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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.

Show 19 Newer Notes

The Subtle Horror of Margaret Atwood’s ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’

Joe Penney / Reuters

I could have picked any number of wonderful poems, but the first that popped to mind was one I found five years ago in a poetry book I randomly bought at a used bookstore in Oakland. (The shop’s name is too good not to mention: Walden Pond Books. Looking back, maybe it was a sign that I would one day write for the same publication as Thoreau ... )

Anyway. The book I picked up was The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood; the poem I’m thinking of, “This Is a Photograph of Me,” was the first in the collection. It gave me major goosebumps then, and it’s given me chills every time I’ve read it since.

The poem begins with a few stanzas of the speaker describing an old photograph in great detail: “It was taken some time ago.” The print looks a bit “smeared.” You can “see in the left-hand corner a thing that is like a branch.” There’s a glimpse of “a small frame house,” “a lake,” and “beyond that, some low hills.”

And then, the twist, which hits like a sledgehammer:

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water on light
is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

First: How terrifying is that? As if learning the speaker is dead—no, drowned—weren’t enough, the reader/viewer is told that all along she’s been “looking” at a photograph of the body. The mundane, orderly beginning to the poem feels a bit like a homeowner giving a gentle, if slightly boring, tour of a perfectly nice house: We just got these frosted sconces; the guest bathroom is at the end of the hall on the left; we love the backsplash, too. The seemingly straightforward title doesn’t hint at the haunting direction the poem will take, even though you’re waiting for Atwood to finally describe the figure of a person. Before readers know it, they’re complicit in something awful and unexplained.

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

More than 50 years after her death, it’s difficult to untie Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy from her sensational, tragic trajectory: a troubled poet who succumbed to her mental illness. And yet, she was so much more than those last days: a Fulbright scholar, self-aware and brilliant, with a voice that’s evocative, turbulent, and unflinchingly confrontational. Like hundreds of other young women, I turned to Plath, with her pure, fearless authenticity, to ferry me through the tangle of growing up.

“Tulips,” a poem published posthumously in 1965 in her most famous collection of poems, Ariel, burns with the achingly vivid imagery and unrestrained fervor that was Plath’s trademark. Composed after a stint in hospital recovering from an appendectomy, the poem finds Plath lying in an all-white room as she considers a bouquet of tulips next to her:

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe   
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.   
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,   
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,   
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.   
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,   
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow   
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,   
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Reading “Tulips” now, I am always struck by the stark clash of red and white, the almost carnivorous quality of the flowers, and the desperate desire to be left alone. It was a desire that began creeping up on me too as I passed from girlhood to womanhood and the world, which had once seemed so light and open, started imposing its constraints. Suddenly, my body was a double-edged weapon; at night, I walked quickly, with my arms crossed over my chest. Suddenly, I entered a world that had been set up without my permission and seemed, sometimes, to whittle my ambitions down. Tulips put into words all the feelings I could not say—portraying the real life of one women, and in doing so, revealing a part of us all.

In the midst of composing Ariel, Plath sensed that she was creating something special. “I am writing the best poems of my life,” she wrote in a letter to her mother. “They will make me famous.” So many years later, I read this poem and the pain in it—barely restrained by the language—still stings afresh.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

At sixteen, I was captivated by this image: two dazzled lovers clasped in each other's arms, the couple captured just star-sparkled moments before their fateful kiss. So was Keats. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the Romantic poet speaks to the classical scenes he imagines carved on ancient pottery. Keats is enthralled by how the art renders its stories immortal, and maybe he’s motivated by a sense of his own impermanence—before he published this ode, Keats contracted the tuberculosis that would end his life at 25.

I still remember my high-school English teacher, with her high gaze and firm shoulders, pulling this stanza  apart for my class. For four decades she had choreographed her lessons with the precision and rigor of the Royal Ballet, and  she demanded the same from her students. I wanted intensely to pierce those ironclad expectations; I was never sure I had.

“Look at the moment these lovers are locked in,” she said. Our couple, inches from the kiss they’ve waited for, will never reach it. They’re robbed of their story’s climax.

But that’s what enthralls Keats—the eternal, resplendent pause. Anticipating a moment, my teacher proposed, may be more of a thrill than the moment itself. It’s the breath pressing in your ribs before a long exhale, the wait at the top of a coaster before the plunge down. Keats revels in this instant before the end. He wishes he could linger there longer.

In honor of National Poetry Month, we asked readers to join us in sharing some favorite poems. Leo Rubinkowski obliged:

I have a favorite poem for you. It’s not my absolute favorite, but I don’t think the poem I’ve long felt is my absolute favorite really lends itself to quick reading. Kenneth Patchen’s “I Have No Place to Take Thee” from Panels for the Walls of Heaven (1946) [Ed note: find it in here] is two-and-a-half pages of unbroken text …

Even if it’s not my absolute favorite, though, Henrik Nordbrandt’s “At the Gate” packs more of a violent punch than any other poem I know.

