This year, in honor of National Poetry Month, we compiled some of the best poems published throughout The Atlantic’s 160-year history… and we didn’t want to stop. Come back every week to read another poem from our archives, and go here to check out our month of poetry recommendations from staff and readers.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey began her two-year tenure as United States Poet Laureate in 2012, becoming the first African American, and the first Southerner, to receive the honor in decades.
In “Articulation,” a poem from our June 2016 issue, Trethewey envisions her recently deceased mother after viewing an 18th-century portrait of Saint Gertrude:
How not to see, in the saint’s image,
my mother’s last portrait—the dark backdrop,
her dress black as a habit, the bright edge
of her afro ringing her face with light? And how
not to recall her many wounds: ring finger
shattered, her ex-husband’s bullet finding
her temple, lodging where her last thought lodged?
Read the full poem here, and read about how Trethewey wrote her father’s “Elegy” here.
This week marks 157 years since Walt Whitman’s poetry first appeared in The Atlantic.
Now celebrated as “America’s Bard” and read widely as one of the country’s most popular poets, Whitman first reached out to Atlantic co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson from creative obscurity. In 1855 he sent Emerson a copy of his recently self-published poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, in hopes of expanding his readership. Though Emerson responded with a note of praise—which Whitman, to Emerson’s dismay, circulated in the press and even published in an expanded version of the collection—Leaves of Grass failed to garner widespread attention.
Whitman’s next contact with The Atlantic resulted in the publication of “Bardic Symbols” (later reprinted under the title “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life”) in 1860—though James Russell Lowell omitted two lines that he considered overly graphic. In the poem, Whitman responded to his would-be readers’ disinterest with melancholy self-reflection:
As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and woman wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or
touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead
leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.
Luckily for Whitman, this period of creative frustration did not last.
Newly inspired during the Civil War, Whitman published a second collection of poems, Drum-Taps, and won the recognition and critical acclaim he had sorely lacked a decade earlier. The resulting change in his outlook is evident in “Proud Music of the Sea Storm,” his second poem to appear in The Atlantic, which ends on a note of creative triumph:
… what thou hast heard, O Soul, was not the sound of winds,
Nor dream of stormy waves, nor sea-hawks flapping wings, nor harsh scream,
Nor vocalism of sun-bright Italy,
Nor German organ majestic—nor vast concourse of voices—nor layers of harmonies;
Nor strophes of husbands and wives—nor sound of marching soldiers,
Nor flutes, nor harps, nor the different bugle-calls of camps;
But, to a new rhythmus fitted for thee,
Poems, vaguely wafted in night air, uncaught, unwritten,
Which, let us go forth in the bold day, and write.
In April 1904, more than a decade after his death, The Atlantic published Whitman’s writing for the final time. In a lecture he had prepared but never had the opportunity to deliver, he celebrates language, and particularly the language of America, at one point musing:
In America an immense number of new words are needed to embody the new political facts, the compact of the Declaration of Independence, and of the Constitution—the union of the States—the new States—the Congress—the modes of election—the stump speech—the ways of electioneering—addressing the people—stating all that is to be said in modes that fit the life and experience of the Indianian, the Michiganian, the Vermonter, the men of Maine. Also words to answer the modern, rapidly spreading faith of the vital equality of women with men, and that they are to be placed on an exact plane, politically, socially, and in business, with men. Words are wanted to supply the copious trains of facts, and flanges of facts, arguments, and adjectival facts, growing out of all new knowledges.
Whitman’s poetry is often held up as an embodiment of the enduring spirit of America. Piecing through his presence in the archives, I was struck by the resonance of these works from his period of struggle to the current national moment. With all the uncertainty and disunity of America today, I found it both illuminating and a little heartening to take a look at the country, the difficulties of expression, the seeming public indifference through his eyes—and to consider the language, new or old, that might carry us through to brighter times.
Trillion-dollar companies going shopping for billion-dollar subsidies should be publicly shamed.
Amazon said on Thursday that it will cancel its plans to add a second corporate headquarters in New York City. The company had pledged to build a campus in Queens’ Long Island City in exchange for $3 billion in subsidies.
In a statement, Amazon blamed local politicians for the reversal. “For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term,” the statement read. “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”
In a period of growing antipathy toward billionaires, Amazon’s corporate-welfare haul struck many—including me—as a gratuitous gift to a trillion-dollar company that was probably going to keep adding thousands of jobs to the New York region anyway. The company has more than 5,000 employees in the five boroughs, including 2,500 at a Staten Island fulfillment center and at least one thousand more in the Manhattan West office building.
What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world
Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.
On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.
I want to reestablish our connection, but she won’t even acknowledge me at family events.
My oldest daughter (from my first marriage) hasn’t wanted a relationship with me for more than 25 years. I remarried about 28 years ago and have two children, both daughters, with my current wife. My oldest daughter was a bridesmaid at the second wedding and seemed accepting of the new family dynamic. Her mother had also remarried, a few years earlier.
My daughter is now 48 years old, and her sisters are 27 and 28. Although we have encountered one another at extended-family events (christenings, graduations, her brothers’ weddings, etc.), she does not acknowledge me, my wife, or her sisters. I want to reestablish a connection, and my younger daughters are disappointed that she doesn’t want to get to know them.
Poor white Americans’ current crisis shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has.
Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
The choice was unusual, but loving: We wanted them to live without the shadow of their mother's mortality hanging over them.
We decided not to tell the kids. Marla knew that once our three daughters understood that their mother had been given 1,000 days to live, they’d start counting.
They would not be able to enjoy school, friends, their teams, or birthday parties. They’d be watching too closely—how she looked, moved, acted, ate, or didn’t. Marla wanted her daughters to stay children: unburdened, confident that tomorrow would look like yesterday.
