Poetry Lets Us Remember—And Move On

Where to turn when your emotions call for something other than straightforward prose: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Images of a sonogram and an eye spliced over a page from a book.
Getty; The Atlantic

After her second miscarriage, the poet Lindsay Turner found herself longing for some way to commemorate her loss. Friends assured her the experience was common; meanwhile, life continued as if nothing had happened at all. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was now missing—she didn’t believe it was a person—but she still felt grief. “Was it possible,” she wondered, “that I had had nothing, and therefore that I had lost nothing?” It certainly felt like something.

So, being a poet, Turner did what she knew how to—she read poems. Two by Sharon Olds stood out: In “To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now” and “To Our Miscarried One, Age Fifty Now,” Olds reaches for the person she could have created and now will never meet. And in “Parliament Hill Fields,” Sylvia Plath speaks to the miscarried one she herself lost in between her two children: “Your absence is inconspicuous; / Nobody can tell what I lack.” Turner realized she could address her loss directly, even if the “you” she spoke to was ambiguous. “To say ‘you’ to a lost thing in a poem,” she wrote, “is to acknowledge the thing … and to bid it goodbye when you’re ready—even if you have no idea what that thing is, or whether it has ever existed at all.”

Sometimes, our pain calls for something other than straightforward prose. Poems can offer new ways to understand our experiences—especially those that are confusing, distressing, or just hard to put our finger on. For poets like Natasha Trethewey, poetry is an “act of remembering”; she used it to process memories of her mother’s death and her stepfather’s abuse. For Carolyn Forché, it’s a means of witness, a way to mark injustice and convey its urgency to the world. And for Tracy K. Smith, poetry is a way to grapple with the long history of violence against Black Americans—it can even resurrect those erased from the record, if only on the page.

By allowing us to work through what hurts or scares us, poetry helps us move forward. It lets us do so with more courage and compassion, better able to pull others along with us. When Amanda Gorman delivered her inaugural poem just weeks after January 6, 2021, she was afraid to be at the Capitol. But “that space needed to be revamped and it needed to be reconciled with,” she told staff writer Clint Smith. “And I thought one of the few and also most fervent ways we have to do that is with poems.”

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What We’re Reading

A black and white photo of a rose against a background of red paint over words written in script

Vanessa Saba

The loss I didn’t have words for
“Poetry allowed me to reach for a ‘you’ that was ambiguous, even if only to let it go. And in doing so, I—like the miscarriage-poem writers before me—could feel this loss as real and significant.”

A collage of eyes and Natasha Trethewey's mother against a purple background with white tears

Natasha Trethewey / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

How poetry can guide us through trauma
“Whether by conveying the scale of national grief during a pandemic, or exposing the relentlessness of racism, poetry has already created new ways of experiencing, and surviving, life’s darkest chapters. And in composing their words, and themselves, through this interminable gloom, Trethewey and other poets working now compose the rest of us, too.”

the cover of "What You Have Heard Is True" showing Carolyn Forche in sepia

Penguin Press

How to write poetry about conflict
“Forché has confronted historical and present crises in each of her five poetry collections, writing not only about her experiences in Lebanon and El Salvador, but also about the Holocaust, the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most recently, the refugee crisis in the Aegean. She has devoted herself equally to poetry and to witness.”

A photo of Tracy K Smith smiling against an orange background

Mary Hudetz / AP / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

What Tracy K. Smith sees in America
“Like the best poets, Smith shows her readers that they share a common foundation, and also questions how that foundation was laid. Through these poems, she offers a blueprint for how Americans can better listen to the country’s long-buried voices, and to its voices on the margins now.”

Amanda Gorman against a background of a flag with red and white stripes and a panel of Gorman reading at a podium

Jeff Kravitz / Jon Kopaloff / Getty; The Atlantic

‘I always think of poetry as home for me’
“I also just wanted to disrupt my readers’ perception of what qualifies as poetry, what poetry looks like. I wanted them to literally look at the pandemic experience anew, and that means turning the page on its side or upside down, that means playing with shade or having you fill in the blanks in a hangman poem. Hopefully, one of those moments will be a kind of aha or eye-opening moment for my reader by which they see things in a new light.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Faith Hill. The book she’s reading next is A Time Outside This Time, by Amitava Kumar.

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