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Poem of the Week
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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.

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Poem of the Day: ‘For the Union Dead’ by Robert Lowell

Michael Dwyer / AP

The Civil War began on this day in 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

I grew up in northern California, far from the battlefields on which the conflict was fought. My local forerunners were Spanish explorers and gold seekers, not musket-wielding soldiers; the historical sites around me commemorated losses, celebrated victories, and acknowledged demons that had nothing to do with slavery or sectional conflict.

It wasn’t until I moved to Massachusetts six years ago that the Civil War began to feel close and real to me, and that I really began to grasp its complicated impact. The state abounds with mementos, from buildings and streets named after abolitionists to numberless memorials for lost soldiers and local heroes. The war, and the fierce political and moral disputes that led to it, are as physically present in and native to New England as they are absent from my California hometown.

It’s this tangible local legacy that Robert Lowell confronts in “For the Union Dead,” from our November 1960 issue. In the poem he considers one of Boston’s many tributes to the war, the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which shows Shaw leading a troop of African American soldiers into battle:

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

The monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its colonel is as lean
as a compass needle.

Dr. Anthony R. Picciolo / National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

The rich metaphors and descriptions in Derek Walcott’s poetry render the Caribbean world where he grew up almost tangible: the tropical ocean air; the warm beaches; the birds and sea creatures that populated the coasts—and the specter of colonialism, too, lingering on after the dissolution of centuries-long European control.

Saint Lucia, the island in the West Indies where the Nobel Prize-winning poet was born and raised, passed from French to British rule and back more than a dozen times between the 17th and 19th centuries. The island didn’t begin moving toward full independence from Britain until the late 1950s, when Walcott, then almost 30 years old, was just beginning his literary career.

That history looms large in poems like 2010’s “The Lost Empire,” in which Walcott explores the end of colonial control, and its legacy:

And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden.
Its victories were air, its dominions dirt:
Burma, Canada, Egypt, Africa, India, the Sudan.
The map that had seeped its stain on a schoolboy’s shirt
like red ink on a blotter, battles, long sieges.
Dhows and feluccas, hill stations, outposts, flags
fluttering down in the dusk, their golden aegis
went out with the sun

Read the full poem here to see more of Walcott’s world.

Edgard Garrido / Reuters

From our December 2003 issue, Kay Ryan’s “Hailstorm,” in its entirety:

Like a storm
of hornets, the
little white planets
layer and relayer
as they whip around
in their high orbits,
getting more and
more dense before
they crash against
our crust. A maelstrom
of ferocious little
fists and punches,
so hard to believe
once it’s past.

Like most of the two-term Poet Laureate’s verse, this poem is quick and strange. It offers a take on the world that’s appealing for its very spareness and ungracefulness—for the way it disregards expansive narratives and literary stylings to interrogate the peculiar essence of things.

Ryan’s poems are short but dense with this insight and, often, with sharp, dry wit and quirky rhymes as well. To get a fuller sense of her distinctive voice, you can read 1993’s “This Life” and “Emptiness” and 1998’s “Among English Verbs.”

Theodore Roethke “may have been the maddest poet of his generation,” as Peter Davison wrote in 1965’s “Madness in the New Poetry.” But, Davison adds,

Whatever Roethke’s disordered imagination did to him, it endowed his poems with nothing but intensity … Madness in Roethke’s poetry is accepted as part of reality; but it is accepted, and through the devices and desires of art, vanquished.

That intensity, and madness, is evident in “The Dance,” from our November 1952 issue:

I tried to fling my shadow at the moon,
The while my blood leaped with a wordless song.
Though dancing needs a master, I had none
To teach my toes to listen to my tongue.
But what I learned there, dancing all alone,
Was not the joyless motion of a stone.

To delve further into Roethke’s disordered imagination, read the full poem, and then see what authors Thomas Pierce and Jim Harrison had to say about Roethke poems that spoke to them.

Library of Congress

In “The Lesson,” from our October 2003 issue, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine imagines a conversation with a sage, cigarette-smoking doctor against an industrial backdrop. At one point, the poem’s speaker recalls his birth into this setting:

Years before, before the invention of smog,
before Fluid Drive, the eight-hour day,
the iron lung, I’d come into the world
in a shower of industrial filth raining
from the bruised sky above Detroit.

As he does here, Levine often returned in his poetry to the working-class Detroit of his childhood. Of the way he portrayed this world in verse, our former poetry editor Peter Davison wrote in 1999:

If Walt Whitman’s vision contained multitudes, and if Emerson’s vision of nature transcended what it saw with its own eyes, Levine’s poetic vision, nearly religious, transcends class, transcends natural boundaries, and transcends time. …

Philip Levine’s vision of the American city may on its surface appear grim, yet there are always flowers blooming in the empty lots and along the half-deserted avenues. Poets are enabled to notice such things.

You can see more of Levine’s vision in 1997’s “The New World” and in an interview he gave in April 1999.

In his poetry, W. S. Merwin draws on Buddhist philosophy and its profound respect for the inherent worth of all living things. As The Atlantic’s then-poetry editor Peter Davison wrote in 1997, the two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate

Audrey McAvoy / AP

… is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist, and environmentalist, but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways in which land and language interflow. … The intentions of Merwin’s poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper. He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth, and underground.

From our February 1995 issue, his poem “Green Fields”:

Peter with his gaunt cheeks
     and point of white beard the face of an aged Lawrence
Peter who had lived on from another time and country
     and who had seen so many things set out and vanish
still believed in heaven and said he had never once
     doubted it since his childhood on the farm

Read the full poem here, and go here to explore the language and landscapes of some of his other work.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's study Benjamin F. Mills / Library of Congress

In “Emerson,” composed in 1868 and published posthumously in our December 1904 issue, theologian Henry James Sr. reflected on the distinct impression Ralph Waldo Emerson made upon his readers:

No writer so quickens the pulse of generous youth; so makes his brain throb and reel with the vision of the world that is yet to be. … Mr. Emerson was never the least of a pedagogue, addressing your scientific intelligence, but an every way unconscious prophet, appealing exclusively to the regenerate heart of mankind, and announcing the speedy fulfilment of the hope with which it had always been pregnant.

Library of Congress

Emerson applied his impassioned insight to a variety of topics in The Atlantic, but maybe most notably to the questions of freedom and equality at the heart of the Civil War.

In 1863’s “Boston Hymn,” Emerson connected the fight against slavery to the virtuous founding ideals of his home city, and of America as a whole. Narrated by God, the poem characterizes abolitionism as divine and honorable:

And ye shall succor men;
’T is nobleness to serve;
Help them who cannot help again;
Beware from right to swerve.

I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth,
As wind and wandering wave.

In a 1999 interview with The Atlantic, Richard Wilbur—the two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate—spoke about perfection, translation, and what interviewer Peter Davison referred to as his “lifetime in poetry.” Asked how he was grateful to poetry, Wilbur responded:

I … enjoy being able to do something with the important feelings of my life. I think that to be inarticulate can be a great suffering, and I’m glad that my loves, and my other feelings, have sometimes found their way into poems that fully express them.

From our November 1958 issue, his poem “She,” in which he conjures an ethereal, shape-shifting female spirit:

Tree, temple, valley, prow, gazelle, machine,
More named and nameless than the morning star,
Lovely in every shape, in all unseen,
We dare not wish to find you as you are

Read the full poem here, and go here to discover more of Wilbur’s numerous contributions to The Atlantic—and, perhaps, some of the important feelings of his life.

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:

Miguel Cabrera / Dallas Museum of Art

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.

Library of Congress

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.