I’m constantly amazed at the economy with which Nordbrandt expresses deep loss. The seven stanzas are each so vivid, but the third stands out. Nordbrandt questions the ability of language to encapsulate grief, but also explicitly relies on his language to express fully the scope of grief:

What can I say about the world
in which your ashes sit in an urn
other than that?

The construction turns back on itself, wrapping existence up in what can be said, whether because feeling is too much or too little. It reminds me of Wittgenstein: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass in silence.”

And then the sixth and seventh stanzas: a crescendo of emotion, followed by a quiet, absolute statement, both inadequate to the task and perfectly expressive of the condition of the world.

Every time I read it, it kills me.

***

Stewart Burke recommends “The Locust Swarm”:

My favorite poem about war and loss—and single mothers—focuses on war’s aftermath. It is attributed to a late Sung/early Yuan Dynasty poet (ca. 1200 CE) named Hsu Chao (Xu Chao in Pinyin), who may have been the Buddhist monk of the same name. To my mind, the imagery anticipates the drones and cruise missiles of today’s warfare. Here is the American poet Donald Rexroth’s translation from his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

In the poem, a swarm of locusts hatches from a soldier’s corpse and flies away from the battlefield, warning the soldier’s wife that he has died. The last few lines:

Ever after
She would not let her children
Injure any insect which
Might have fed on the dead. She
Would lift her face to the sky
And say, “O locusts, if you
Are seeking a place to winter,
You can find shelter in my heart.”

***

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

I return to Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in every season of my life. Maybe it’s because, as a Lebanese person, my father handed me Gibran’s best-known body of work before I was even old enough to grasp its philosophy. But I love the thin book of poetry because it’s organized by subject, meant to offer wisdom on the cyclical nature of emotions as you move through life. There are chapters On Love, On Joy and Sorrow, and On Work. When I am hurt, I turn to  “On Pain,” which reflects the inevitability and necessity of heartbreak.

“On Pain” is one of Gibran’s shortest and least resolved poems. It opens with a powerful and clarifying description:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

Gibran’s poem offers little comfort or advice for how to vanquish the feeling. Instead, we are urged to welcome our pain with fresh eyes as a wondrous and remarkable force:

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Pain, just like other emotions, is fleeting. It comes and it goes, only coming to an end when our earthly bodies do. But there is one clean truth:

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

And yet:

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility.

Bob Strong / Reuters

I’ve never thought hard about why I love May Sarton’s “Dead Center”—I’ve never seriously studied Letters from Maine, the collection in which it appears, or Sarton herself. But “Dead Center” is one of those poems that I’m drawn to in the somber, reflective moments, often after a tough day, when I’m seeking a sense of equilibrium, and maybe a little bleakness to match my mood. Here’s a taste:

Temperature zero, the road an icy glare,
The field, once ermine soft, now hard and bright.
Even my cat’s paws find no footing there.
And I sit watching barren winter sunlight
Travel the empty house. I sit and stare.

It’s a poem about being in the cold, which is probably where my attraction to it starts. I’ve always loved cold winter days and how they challenge the senses: the sharpness of inhaling and exhaling in frigid air, the unrelenting glitter of sun on snow, the heightened awareness of where my body is and what parts of it are exposed and how very much alive I am, despite the thermostat. I hear echoes of this same experience in “Dead Center”: it’s a reminder that the body is a miracle, resilient in adverse conditions, physical or emotional. Continuing on:

This is dead center. I am the one
Who holds it in myself, the one who sees
And can contain ocean and sky and sun
And keep myself alive in the deep freeze
With a warm uncontaminated vision.

I think it’s Sarton’s parsing of what “dead center” is—a celebration of the blood that keeps on pumping, through loss and cold and “leaps into the dark, lovers unkind,” alongside an acknowledgement of mortality (“Temperature zero, and death on my mind”)—that brings me back to these stanzas over and over again. There’s a certain comfort in thinking about self-reliance as a matter of flesh and blood and breath.

It is all in myself, hope and despair.
The heartbeat never stops. The veins are filled
And my warm blood in the cold winter air
Will not be frozen or be winter-killed.
Poetry comes back with the starving deer.

Whirling dervishes perform a ritual in honor of Rumi in Konya, Turkey, on December 7, 2016. Murad Sezer / Reuters

Poetry, like music, takes me back to the time when I first heard that piece. I first heard the work of the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi when I was in college. The priest at the Episcopal campus ministry, who became my mentor, would substitute a Rumi poem for a biblical reading or use it in one of his sermons. This poem, “A Great Wagon,” is the one that has stayed with me over the last 12 years. You can read it in full here.

