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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Picks for Poetry Month
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Every day for the month of April, we’ll share a poem that speaks to us. To share your own favorite, email hello@theatlantic.com, and tell us a little bit about why you love it. And to read a daily poem from the Atlantic archives, go here.

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Coming to Terms With Loss in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

“One Art” is the only poem I’ve ever lost. My high-school English teacher gave me a wallet-sized copy that I misplaced, along with the wallet, the next year. The wallet I replaced, twice; the poem I did not. Still, a year walking around with it in my pocket was enough to learn the opening lines:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

But the poem is only about the loss of commonplace items on its surface. As the poem implies, Bishop’s life was full of losses of all sizes: “my mother’s watch,” “three loved houses,” “a continent.” And though matching art to autobiography can often miss the point, here it illuminates. As she wrote “One Art,” writes Megan Marshall, Bishop stripped draft after draft of references to a pair of “blue eyes” belonging to her lover Alice Methfessel, whose rejection—along with the suicide of Bishop’s previous partner, Lota de Macendo Soares—is believed to have inspired the poem. Meanwhile, the poem’s recurring first line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” remained the same in all 17 drafts. (This all might sound a bit depressing, but Methfessel and Bishop would later get back together.)

Still, there’s much more to see here beyond coded insights into Bishop’s life (you can read our latest issue for that).

Kieran Doherty / Reuters

Robert Frost once described his initial joy in making a poem as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” As a method of getting at the truth, poetry has no claims to scientific rigor—and that’s not why I read it. Rather, I think of poetry as the fact of feeling: what happens when experience transcends received forms of knowledge. Much of the pleasure I take in reading poetry is discovering, through the beauty of language, human truths that I feel but cannot utter.

Such is the case with Frost’s “Directive,” which I love for its depiction of a grief so enormous and incomprehensible that it can only be understood through the story the speaker tells. It’s a story of the impossibility of wholeness and the inevitability of loss—of how humans’ carefully built structures of order and meaning must give way to the indifferent natural laws of death, erosion, and decay:

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

John Donne begins the fourteenth of his Holy Sonnets with a demand that surprised me with its intensity:

Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you
As yet but knock breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Donne himself was a man of apparently conflicting pursuits and passions: He not only wrote many love poems, but also delivered some of the most influential sermons ever penned in English. In Sonnet 14, his speaker, addressing the Trinity, seems to wrestle with an angel and argue with a partner at once, wrangling abstraction and spirituality in visceral, bodily terms.

The poem’s formal excellence lies not in appearing effortless, but in actualizing immense effort, doubt, and strain. Fine, hairline cracks appear in the sonnet’s form—the occasional extra syllable, for example—as it drags readers inexorably from line to line, and from one phrase of its unusual argument to the next. The poem, like the poet, generously accommodates tension, paradox, and even outright contradiction to achieve a final unity.

It’s a piece worth keeping posted on your wall as a reminder to continue pushing and being pulled by whichever gods batter your heart.

Luke MacGregor / Reuters

There are endless poems about the beginning and end of love. Poems celebrating loves that have somehow managed to endure years of familiarity, however, are somewhat thinner on the ground. That’s a pity, because we need them—both to reflect many people’s lived experience, and to give readers trying to make sense of a new love affair hope that the accompanying angst, joy, and general hysterics won’t necessarily end up sputtering out in meaninglessness somewhere down the line.

Thom Gunn’s poem “The Hug” provides a beautiful snapshot of this sort of enduring love. The poet, sleeping drunkenly after his lover’s birthday party, wakes during the night. He finds himself locked in a tight heel-to-shoulder hug with his partner, in which the intervening years of their relationship seem to disappear:

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
             Or braced, to mine,
         And locking me to you
     As if we were still twenty-two
     When our grand passion had not yet
         Become familial.

There’s a bittersweet history hiding behind this simple poem from Gunn. A British poet who in his early years was linked to the bleak, clear-eyed austerity of The Movement, he escaped in the 1950s to commune life and, ultimately, gay liberation in San Francisco. Gunn lived to reflect devastatingly on the death of many friends from AIDS, but much of his later poetry, written before the epidemic’s axe fell, contains a strain of clear contentment.

Does “The Hug” show the direction in which all our mature loves might happily progress? I certainly hope so.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who passed away in 2001, wrote about a lot of things. Some of those things were specific—Hindu ceremonies, American highways, his mother—but many of them were universal: saying goodbye, the moon, friendship, God. What strikes me about Ali was how he always seemed to be writing from a distance, like he was observing something through a window or from very far away.

I like to imagine it’s because he felt caught, like I often do, between two places that were meant to be home but suggested hostility. For a child of immigrants, his poetry is cathartic. It makes me think about China—about how I can recognize its images and symbols, but don’t really know it. And about how fully I accept America as part of myself, but how it doesn’t always feel the same way about me.

Ali wrote about the violence that tore Kashmir into two separate parcels of land, as well as his lasting feeling of dislocation in American tableaus after he moved to the States at 26. Maybe that’s why he had moments like he does in “Stationery,” a short, dreamy piece about an ownerless landscape and a vague wish that it would say something back to him. And I think everyone who’s ever felt adrift, or abandoned, or lonely, can relate to these last two lines:

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

“If I should have a daughter,” writes Sarah Kay,

instead of “Mom,” she’s gonna call me “Point B.” Because that way, she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.

