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.
No one has capitalized on this look’s popularity more than influencers. Some have even started to make thousands of dollars on photo presets that warp anyone’s pictures to fit this mold. But every trend has a shelf life, and as quickly as Instagram ushered in pink walls and pastel macaroons, it’s now turning on them. “Avocado toast and posts on the beach. It’s so generic and played out at this point. You can photoshop any girl into that background and it will be the same post,” said Claire, a 15-year-old who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym because of her age. “It’s not cool anymore to be manufactured.”
The former vice president pondered running in 2016, but Obama wanted Hillary Clinton.
Barack Obama stood in the Rose Garden, watching Joe Biden announce that he wasn’t going to run for president—exactly what he wanted and had helped make happen.
Four years later, the president has come a long way on his views of a Biden run.
For many Democrats, Biden’s 2020 announcement today is the bookend to the anxiety and regret they’ve been filled with since Election Night 2016, when they watched the “blue wall” of midwestern states fall away from Hillary Clinton: He would have held on to those white working-class voters and beaten Donald Trump, they believe. He would have won.
“It’s one of the great imponderables,” Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who supported Clinton but immediately endorsed Biden today, told me hours before the former vice president released a campaign video that he will follow with events in Pittsburgh and a tour of the early primary states over the next two weeks.
It’s much less scientific—and more prone to gratuitous procedures—than you may think.
In the early 2000s Terry Mitchell’s dentist retired. For a while, Mitchell, an electrician in his 50s, stopped seeking dental care altogether. But when one of his wisdom teeth began to ache, he started looking for someone new. An acquaintance recommended John Roger Lund, whose practice was a convenient 10-minute walk from Mitchell’s home, in San Jose, California. Lund’s practice was situated in a one-story building with clay roof tiles that housed several dental offices. The interior was a little dated, but not dingy. The waiting room was small and the decor minimal: some plants and photos, no fish. Lund was a good-looking middle-aged guy with arched eyebrows, round glasses, and graying hair that framed a youthful face. He was charming, chatty, and upbeat. At the time, Mitchell and Lund both owned Chevrolet Chevelles, and they bonded over their mutual love of classic cars.
I was a Trump transition staffer, and I’ve seen enough. It’s time for impeachment.
Let’s start at the end of this story. This weekend, I read Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report twice, and realized that enough was enough—I needed to do something. I’ve worked on every Republican presidential transition team for the past 10 years and recently served as counsel to the Republican-led House Financial Services Committee. My permanent job is as a law professor at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School, which is not political, but where my colleagues have held many prime spots in Republican administrations.
If you think calling for the impeachment of a sitting Republican president would constitute career suicide for someone like me, you may end up being right. But I did exactly that this weekend, tweeting that it’s time to begin impeachment proceedings.
It expands by 10,000 times in a fraction of a second, it’s 100,000 times softer than Jell-O, and it fends off sharks and Priuses alike.
At first glance, the hagfish—a sinuous, tubular animal with pink-grey skin and a paddle-shaped tail—looks very much like an eel. Naturalists can tell the two apart because hagfish, unlike other fish, lack backbones (and, also, jaws). For everyone else, there’s an even easier method. “Look at the hand holding the fish,” the marine biologist Andrew Thaler once noted. “Is it completely covered in slime? Then, it’s a hagfish.”
Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce opinions—readily, swiftly, defensively, and prodigiously. They slime when attacked or simply when stressed. On July 14, 2017, a truck full of hagfishoverturned on an Oregon highway. The animals were destined for South Korea, where they are eaten as a delicacy, but instead, they were strewn across a stretch of Highway 101, covering the road (and at least one unfortunate car) in slime.
Scientists have been searching for marsquakes since some of the earliest missions to the Red Planet.
Because we’ve been sitting on the same rock for thousands of years, sometimes our language can tend to be a little Earth-centric. The word earthquake, for example, feels universal, as if it can be applied to any shaking ground. But zoom out beyond our tectonic plates, and the vocabulary shifts.
Mars, for instance, has marsquakes.
They sound too silly to be real, as if a Netflix show about future Mars settlements made up a scary natural disaster. But tremors on Mars are a thing, and right now scientists believe they have detected a quake on Mars for the first time.
Scientists know this because they sent a seismometer to our planetary neighbor. The instrument arrived last year, on board a NASA lander called InSight. The seismometer, small and dome-shaped, has sat on the brick-colored surface since, waiting for hints of movement below the surface. On April 6, it caught something, a “quiet but distinct” signal, scientists said. A rumble from the depths.
“James’s performance, I’m sure, is causing grief for an accountant somewhere.”
Ken Jennings rose to fame after an unprecedented run on Jeopardy 15 years ago: Over the course of 74 episodes, he won a total of roughly $2.5 million.
Recently, a contestant named James Holzhauer has been working toward Jennings’s record at an astonishing pace. After the Friday-evening broadcast of the quiz program, Holzhauer had won about $850,000 over just 12 episodes. If he keeps up that rate, he’ll reach $2.5 million in less than half the time it took Jennings to do so.
Mick Mulvaney wants you to know that he’s no narc like John Kelly.
Here’s the thing, Mick Mulvaney says, sitting in his West Wing office on Wednesday afternoon: He knows that Donald Trump’s administration doesn’t always make good on conservative ideals. He knows that they’re “spending a bunch of money on stuff we’re not supposed to,” and that all the excess doesn’t comport well with his own reputation as a fiscal hawk and Tea Party darling during his congressional days, before he became acting White House chief of staff.
At ease as he pages through work papers, Mulvaney seems the opposite of John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general painted as a conflicted soul who despised running the White House. “When I got here, morale wasn’t what it needed to be,” Mulvaney told us. “I don’t think I’m telling any secrets—John hated the job. And let everybody know.” He cheerfully extolled his relationship with Trump, joking that he’d gained 10 pounds since becoming chief. (“I eat more with the president now,” he said. “He eats hamburgers all the time.”)
For 11 seasons, Todd Ewen fought in almost every game he played. He didn’t live to his 50th birthday.
On January 24, 1987, Todd Ewen, a young right-winger for the St. Louis Blues, knocked the Detroit Red Wings’ notorious tough guy, Bob Probert, unconscious with one bare-knuckled punch to the head. Ewen was a new recruit, just 21 years old, and the punch immediately solidified his place in the Blues’ lineup—as well as his role in the National Hockey League as one of the many players who regularly fought members of the opposing team.
Later that same game, Ewen and Probert fought again, despite Probert having been out cold on the ice less than an hour before. This frequency of violence was typical. Ewen would go on to play 11 seasons, a soldier in the vast army of so-called enforcers in that era of the NHL. He would fight almost every game, mashing his fists into a pulp that doctors were forced to reconstruct with wire and screws.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner suggests that stand-up joke telling is an art form whose moment has passed.
Ron Chernow, the best-selling biographer and historian, has agreed to deliver the after-dinner speech at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, to be held Saturday night at the Washington Hilton. If we were to list the potential victims of our present era of post-humor comedy, his name would be near the top.
The WHCD is the event the Washington press corps throws every year to celebrate the Washington press corps. (If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.) It is best understood as a provincial trade meeting—a few hundred people in the same line of work crowd together in the poorly ventilated ballroom of a second-tier hotel to hand one another awards over plates of undercooked chicken. What separates the correspondents’ dinner from, say, the annual awards dinner of the Greater Tri-County Regional Conference of Waste Removal Technicians is that, sometime in the 1990s, people from outside the trade began to take an interest in the event.