion.

    It was only when I read Emma for the first time as a freshman in college that Emma Woodhouse really got to me. As Austen wrote her, Emma felt flawed in a way I could relate to: good-hearted and clever, but too wrapped up in her own world and too assured of her own opinions and talents. She felt like people I knew, or maybe even like me—like a fortunate young woman trying, and sometimes failing, to live well.

  • Tell Us: What’s Your Favorite Jane Austen Line?

    Africa Studio / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

    I learned Jane Austen’s lines like a second language when I was growing up. My quip-quoting, BBC box-set owning, Austen-loving parents began immersing me in her literary world before I was old enough to comprehend all its nuances and ironic undertones. By the time I picked up Pride and Prejudice to read it myself when I was in middle school, the characters and scenes felt as familiar as memories from my own life—and I already knew my parents’ favorite lines by heart.

    As I’ve grown older and read and reread Pride and Prejudice and Austen’s other novels, I’ve become attached to other lines, both satiric—like the ones my parents favor—and more sincere. Professions of love: “You pierce my soul.”  Feminist rejoinders: “A woman may not marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.” Descriptions of beloved—and not-so-beloved—characters: “She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa.” Each time I read one of Austen’s books or watch one of the film adaptations, I’m struck by new moments and new lines, adding to a mental collection much too extensive for this one brief note.

    But the lines my parents love are still the ones I know best, and the ones I hold closest to my heart. So when I started listing out my favorites, I reached out to both of them, prompting two enthusiastic text conversations.

    My mom is an especial fan of Pride and Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s absurd, puffed-up cousin and suitor, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Darcy’s haughty aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. This, from Lady Catherine, is her “all-time favorite” Austen quote—and also one of mine:

    There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.

    My dad, on the other hand, is a devotee of Lizzy’s wise-cracking, socially disenchanted father, Mr. Bennet. “The best stand-alone JA quote of all time,” he texted me almost immediately, is this one, spoken by Mr. Bennet to Lizzy:

    For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?

    It’s one of my very favorites, and the first one I thought of, too—because it’s a great line, but also because it always, always reminds me of my dad, and the days we’ve spent watching and discussing and laughing over Pride and Prejudice together.

    Now we’d like you to join the discussion. We’ll be talking more about the best Jane Austen lines as part of our celebration of her life and legacy next week, and we’d like to hear your nominations. In this form, please share some of your favorite turns of phrase from her books (and the many adaptations they’ve inspired), and tell us a bit about what makes them your favorites.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘America’ by Alicia Ostriker

    Hyungwon Kang / Reuters

    In honor of this week’s Fourth of July celebrations, here are the first few lines from Alicia Ostriker’s “America,” from our July/August 2012 issue:

    Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
    In first grade when we learned to sing America

    The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
    And say the Pledge of Allegiance to America

    We put our hands over our first-grade hearts
    We felt proud to be part of America

    It felt a little strange to celebrate my country’s Independence Day this year, as the Trump administration remains under investigation for possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, millions of Americans await the possible loss of health-care coverage they’ve come to rely on, and the country stays mired in a Middle Eastern conflict that’s already spanned most of my lifetime and cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. The spirit of the holiday was just so incongruous with how I’ve been feeling about America in recent months: angry, sad, embarrassed, and more than a little pessimistic.

    But I grew up in a time of uncertain patriotism, too, coming to national consciousness as the United States invaded first Iraq and then Afghanistan, and as President George W. Bush’s administration oversaw the erosion of civil liberties and a descent into national—and then global—recession.

    I also grew up in a place I loved. I grew up road-tripping to national parks, excitedly learning to use technologies dreamt up in Silicon Valley, and reading Whitman, Faulkner, Dickinson, Vonnegut. I grew up surrounded by people who came from somewhere else in search of some kind of better life, and hearing stories about ancestors who did the same. I grew up in the midst of a constant cacophony of protest, struggle, and criticism aimed at building a fairer and more peaceful country for the future; in a place where the only thing stronger than the dissatisfaction with the way things were often seemed to be the drive to make them better.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Darling’ by Naomi Shihab Nye

    Mahfouz Abu Turk / Reuters

    In 1966, at the age of fourteen, Palestinian-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye moved from Missouri to the West Bank with her family in the fraught lead-up to the Six-Day War. They stayed there for only a year, departing for San Antonio before the fighting began, but the experience left a lasting impression on Nye—as did later conflicts in the region.

