Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Picks for Poetry Month
Show Description +

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 25 Newer Notes

Beauty and Sanctity in Rumi's ‘A Great Wagon’

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.