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.
In the aftermath of the January 6 riot, extremists have become obsessed with the federal agents who might lurk among them.
Updated at 9:15 a.m. E.T. on January 25, 2021
Judging by the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, far-right extremists don’t fear arrest. But they do fear one thing: glowies.
During the Trump administration, many far-right groups’ main concern was figuring out how to recruit more people to the cause. But as federal law-enforcement officials continue to round up people suspected of involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and Joe Biden’s administration promises a crackdown on white-supremacist and anti-government radicals, extremists are on the verge of a crack-up, posting widely and worriedly about spies in their midst—“glowies.” That’s the term far-right groups use to describe people they suspect of being federal law-enforcement agents or informants infiltrating their communication channels, trying to catch them plotting violence, or prodding them into illegal acts.
For his first three years of life, Izidor lived at the hospital.
The dark-eyed, black-haired boy, born June 20, 1980, had been abandoned when he was a few weeks old. The reason was obvious to anyone who bothered to look: His right leg was a bit deformed. After a bout of illness (probably polio), he had been tossed into a sea of abandoned infants in the Socialist Republic of Romania.
In films of the period documenting orphan care, you see nurses like assembly-line workers swaddling newborns out of a seemingly endless supply; with muscled arms and casual indifference, they sling each one onto a square of cloth, expertly knot it into a tidy package, and stick it at the end of a row of silent, worried-looking babies.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
The Capitol riot was a tragic farce, but the type of political violence it represents poses an existential threat to democracy.
The first impeachment of Donald Trump was an act of self-preservation by Democrats. The second is an act of self-preservation by Congress.
In 2019, the Democratic congressional leadership initially resisted the cries for impeachment that had been building since the party gained control of the House of Representatives; Speaker Nancy Pelosi memorably and ineffectually quipped that Trump was “almost self-impeaching” in May of that year.
But when a whistleblower revealed that Trump had attempted to strong-arm the leader of Ukraine into falsely implicating then-aspiring Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a crime, the House had to act. Allowing Trump to use his authority as president to coerce foreign leaders into doing his bidding would leave the country vulnerable to similar acts in the future. The sustained public attention to Trump’s corrupt motives also substantially neutralized his planned attack on Biden, who ultimately prevailed in November.
Xi Jinping hasn’t just cracked down on private business—he is targeting individual entrepreneurs themselves.
On March 11, 2007, Xi Jinping, then the top Communist Party official in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai, had dinner with the U.S. ambassador to China. The meal was part of the embassy’s outreach to up-and-coming Chinese officials. Xi, 53, was reputed to be among three officials in the running to replace Hu Jintao, China’s dour-faced leader.
Ambassador Clark T. “Sandy” Randt, a classmate of President George W. Bush, was impressed with Xi. In a cable recounting the dinner, Randt described the discussion as “frank and friendly.” Xi, as he always did with Americans, had lauded Hollywood movies and, fittingly for the party boss from a province that was a hotbed of entrepreneurial energy, praised a new law that would protect private investors in China. Xi came off as a self-confident rising star, and a supporter of private business.
With vaccination racing the spread of COVID-19 variants, America could be at a tipping point.
In the past week, a new picture has emerged in COVID-19 data: The pandemic seems to be receding from its high-water mark in the United States. The most dependable metric of COVID-19’s spread—the number of people currently in the hospital with the disease—is in its first sustained, week-over-week decline since September, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Hospitalizations fell in the past week in every state but Vermont.
The number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 is falling too. New cases declined in every region of the country last week. Cases even seem to be ebbing in the coronavirus epicenters of California and Arizona, though the Sun Belt remains a hot spot. In the past two weeks, only two states—New York and Virginia—have set a single-day record for new cases. (In contrast, 13states set a new record three weeks ago.)
The post-Trump GOP is far more likely to put its differences aside than to split.
Less than six hours after rioters forced legislators to stop their debate over certifying the electors from Arizona on January 6, senators were back on the floor again. The insurrection failed to stop Congress from playing its constitutional role in certifying Joe Biden as the next president.
That may be a metaphor for the resilience of American institutions under assault, but the Senate’s quick return to business also shows that the antidemocratic attitudes of the protesters were nothing new to the chamber. Indeed, the debate over whether to accept the outcome of a presidential election was only happening at the Capitol because a faction of the Republican Party had already embraced the same grievances as the rioters.
“I went to a job interview after my first daughter was born and cried the whole way home.”
This is the third story in a seven-part series looking at women’s ambitions in the years following college.
When we began interviewing our former classmates at Northwestern, we expected to encounter a few stay-at-home mothers. Even though no one in college had explicitly stated that they planned on stopping work to raise children, we understood that many women make this choice for a range of reasons. The Pew Research Center reports that 10 percent of highly educated mothers (those who earned a master’s degree or greater) stay home. We found that for the 37 women in our sorority’s 1993 graduating class, the percent was more than double: One-quarter are at home raising children—10 people, six of whom hold advanced degrees. These numbers surprised us, to put it mildly. We weren’t the only ones.
Millions of Americans sympathize with the Capitol insurrection. Everyone else must figure out how to live alongside them.
They could be real-estate agents or police officers, bakers or firefighters, veterans of American wars or CEOs of American companies. They might live in Boise or Dallas, College Park or College Station, Sacramento or Delray Beach. Some are wealthy. Some are not. Relatively few of them were at the United States Capitol on January 6, determined to stop Congress from certifying a legitimate election. Millions more cheered the rioters on—and still do.
As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term extremists. There are not enough of them to be secessionists. Some prominent historians and philosophers have been arguing for a revival of the word fascist; others think white supremacist is more appropriate, though there could also be a case for rebel. For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them seditionists—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, Mike Pence, the election officials in all 50 states, and the judges in dozens of courts.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.