    Nye explores one such conflict, and her relationship to it, in “Darling,” from our March 1995 issue. In the poem, she shifts between descriptions of everyday life in Texas and struggle in the Middle East, drawing tenuous connections between the two places through her own memories and experiences. The stanzas are weighted with a sense of loss and separation, even as they link disparate scenes together. But in the contemplative final section, and through her deft navigation between Texas and Lebanon earlier in the poem, Nye speaks to language’s power, however fragile, to bridge divisions between places and cultures—or, at least, to the hope that it can.

    Here are the first few lines:

    I break this toast for the ghost of bread in Lebanon.
    The split stone, the toppled doorway.

    Someone’s kettle has been crushed.
    Someone’s sister has a gash above her right eye.

    And now our tea has trouble being sweet.
    A strawberry softens, turns musty,

    overnight each apple grows a bruise.

    Read the full poem here.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘The Cellist’ by Galway Kinnell

    Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

    The late Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet Galway Kinnell excelled at creating immersive moments. The stanzas and scenes of his plain-spoken verse are grounded in physical detail and acute psychological insight, even as they explore more abstract philosophical territory. From his dark preoccupations—mortality, and the familiar ugliness of everyday life—he draws a sense of beauty and wonder that always resonates with me when I go back to his poetry.

    The Cellist,” from our October 1994 issue, exemplifies a lot of the things I love about Kinnell’s writing: that immersion in a scene, that empathetic insight into his characters, that entwinement of ugliness and beauty. In the poem, he describes a girl playing the cello as he watches from the audience. She’s nervous for her solo, both before she comes on stage and as the performance begins:

    Her bow niggles at the string like a hand
    stroking skin it never wanted to touch.
    Probably under her scorn she is sick
    that she can’t do better by it. As I am,
    at the dreary in me, such as the disparity
    between all the tenderness I’ve received
    and the amount I’ve given, and the way
    I used to shrug off the imbalance
    simply as how things are

    But as she plays, and as he watches, she becomes more confident and more passionately connected to her own music, until

    At last she lifts off the bow and sits back.
    Her face shines with the unselfconsciousness of a cat
    screaming at night and the teary radiance of one
    who gives everything no matter what has been given.

    I love this ending, and this poem, and Kinnell’s poetic voice. For more of the second, you can read the rest of “The Cellist” here. And for more of the last, you can read “Everyone Was in Love,” from our September 2006 issue, here.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Wants’ by Edith Wharton

    Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

    Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edith Wharton was unpublished and unmarried Edith Jones, a young writer still developing the “sharp eye” that British novelist Margaret Drabble praised in her short stories and the “empathy and ambivalence” that our own Ta-Nehisi Coates found, and loved, in The Age of Innocence.

    Wharton’s transformation from teenage poet to acclaimed novelist can be charted in our archives, beginning with writing from the very start of her career. Her work first appeared in The Atlantic in 1880, when she was just 18, after a family friend sent some of her poems to our co-founder Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Accordingly, Longfellow sent them to William Dean Howells, the editor at the time, who ultimately published five of them.

    In one of these poems, titled “Wants,” Wharton describes the evolution, and continual disappointment, of women’s desires over the course of their lives. “We women want so many things,” she begins: happiness, companionship, romance. “But,” she continues,

         when both love and friendship fail,
        We cry for duty, work to do;
    Some end to gain beyond the pale
        Of self, some height to journey to.       

    And then, before our task is done,
        With sudden weariness oppressed,
    We leave the shining goal unwon,
        And only ask for rest.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Beauty and the Shoe Sluts’ by Mary Karr

    Vincent Kessler / Reuters

    Last year, Mary Karr criticized high heels in an acerbically funny New Yorker piece, concluding with an appeal to women to shed their uncomfortable shoes:

    Oh, womenfolk, as we once burned our bras could we not torch the footwear crucifying us? … Our feet and spines will unknot, and high heels will fade from consciousness along with foot-binding and rib removal to shrink your waist. The species may stop reproducing, but who the hell cares.

    Our staff writer Megan Garber cited that essay in her own engaging discussion of heels, which considers the style in the context of the shoe-design firm Thesis Couture’s effort to produce stilettos with the height, but not the accompanying discomfort, of a typical pair. As Megan wrote, “Heels do—heels are—so much more than mere footwear”:

    Heels at once lift women up and hold them—hold us—back. And, of course: We choose, day by day and week by week and Special Occasion by Special Occasion, to let them do it. Heels are both a claim of femininity and a test of it. They are the bindings of the willfully bound.

    In that sense, while Thesis’s comfortable heel represents a small feat, so to speak, it also represents a very large one: a counterargument to a longstanding assumption—rendered in fashion as well as in many other areas of the culture—that womanhood is defined, in part, by the ability to bear pain. Not just in the sense of “suffering for beauty,” as the saying goes, but in the deeper sense that the collision of those two things is integral to feminine experience.

