The Books Briefing: Poetry of the Past, in the Present

Finding relevance in archival poetry: Your weekly guide to the best in books

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Writers have already begun responding to the uncertainty of this pandemic era in their work, but sometimes we need to turn to the past to help make sense of the present. Recently, we’ve been publishing poetry from archival issues of The Atlantic, short pieces that can serve as lyrical salves on a lazy Sunday morning or as miniature escapes from the steady pace of weekday caretaking, work, stress, and worry.

Several of these poems concern themselves with finding meaning in the small, everyday items or actions that we’re often oblivious to, the things that have now taken on outsize importance as the days seem to blend together and novelty is in short supply. In “Late Loving,” Mona Van Duyn pays tribute to the banalities through which one can show deep, lasting love. Maxine Kumin, in “Winter’s Tale,” depicts how mundane events in the present can take us back and serve as a reminder that sadness and joy are able to coexist. And Yusef Komunyakaa prizes the idea of “big smallness” in his poem “Venus of Willendorf.”

For some right now, poetry may serve best not as an escape, but as a way of grappling with the cruelty in the world. Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” is a call for freedom, for the necessity of realizing the dreams of equality and liberty that Douglass did not see turned into reality. And the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda provide an opportunity to think about how works of great beauty can come from people who caused great harm.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Mona Van Duyn

An ode to practical banalities
“[‘Late Loving’] … probes deeper into other themes: the passage of time, the way that even the most familiar relationships keep changing, how we rely on societal structures such as marriage to anchor us when the rest of love and existence feels overwhelming.”

📚 “Late Loving,” by Mona Van Duyn

An illustration of an orange tree

A poem balanced between joy and sorrow
“In a time of great loss, when the world we’ve known has disappeared, [Maxine Kumin] reminds us that the act of recollecting can be a source of beauty in itself.”

📚 “Winter’s Tale,” by Maxine Kumin

A photo illustration of the Venus of Willendorf statue

Yusef Komunyakaa’s cry of adoration
“Komunyakaa makes a four-inch ‘hunk of limestone’ feel giant—and the reader feel humbled.”

📚 “Venus of Willendorf,” by Yusef Komunyakaa

A photo illustration of two faces forming a vase between them

Grappling with Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets
“Today, any close reader of Neruda will face the irony of an activist for the downtrodden who also wielded his power for harm.”

📚 “Love Sonnets,” by Pablo Neruda
📚 Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, by Pablo Neruda

An illustration of a hand reaching out for butterflies

Frederick Douglass’s still-unrealized dream
“Reading this poem in the present day, it’s hard not to place the current moment within that tortuous march toward freedom that [Robert] Hayden was so captivated by, and to think of those who force it unevenly forward … until this freedom, needful to man as air, is won.”

📚 “Frederick Douglass,” by Robert Hayden

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she’s about to crack open is The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

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