Marla was my first and only girlfriend. We were introduced in October 1987, when we joined a coed intramural flag-football team in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wasn’t very good with women, monosyllabic in their presence. We all went to a bar after one game, and I came home with a napkin on which I’d jotted down words to describe Marla: “Hot. Fast. Fun. Sweet. Flint.” Yes, flint as in Flint, Michigan—her hometown—but also flint as in flinty—steely, speedy, mighty, glinting.
A month later, I mustered the nerve to call her house phone (we only had landlines in 1987). We would spend the next 31 years together.
Marla could water-ski barefoot. I was a rabbi’s kid; I rarely even went on boats. She made a habit of taking me places.
If you had asked me on our wedding day, I would have told you with confidence what our love would look like: We’d be a couple who jogged together in Scarsdale, danced in Nantucket together, carved through snow or lakes on skis together, spun the Hanukkah dreidel together with our children, and sang along together to Bruce Springsteen (her prescient favorite was “Tougher Than the Rest”). I would not have said we’d be a couple who fought a fatal illness together. Nor that this private act would be the thing that united us the most.
In 2009, Marla’s radiologist called to tell her that she had early-stage breast cancer. She was also BRCA-positive, meaning that she carried the inherited gene for the disease—a troublesome marker. After a double mastectomy and ovary removal, she needed eight rounds of chemotherapy to clear the cancer found in her lymph nodes.
Our kids were 8, 9, and 11 at the time, and though they understood then that she was undergoing treatment (wigs were hard to hide), we never told them the news we soon learned from Memorial Sloan Kettering’s head of breast-cancer oncology: Marla had a triple-negative cancer cell, the fiercest of them all. When linked with the BRCA mutation, it is commonly referred to as “the breast-cancer death sentence.” This specialist bluntly told her: “Go live your next 1,000 days in the best way you know how.”
Women, more than men, tend to feel stultified by long-term exclusivity—despite having been taught that they were designed for it.
Andrew Gotzis, a Manhattan psychiatrist with an extensive psychotherapy practice, has been treating a straight couple, whom we’ll call Jane and John, for several years. They have sex about three times a week, which might strike many as enviable, considering that John and Jane—who are in their 40s—have been together for nearly two decades. Based on numbers alone, one might wonder why they need couples counseling at all.
But only one of them is happy with the state of play. And it isn’t Jane.
“The problem is not that they are functionally unable to have sex, or to have orgasms. Or frequency. It’s that the sex they’re having isn’t what she wants,” Gotzis told me in a recent phone conversation. And like other straight women he sees, “she’s confused and demoralized by it. She thinks there’s something wrong with her.” John, meanwhile, feels criticized and inadequate. Mostly he can’t understand why, if his wife is having sex with him and having orgasms, she wants more. Or different.
The president steps over bright ethical and moral lines wherever he encounters them. Everyone in America saw it when he fired my boss. But I saw it firsthand time and time again.
On Wednesday, May 10, 2017, my first full day on the job as acting director of the FBI, I sat down with senior staff involved in the Russia case—the investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. As the meeting began, my secretary relayed a message that the White House was calling. The president himself was on the line. I had spoken with him the night before, in the Oval Office, when he told me he had fired James Comey.
A call like this was highly unusual. Presidents do not, typically, call FBI directors. There should be no direct contact between the president and the director, except for national-security purposes. The reason is simple. Investigations and prosecutions need to be pursued without a hint of suspicion that someone who wields power has put a thumb on the scale.
Inadvertently, Ilhan Omar revealed that Trump may have picked the right man to implement his policy in Venezuela.
In a testy exchange with Elliott Abrams on Wednesday, Representative Ilhan Omar resurrected the memory of El Salvador’s El Mozote massacre, one of the worst mass killings in modern Latin American history. Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, was all of two months old when the December 1981 massacre took place. Abrams, President Donald Trump’s new special envoy for Venezuela, was a senior State Department official in the Reagan administration, which was sending military and economic aid into El Salvador to defeat a leftist insurgency and stop what it saw as a wave of communism approaching the United States.
What happened in 1981? And what did Abrams have to do with it?
More than 900 peasants were murdered in and around several villages in the eastern province of Morazán. Most were old men, women, and children. At the Roman Catholic church in El Mozote, soldiers separated men from their families, took them away, and shot them. They herded mothers and children into the convent. Putting their American-supplied M-16 rifles on automatic, the soldiers opened fire. Then they burned the convent. Some 140 children were killed, including toddlers. Average age: 6.
Cardinal Seán O'Malley has spent decades cleaning up after pedophile priests. Now he's once again found himself in the middle of a crisis.
A few years after Seán O’Malley took over the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, at the peak of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis in America, he led novenas of penance at nine of the city’s most affected parishes. At each church he visited, he lay facedown on the floor before the altar, begging for forgiveness. This is how O’Malley has spent his life in ministry: cleaning up after pedophile priests and their apologists, and serving as the Catholic Church’s public face of repentance and reform.
Possibly more than any other cleric on Earth, O’Malley understands how deeply the Church’s errors on sexual abuse have damaged its mission and reputation. Today, he is one of Pope Francis’s closest advisers, the only American on a small committee of cardinals who meet regularly at the Vatican. He runs the pope’s special commission on the protection of minors. And he is a member of the influential Vatican office responsible for preserving and defending Catholic doctrine. He believes that the Church has changed, can change, and will change. But as the world’s top bishops prepare to meet later this month for an unprecedented summit on sexual abuse at the Vatican, O’Malley has found himself frustrated, unable to push reforms through at the top.