This month, like every April since 1996, is National Poetry Month—an annual commemoration of a literary form forever entwined with the tradition of commemoration. Poetry first blossomed in an age before publications or printing or even written language, as a conduit for cultural memory, a way to pass histories and myths down through generations in song and verbal recitation. Thousands of years later, most historians no longer sing their stories in rhyme and meter. But poetry lingers in acts of grief and remembrance; lines of verse can still be found carved into gravestones and memorials, written into eulogies, and set down as elegies for what has been lost.
Just as the earliest poems connected listeners to a cultural past, more contemporary poetic remembrances create bridges through time: to old stories, dead heroes, lost relatives, lingering wrongs. A companion to a 19th-century painting of Joan of Arc recalls the French heroine’s lost girlhood. Robert Hayden’s tribute to Frederick Douglass traces the abolitionist’s legacy into a yet-unrealized future of freedom and equality. Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” reexamines Boston’s embrace of a progressive Civil War officer against the backdrop of the civil-rights era. Natasha Trethewey finds her late mother in the centuries-old depiction of a European saint. And Lauren K. Alleyne, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, conjures his voice to mourn Trayvon Martin.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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