We call my mother Pollyanna. No matter how bad the weather, the argument, the traffic, or the grade, she will fervently insist that the glass is still half full. In her eyes every door closed opens a window, every obstacle faced builds character. Her optimism is genuine, sweet, occasionally infuriating, and ever reliable.

When I left home for college, I didn’t get to bring Pollyanna with me. But I found that I could revisit her rose-colored worldview in Sarah Kay’s spoken-word poem “B.” Kay has noted that she thinks “people find poetry when they need to,” and I found “B” right when I needed a familiar voice of encouragement. I have watched her perform the piece dozens of times (as have millions of others—it serves as the introduction to her viral TED Talk of the same title). Each time she inspires in me, as many favorite artists have, an irrational certainty that unbeknownst to her, we are already close friends.

And while Kay describes herself in the poem as “pretty damn naive,” her willingness to continually acknowledge life’s hardships give her words of encouragement credibility. Both Kay’s performance and her prose feel precocious, more dynamic and mature than you might initially give them credit for. She gathers simple, well-known symbols of childhood—rain puddles and superheroes and shooting stars—to put together a motherly pep talk that rings true rather than trite:

… this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily but don’t be afraid to stick out your tongue and taste it.

I leave “B” as I leave every phone call with my mother—reminded once again that I can find my way back to hope and back to the woman who first showed it to me.

Like most poems, “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love” is best read aloud. There’s audio floating around online of the poet, Warsan Shire, reciting it in a near-whisper, as if she recorded it in a shared space and didn’t want the person in the next room to overhear. It works. It makes it intimate. I revisit the audio every once in awhile, and each time I get the feeling that she’s speaking to me directly, giving me advice, perhaps a warning:

you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave

In what seems like a deeply personal poem, Shire recounts a failed relationship in the second person. She tells us about the man who couldn’t love her, who compared her to endless cumbersome objects: highways, horses, anything but a woman. Her intensity frightened him and so she tried being “softer,” “less volatile,” tried to fit into the image of the woman he was searching for. That part of the poem by itself is relatable: Having someone tell you that your feelings are holding you back—from working, thinking straight, being responsible, making a good argument, being worthy of love—is one of the greatest pains of being a woman. So you tweak yourself in the most miniscule ways possible in order to seem less demanding and less passionate. You speak more quietly. You smile more. You soften your requests with words like “just” and “only.” You take up as little space as possible.

When I first heard the poem at 21 years old, I was just becoming familiar with that pain—still figuring out that a woman like me, teeming with emotion, is often not well received. When I listened to Shire speak to me through tinny plastic headphones as I sat in bed, awake in the middle of the night in the room I grew up in, a novel idea came to me: What if it isn’t me that’s failing at love? What if it’s them? I clung to the poem like gospel. It kept me from staring down an eternity of solitude, just me alone with my big feelings.

Women who love fiercely run the risk of being painted as monsters—crazy and stubborn and “too” something. Too “difficult.” This poem is a message to those women. After each excruciating heartbreak, I come back to it, using it to remind myself that perhaps, despite what I’m told, the issue isn’t me:

you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.  

Stevo Vasiljevic / Reuters

“Confession: I did not want to live here,” begins Ada Limón in her poem “State Bird.”“Not among the goldenrod, wild onions or the dropseed, not waist high in the barrel- / aged brown corn water,” describing the land around the old tobacco weigh station in Kentucky where her speaker lives now with someone she loves. She has left other homes behind for this new place, presumably for someone else’s sake, and she’s not quite lamenting, nor is she regretful. The land she describes is rich, beautiful, and strange. She picks out the details—million-dollar racehorses, “tightly wound round hay bales,” the bedroom doors—and paints them with the affection that comes from intimacy, and some of the clarity that comes from estrangement.

I did not want to live here in D.C.—or, to be honest,  anywhere I’ve lived since I left home for college—but I am young and I live on shifting ground. Since I was 17 I’ve made plans in increments no longer than a year or two, moving into a dorm then out, passing through communal houses in Cambridge where I went to school and D.C. where I came for a fellowship at CityLab. I miss the smell of piñon smoke and the mud, dust and sage surrounding my family’s home in New Mexico, and the round mountain faint and present like a moon visible in the afternoon, and even the dry air that cracks my skin. But life at this age is a balancing act and a series of choices, and I’m moving to Chicago at the end of the summer.

The two-body problem is impossible,” nodded a friend back in Boston when I told her my boyfriend, already long-distance, had accepted a job in the Midwest. He’s from the Bronx, I’m from the West, and we both owe our mothers to come back someday. In between we have our separate ambitions and obligations. Right now, my vocation is flexible; my long path leads home but I’ll bend it for a while in a direction we can share. When the stakes are higher for me, and lower for him, he’ll do the same. We adopt what we can of each other’s hopes, and give up the ones we can spare.

