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.
A new biography squares the decorous legal figure with the feminist gladiator.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not just having a “moment” in American feminist culture. She has rapidly become—in a time that craves heroines—the American ideal of power and authority for millions of women and girls. Beyond the movies (RBG, released in May, and On the Basis of Sex, out in December) and the biographies, not to mention the memes and T-shirts and mugs that proliferate like lace-collared mushrooms, Ginsburg at 85 is also the closest thing America has to the consummate anti–Donald Trump. Today, more than ever, women starved for models of female influence, authenticity, dignity, and voice hold up an octogenarian justice as the embodiment of hope for an empowered future.
Many families who opt out of buying stuff are coming up with creative alternatives and new traditions.
This year, Heather Hund and her family will gather in West Texas on December 25 and solidify a new Christmas tradition, in which each relative is randomly assigned to give a gift to another family member and to a house pet. “The rules are basically a regift for the human and then $10 for the pet,” Hund told me. “And my 18-month-old son got put in [the latter] category too, so it’s small humans and small animals.”
Hund and her family downscaled their gift-giving six years ago after considering how much work Christmas shopping was. “I just remember coming home and being super stressed and last-minute trying to run out to the mall or looking online and seeing what I could get shipped in like three days,” said Hund, who’s 35 and works in tech in San Francisco.
Weighted blankets began as a coping device in the special-needs community. Now the Instagram-shopping masses can’t get enough of them.
Donna Chambers first heard about weighted blankets when her grandson was diagnosed with autism. It was just before his third birthday, and someone Chambers knew recommended giving him a heavy quilt with plastic pellets sewn in to help him relax and fall asleep. “It was like somebody’s grandma was making them,” Chambers remembers. “They said, ‘You can talk to this lady, and she can make you one.’” She looked online and found a few other options; mostly, though, she saw an opportunity. She contacted a friend from her church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who could sew: “I was like, ‘I want to make one of these blankets. Do you think you could help me?’”
So when Chambers started her weighted-blanket company, SensaCalm, in 2008, she knew she hadn’t invented the device. Rather, she’d joined a tiny cottage industry of weighted-blanket makers—many of them small companies with names such as Therapy Shoppe, DreamCatcher, and Salt of the Earth Weighted Gear that sold blankets alongside products such as weighted vests, shoulder wraps, and lap pads. Research suggests that deep pressure on the body can calm the nervous system. One parent of a 12-year-old with Asperger’s wrote in a heartfelt product testimonial that her son’s first night with a weighted blanket was his best night of sleep ever.
Global warming may have turned an already historic dry spell into the third-worst drought of the past 1,000 years.
Every so often, the American West seems to lurch into something called a “mega-drought.” The rains falter, the rivers wither, and the forests become tinder boxes, waiting for a spark. Mega-droughts are notoriously hard to study—the last one happened in the 16th century—but what we do know is worrisome. In the 1540s, a few wet years in the middle of a mega-drought may have triggered one of the worst disease epidemics ever recorded.
According to research unveiled last week, mega-droughts may no longer be history. On Thursday, a team of climate scientists argued that the American West may currently be experiencing its first mega-drought in more than 500 years. A record-breaking period of aridity set in around the year 2000 and continues to this day, they said.
The chief justice is responsible for the Obamacare mess out of Texas.
Friday’s decision striking down the Affordable Care Act, Texas v. United States, is wrong and should be reversed on appeal for reasons ably explained by its many critics. Yet in focusing their wrath on the Texas decision, the critics overlook the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts put us in this mess by making a bad choice in the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision upholding Obamacare, NFIB v. Sebelius. Roberts erred—and opened the door to the Texas debacle—by failing to follow a famous and well-established 200-year-old precedent set by Chief Justice John Marshall.
In his 2012 opinion, Roberts provided the deciding fifth vote for two rulings on the law’s individual mandate—the requirement that most Americans either purchase health insurance or pay a tax—which was considered the linchpin of the 2010 law. Joining the four conservatives, Roberts maintained that the mandate could not be sustained as an exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. But he joined the four liberals to uphold the mandate under the taxing power.
The New York senator still hears criticism for saying her Minnesota colleague needed to resign, but many women have thanked her, and she’s got millions in the bank.