    Karr explored these collisions—between style and suffering, femininity and restriction—in “Beauty and the Shoe Sluts.” The poem, from our January 1998 issue, comprises an intimate familial scene and powerful frankness reminiscent of her best-selling memoirs. As she watches her mother search through a closet of well-worn dancing shoes, Karr recalls the Greek tragedy of The Bacchae, in which the god Dionysus lures the women of Thebes out of civilization and into an ecstatic frenzy of pleasure and violence—until

               dawn spills light

    on their blood-sticky mouths,
    and it’s like every party you ever stayed
    too late at. In chorus they sing and grieve:

    “Will they come to me ever again,
    the long, long dances?”
    And Mother holding a black-patent ankle strap

    like a shackle on a spike heel
    it must’ve been teetering hell to wear glances
    sidewise from her cloudy hazel eyes and says, “No,

    praise God and menopause, they won’t.”

    You can read the full poem here and find some of Karr’s other verse in our archives for more of her wry—and often affecting—insight.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Bored’ by Margaret Atwood

    Enrique Catro-Mendivil / Reuters

    Whether because of the political events currently unfolding in America, the debut of the much-discussed Hulu adaptation in April, or a combination of the two, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985, has recently climbed back to the top of bestseller lists. Set in a dystopian future in which a totalitarian theocracy has taken over the United States, the novel, and the show it inspired, focus on the women subjugated under the new regime. The plot centers on these women’s bodies: their fertility, their mutilation, their subjection to physical discipline and sexual violation.

    In a 2014 discussion of the language in the book, novelist Edan Lepucki observed a broader trend in Atwood’s writing:

    Human beings like to forget their own bodies, and it takes being ill or turned on, or being threatened by the Supreme Court, to remember them. In fiction, there aren’t enough bodies: breathing, eating, having sex, breaking down. Unlike a lot of other writers, Margaret Atwood reasserts the corporeal in all of her work. In an email today, a poet friend of mine wrote, “Then we walked to the public library, where we both took incredibly satisfying dumps.” Let’s not forget what makes us human, everyone. Atwood never does.

    In our December 1994 issue, for instance, Atwood described being “Bored” not so much as a mental state as a series of mundane physical tasks, sensations, and observations:

                                                                             It
    wasn’t even boredom, it was looking,
    looking hard and up close at the small
    details. Myopia. The worn gunwales,
    the intricate twill of the seat
    cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
    pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
    of dry moss, the blackish and then the graying
    bristles on the back of his neck.
    Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
    I would. The boring rhythm of doing
    things over and over, carrying
    the wood, drying
    the dishes. Such minutiae.

    You can read the full poem here and find more pieces by Atwood in our archives.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘Castles in Spain’ by Amy Lowell

    Eric Gaillard / Reuters

    Amy Lowell’s legacy, as represented in the pages of The Atlantic and in the broader poetic landscape, is a spare and neglected one. Though she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, she never quite reached the heights of literary acclaim or recognition that her relatives James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell did. And her poetry hasn’t attracted the same level of praise or popular readership as that of some of her contemporaries, like Ezra Pound, who both influenced and criticized her work, or Robert Frost, who she supported and encouraged in the early years of his career.

    But in “Castles in Spain,” published in our August 1918 issue—just months before the end of World War I—she spoke powerfully to the resilience of her own work in the face of war, violence, and the passage of time:

    Bombs and bullets cannot menace me,
    Who have no substance to be overthrown.
    Cathedrals crash to rubbish, but my towers,
    Carved in the whirling and enduring brain,
    Fade, and persist, and rise again, like flowers.

    Many of Lowell’s towers endure, beautiful and evocative, in our archives, a testament to that resilience. You can find some of them—including her very first published workhere.

  • Poem of the Week: ‘The Word’ by Maxine Kumin

    Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

    This time of year always reminds me of days spent hiking in the California mountains with my family when I was younger—something about the sunlight and the sudden, abundant greenness of everything, about the way the natural world feels more present and alive even in the middle of the city.

    Though it was written about a place thousands of miles distant from the ones I explored as a child, Maxine Kumin’s “The Word” reminds me of those days, too. In the poem, Kumin captures a familiar quiet wonder and the feeling of being close to, but not quite a part of, nature as she describes interacting with wildlife around her New Hampshire home. Here are the first few lines:

    We ride up softly to the hidden
    oval in the woods, a plateau rimmed
    with wavy stands of gray birch and white pine,
    my horse thinking his thoughts, happy
    in the October dapple, and I thinking
    mine-and-his, which is my prerogative,

    both of us just in time to see a big doe
    loft up over the four-foot fence

    Read the full poem here, and find more of Kumin’s work for The Atlantic here.