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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