Verses for Poetry Month


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For more than 150 years and counting, The Atlantic has published poetry in virtually every issue. It's safe to assume our founding braintrust wouldn't have had it any other way. Among their number were several poets of no uncertain stature, and with no bit part in what we now like to call the national conversation. They aimed to have their say on the pressing matters of the day, but they were equally bent on channeling the literary spirit of the age. They wanted their good gray columns of type to resound with reasoned discourse and enlightened thinking, but they also wanted them to sing.

That's not to say poetry was at the forefront of The Atlantic's editorial mindset way back when—only that it was anything but an afterthought. Volume One, Number One (November 1857) contained a constellation of poems by four New England luminaries with three resonant names apiece: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the renowned physician and man of parts who gave the magazine its name, contributed his able occasional verse to its pages for the next quarter-century. Lowell served as The Atlantic's first editor, and it was under his watch in 1860 that the magazine first published an up-and-coming bard by the name of Walt Whitman.

And so it has gone, down through the decades—poems of all stripes appearing at the rate of two or three per issue, holding their own through thick and through thin. Like any other magazine that spans generations, The Atlantic has printed its share of poetry that can only charitably be called ephemeral period stuff. But there's a good bit of gold in the vault too: Longfellow's iconic ode "Paul Revere's Ride" (January 1861) and Julia Ward Howe's imperishable anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (February 1862); Thomas Wentworth Higginson's extraordinary account of his correspondence with a reclusive poet of genius that's become a touchstone chapter in American literary history ("Emily Dickinson's Letters," October 1891); verse by Browning and Tennyson and Teddy Roosevelt's favorite poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson; some three dozen poems by Robert Frost, whose first appearance in The Atlantic's August 1915 issue essentially served as his introduction to the American reading public; a double-page spread in the November 1960 issue for Robert Lowell's magisterial "For the Union Dead"; choice work by such major modern poets as William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, and Richard Wilbur; and poems in translation by the likes of Anna Ahkmatova, Pablo Neruda, Yehuda Amichai, and Wislawa Szymborska. That just scratches the surface, but you get the idea.

For the past 15 years or so, we've also regularly posted online recordings by Atlantic poets, reading both their own work and classic poems from our bound volumes. That might as well be geological ages in Web years, so by now these audio files make for a substantial archive in its own right. On the occasion of this year's National Poetry Month, we thought it fitting to bring a mixed bag of them back for an encore—one poem each weekday, for the double pleasure of reading and listening. To borrow a catchphrase from Ezra Pound—a poet we published posthumously in September 1976—we'd like to think that these daily postings will be as timely as ever for being "news that stays news."