Like most of Rumi’s poems, its themes are mystical, drawing out what connects humanity to each other and to the divine. This is my favorite stanza, because it talks about music:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

There’s a simple story to follow: you wake up, don’t do x, do y. The first several times I heard this stanza, I followed the story. But now when I hear or read these words, I am always drawn to the line, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

It doesn’t quite make logical sense—I’ll find myself thinking through the syntax two or three times. But on an intuitive and poetic level, I think Rumi is talking about the sacredness and beauty of all life and work.

My priest was a living embodiment of these verses. Walking into his office, you were fifty times more likely to see him picking on his guitar than reading the latest on biblical exegesis. He’d be singing one of the songs he’d written, like this one that uses cooking and baking as analogies for embracing God. His music was the beauty he loved and he made it his life, just as Rumi instructs. When he died last month, “A Great Wagon” was the first thing that came to mind.

Detail from Auguste Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice (1893). Metropolitan Museum of Art

I’ve been thinking a lot about H. D.’s “Eurydice” in recent months, as politics and life in America have suddenly veered into chaos and darkness—chaos and darkness that seem to have a particular appetite for women, and women’s rights.

In Greek myth, Eurydice is a tragic object of love. When a fatal snake bite sends her to hell, her husband Orpheus won’t let her go, so he leverages his musical talents into a deal with Hades and Persephone: He may take Eurydice back to earth, and life, with him if he goes in front and doesn’t look back at her along the way. But, afraid she is not really there, he does look back. And she is lost forever.

H. D. picks up where the myth ends, with Eurydice cut off, with one glance, from the living world and consigned to an eternity in hell. Addressed to Orpheus, “Eurydice” gives voice to his mythical love’s anger and sense of loss, beginning:

So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash

There’s something beautiful about the bitterness she stokes as she goes on, presenting the flowers, the light, the hope she’s lost like receipts of what he promised but did not deliver. Here is what I could have had. Here is what you took.

It builds and builds, this bitterness, line by line, until it breaks—“such loss is no loss”—in a turn that finally allows Eurydice to become more than the tragic, beloved thing that Orpheus saw. That enables her to find something of value in herself, beyond the reach of his damning glance or even the darkness of hell.

I love the delicate, persistent way that H. D. articulates this feminine anger. And I love this ending we are left with: this image of a woman who’s mistreated, lost, condemned—and strong enough, somehow, to endure.

It’s a parting reminder I’ve needed often though the arguments and apocalyptic articles and elections of the last year: that anger and loss are not all-encompassing. That, as H. D.’s “Eurydice” concludes,

hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

In 1997’s “Poland’s Blithe Spirit,” our poetry editor David Barber perfectly describes the pleasure of discovering 1996 Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska—“a supremely lucid and sublimely beguiling poet, as accessible as she is ineffable”—and her poems in translation:

With their brisk and bracing wit, vivacious intelligence, and buoyant sense of play, hers are poems of abundant charm—so charming, in fact, that it can take a while to realize just how disquieting they are.

Szymborska in 1996 (Reuters)

A wonderful teacher once broke down the word “translate” into its Latin parts: trans + latus, “to carry across,” to ferry meaning from one side to another. For me, this sparked an interest in how translations vary, how the shift of one word or an alternate choice of phrase can profoundly change the music of the poem, or its resonance.

In one of my favorites, “Under One Small Star” (translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh), Szymborska serves as patron saint of serial apologizers, and of all those who labor with words.  In part:

Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.

I love the poet’s humility in the face of the great crushing world, while still asserting a place in it, and the mix of the concrete and the intangible, playful and serious:

My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.

Read the full poem here, or find it in Map: Collected and Last Poems.

Compare the patterns and repetitions in English with the untranslated original (“Pod Jedną Gwiazdką”), with its thicket of Polish consonants.  In his essay, Barber precisely identifies the language as “briery,” the exact word for the stroked, accented, and curling-tailed letters, the spiky brambles of lines on the page, and the sweet/sharp images they evoke. I imagine it sounds thorny too, those wild consonantal roses.

Then look at “Under a Certain Little Star,” translated by Joanna Trzeciak (who also translated Symborska’s poems for the Atlantic over the years), or this translation from Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire). (If you’re really invested, someone even compiled a table of four translations side by side.)

These translators “borrow weighty words,” to use Szymborska’s own phrase, ferry them cross-language, “then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” In this sense all poetry is translation.

April is National Poetry Month, which makes it a good time to celebrate The Atlantic’s literary heritage. As our poetry editor, David Barber, wrote in 2010:

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.

This month, we’ll honor that history with a daily poem from our archives. And we’ll also honor the poems that speak, or sing, to us now: Each day for the rest of April, we’ll post a poem recommended by one of our staffers on this thread.

We’d like to hear your favorites too: If you’d like to respond to one of our picks, or share one of your own, please send us a note at hello@theatlantic.com. But to start us off, here’s W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby,” which begins:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.