Maybe it’s not the two-body problem, but the one-body problem that haunts us: every person alive has just one body, with an internal compass whose needle swings variably to point to home or companionship or duty or something else, and one limited life.

“But, love, I’ll concede this:” Limón finishes,

whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.

Many readers are joining our staff in sharing favorite poems this month. Alba writes:

I could never take Charles Bukowski seriously. His books always seemed to be props for a certain type of guy I was endlessly attracted to. These guys were never into Wallace Stevens, say, or Lucille Clifton, just Bukowski. So Bukowski ended up being shorthand for pretentious guys who wanted to seem cool, and edgy, and arty.

Fast forward a few years: I’m done with those guys, living a life I hadn’t planned on—my choice, yes, but still difficult. I woke up this morning wondering how to keep going today with my responsibilities, with the to-dos, with all the work of a life that feels at this moment so constricted. I opened YouTube and “The Laughing Heart” appeared as a suggestion. I’m not sure why I clicked on it, but I did. It was the poem I needed—the poem that told me why and how to be today.

The opening lines:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.

Read the rest here.

***

“For those down and hard times,” Norris sends “Don’t Quit” by John Greenleaf Whittier:

When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Full poem here.

***

To Brennan, “one of the most beautiful poems ever written” is Mark Strand’s “My Mother On An Evening In Late Summer”:

and as she gazes,
under the hour’s spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

Full poem here.

***

Matthew Brady and Alexander Hesler / Library of Congress

In 1925, when The Atlantic first published “The Bear Hunt,” the editor’s preface remarked that Abraham Lincoln “neither wrote, nor attempted to write, much verse.” But what he did write ain’t half bad! There’s a reason why American poet Carl Sandburg took up Honest Abe as a muse.

To me, Lincoln’s most enchanting poems are the three-canto series he sent to his former Springfield neighbor, Andrew Johnston, in 1847. The first two—published together in Johnston’s Whig newspaper as “My Childhood Home I See Again” —were subtitled “Reflection” and “The Maniac.” These poems convey Lincoln’s early bout with melancholy, dealing with nostalgia and loss, fear and anguish—the pain of losing loved ones or one’s mind. (Lincoln even asked to remain anonymous as the author when he sent the third canto.) They moved me to contemplate the battle commemorations in my hometown of Gettysburg and to record Lincoln’s poems to original music.

But the final canto, published almost 80 years after the first two as “The Bear Hunt,” is jolly escapism—it’s most joyous when read aloud. The scene transports us to the woods, where a bear’s “short-lived fun” of preying on pigs is cut short as “man and horse, with dog and gun / For vengeance, at him fly.” We settle inside the bear’s mind for a minute as it runs through a thicket—where Lincoln even manages to drop a dog pun:

A sound of danger strikes his ear;
He gives the breeze a snuff;
Away he bounds, with little fear,
And seeks the tangled rough.

He then recruits an entire “merry corps” to fill the senses—as dogs “scent around,” horses throw riders, and “bang—bang! the rifles go!” I won’t spoil the ending, but a dispute mints this great Lincoln coinage:

But, who did this, and how to trace
What ’s true from what ’s a lie,—
Like lawyers in a murder case
They stoutly argufy.

The argument doesn’t end with a verdict, but you’ll have to read the full story to find out who wins “The Bear Hunt.”

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

I started and finished Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene on my bus ride to work: 45 minutes flat. When I got off, I felt a little woozy—and not because I was reading on a moving vehicle.

Schizophrene is a smattering of impressions, in no particular order, from the journey of a migrant. The writing is part fiction, part poetry, part performance art, and, perhaps, part memoir—Kapil is a British-Indian writer who lives in Colorado, and her verses in Schizophrene flit back and forth between her worlds: India at the time of partition, Britain, and the “dark brown fields” of Northern Colorado. The images she creates are violently in flux, and heavy with the trauma of constantly leaving and arriving, but never belonging. This passage, towards the beginning, gave me goosebumps:

The ship docked, and I found my home in the grid system: the damp wooden stool in the bath, a slice of bread with the cheese on it, and so on. All my life, I’ve been trying to adhere to the surface of your city, your three grey rectangles split into four parts: a red dot, the axis rotated seventy-six degrees, and so on.

Bruno Domingos / Reuters

In her 13-section poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” Adrienne Rich portrays an America of devastation and longing. The first 12 sections chart the geography of American history, traversing the country from California to Vermont, as well as a geography of human empowerment, from “some for whom peace is a white man’s word and a white man’s privilege” to:

some who have learned to handle and contemplate the shapes of
                    powerlessness and power
as the nurse learns hip and thigh and weight of the body he has
                    to lift and sponge, day upon day …

In particular, Rich interrogates national identity and patriotism when horrific events—she mentions Selma and Wounded Knee—exemplify “your country’s moment.”

Yet if the antidote to despair is hope, then "Dedications," the last of the 13 sections, is a kaleidoscopic testament to hope, at once a letter and a prayer. Rich turns directly to the reader:

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window …

She evokes the image of feeble light against growing darkness throughout the poem, juxtaposing the dim desolation of life with the illumination of resistance.