George Soros is mad. Susie Tompkins Buell hasn’t forgiven her. Other Democratic mega-donors are still burning with anger over Al Franken, too. But Kirsten Gillibrand is doing just fine without them.
The New York senator, who’s expected to launch a presidential campaign soon, can’t go anywhere without hearing the noise about her decision—now more than a year ago—to call for Franken to go in a #MeToo scandal. But the numbers tell a different story: Gliding to another term in November, she put $17.5 million in the bank in the past two years, more than any other potential presidential contender in the Senate aside from Elizabeth Warren. Gillibrand is finishing the year with $10.5 million in the bank that can be transferred right into a 2020 run, only $2 million behind Warren. She raised $5.5 million in low-dollar donations, behind only Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Matt Damon and Leslie Jones screaming at each other about the relative merits of Weezer was cleverer than it might sound.
Comedy often thrives in specificity, and a sketch that came late in the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live was the perfect example, mining laugh after laugh from the minutiae of the band Weezer’s discography. Three couples, all neighbors, get together for dinner, and Weezer’s recent cover of Toto’s “Africa” randomly comes on the playlist. Two guests, played by Leslie Jones and the episode’s host, Matt Damon, have very strong opinions about the song, and about Weezer in general. The four others barely care about the disagreement that ensues, but they are suddenly a captive audience to a screaming argument.
Damon, wearing black-framed glasses, gives a spot-on performance as the self-satisfied nerd whose opinions are absolute, whether people like it or not. The equally brilliant Jones initially entertains his defense of the band’s more recent output, before hitting him with: “Real Weezer fans know that they haven’t had a good album since Pinkerton in ’96!” Their purist-versus-completist showdown continues, first in good fun, before descending into charged personal insults. “Oh, I’m sorry! You’re dumb!” Jones yells. “No offense, but burn in hell,” Damon shoots.
It used to be normal for candidates to accept corporate money. Now it’s seen as shameful.
Earlier this month, a revealing spat broke out on Twitter. David Sirota, a left-leaning journalist who once worked for Bernie Sanders, announced that he had uncovered something while mining campaign-finance data: “Beto O’Rourke is the #2 recipient of oil/gas industry campaign cash in the entire Congress.” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and a former domestic-policy adviser to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, pushed back. “Oh look,” she tweeted, “A supporter of Bernie Sanders attacking a Democrat. This is seriously dangerous.”
The dispute escalated three days later when The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a column declaring that she “can’t get excited about Beto O’Rourke” as a presidential candidate, because, among other things, he lacks a “well-attested antipathy toward Wall Street, oil and gas.” To which Tanden replied, “Bruenig’s piece in the Post on Beto is just the latest attack by a supporter of Senator Sanders.” Then, on December 10, the journal Sludge, which investigates money in politics, defended Sirota’s charge and noted that the Center for American Progress itself “has in the past accepted donations from multiple fossil fuel companies.”
I’m trying to construct an alternative theory of myself in which I’m a tidy person. It’s not going well. Walking my recycling from my apartment to the trash room down the hall takes me anywhere from two minutes to a month. I hate looking at broken-down boxes and empty LaCroix cans in my apartment, but studies say humans are bad at prioritizing long-term goals over instant gratification, and I apparently find doing anything else much more gratifying.
It doesn’t take a scientist to explain why I might put off other things, such as doing my dishes. Those are annoying and kind of gross, and the primary reward is just being able to use them in the future. Still, at a certain point, the anxiety of not having done these tasks surpasses the annoyance of doing them in the first place. That’s an entirely predictable cycle that many otherwise productive people find themselves in when it comes to simple household jobs: A chore that I could feel good about completing in 10 minutes instead stresses me out for days or weeks.
In a plea for his estranged wife’s forgiveness at her own concert, the Migos rapper is taking advantage of the cultural weight that’s on his side.
A man rejected by a woman pops up unannounced at her workplace with roses, asking her to reconsider. Adorable or creepy? The case for creepy would seem easy to make, what with the guy’s violation of space, forcing of a private matter into a communal spectacle, and implication that love can be bought with gifts. In some cases, such a stunt can even be a tell for something more dangerous: “Showing up unannounced” is one of four things listed in an article titled “It’s Not Cute, It’s Stalking: The Warning Signs” on the website of One Love, a nonprofit “working to ensure everyone understands the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship.”