Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Poem of the Week
Show Description +

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.

Show 22 Newer Notes

Poem of the Day: ‘Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865’ by James Russell Lowell

In a eulogy for James Russell Lowell, novelist Henry James wrote:

He is one of the happy figures of literature. He had his trammels and his sorrows, but he drank deep of the full, sweet cup, and he will long count as an erect fighting figure on the side of optimism and beauty. He was strong without bitterness and bright without folly.

J. A. J. Wilcox and S. W. Rouse / Library of Congress

This bright optimism suffused Lowell’s writing, even as he confronted the violent, divided state of American politics and life in the middle of the 19th century.

In the summer of 1865, just months after both the conclusion of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, Lowell recited an ode at Harvard in memory of alumni who had died in the conflict. Despite the sad occasion and the darkness of the national atmosphere, he spoke of an essential goodness that would endure:

            Ah, there is something here
        Unfathomed by the cynic’s sneer,
        Something that gives our feeble light
        A high immunity from Night,
        Something that leaps life’s narrow bars
        To claim its birthright with the hosts of heaven;
          A seed of sunshine that doth leaven
        Our earthly dulness with the beams of stars

When the doctor runs out of words and still
I won’t leave, he latches my shoulder and
steers me out doors.

So begins Lucia Perillo’s “The Body Mutinies,” from our February 1996 issue. Perillo passed away last October after decades of living with and writing about multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 30, and her awareness of her mortality and struggles with her failing body shaped her often humorous, often heartbreaking verse in the years that followed.

In “The Body Mutinies,” Perillo deals with the dazed realization of a new kind of life in the immediate aftermath of diagnosis with affecting simplicity and clarity. Here are a few more lines:

& me not griefstruck yet but still amazed: how
words and names—medicine’s blunt instruments—
undid me

Read the full poem here. Then, take a look at Perillo’s more metaphysical “Pharaoh,” from our October 2010 issue.

From our October 2009 issue, here’s Ted Kooser’s “Gabardine” in its entirety:

To sit in sunlight with other old men,
none with his legs crossed, our feet in loose shoes
hot and flat on the earth, hands curled in our laps
or on our knees, like birds that now and then
fly up with our words and settle again
in a slightly different way, casting a slightly
different shadow over our pants legs, gabardine,
blue, gray, or brown, warmed by the passing sun.

This poem exemplifies the conversational style for which the former poet laureate is known—and which seems perfectly suited to a lazy Sunday afternoon. For more, you can read Kooser’s “Two,” from our May 2013 issue.

In “Projection,” from our May 1967 issue, two-time poet laureate Howard Nemerov muses about map-making and artistic possibility:

They were so amply beautiful, the maps,
With their blue rivers winding to the sea,
So calmly beautiful, who could have blamed
Us for believing, bowed to our drawing boards,
In a large and ultimate equivalence,
One map that challenged and replaced the world?

Read through some of Nemerov’s other poems in our archives to hear more of his thoughtful and often witty voice.

Linda Gregerson’s “Waterborne,” from our May 2000 issue, captures many of the distinctive features of her verse. It’s subtly, hauntingly beautiful and suffused with a creeping sense of horror cut through with poignant wonder. With associative sleights of pen, it connects a varied collection of stories, places, and emotions. And it’s built from the helical stanzas—with their short, central middle lines acting as narrow waists to the longer first and last—that Gregerson invented, and that she once said “saved my life.”

Here are a few lines of the poem:

                            … When Gordon was a boy
                        they used to load
              the frozen river on a sledge here and

in August eat the heavenly reward—sweet
                        cream—
              of winter’s work. A piece of moonlight saved

against the day, he thought. And this is where
                        the Muir boy
              drowned. And this is where I didn’t.

Read the rest here. Then, explore some of Gregerson’s other work for The Atlantic and see what Garth Greenwell had to say about her latest poetry collection.

Gerald Herbert / AP

Yesterday I wrote about the patriotic myth of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” recounted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous 1861 poem.

Longfellow’s fellow Atlantic founder John Greenleaf Whittier put a similar, though less historically accurate, myth to paper in “Barbara Frietchie,” from our October 1863 issue. The poem—inspired, like Longfellow’s, by the abolitionist cause—tells the story of an elderly woman who refused to lower her American flag when Confederate forces marched through her Maryland town:

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Charles Green Bush / The New York Public Library

On this day in 1775, patriots in Lexington and Concord fought the first battles of the American Revolution. Which means that the late hours of last night and the very early hours of this morning marked the anniversary of another memorable event in American history, recalled by Atlantic co-founder Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five

Longfellow’s famous poem recounts the silversmith’s long ride through Middlesex County to warn the revolutionaries that the British were on their way—thus allowing the Americans to muster their forces and drive back the British the following morning.

Paul Revere’s Ride” first appeared in our January 1861 issue, just months before the Civil War broke out. As Sage Stossel noted in her 2011 preface to the poem, the timing was no accident:

Longfellow was a committed abolitionist … With “Paul Revere’s Ride,” he sought to create a patriotic national myth that would remind readers of their shared heroic past while galvanizing them to once more stand up for the nation’s founding principles.

Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

In an online conference with The Atlantic in 1995, the former poet laureate Robert Pinsky meditated on the idea of physical, imagined, and remembered places:

Many of our most energetic and vivid “here”s—one might almost say our most physically vivid “here”s—are in the imagination. Even while making love or playing a sport or eating, most of us are also “here” in our imagination, here in a series of quotation marks …

I am from … a lower-middle-class family in a small town in New Jersey. My grandpa had a bar there. My family was nominally Orthodox Jewish. My work, I think, tries to pull together as many of the different kinds and levels of American speech and experience as I can. I think the class and place I am “from” are good for the imagination—but what “here” is not?

Pinsky brings this sense of his origins into “Jersey Rain,” from our April 2000 issue. In the poem, he imputes a sort of magic to the rain of his native state:

I feel it churning even in fair weather

To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to smite the state—
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads

You can read the full poem here, and find some of Pinsky’s other works for The Atlantic here.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike is best remembered for his insightful and richly descriptive novels and short stories about middle-class America. But he often applied his distinctive literary style to poetry as well, producing eight volumes of verse over the course of his lifetime. In his poetry, as in his prose, he had a talent for making everyday things seem beautiful and strange.

For instance, here’s a bit of Updike’s “Half Moon, Small Cloud”:

For what is the moon, that it haunts us,
this impudent companion immigrated
from the system’s less fortunate margins,
the realm of dust collected in orbs?

Read the full poem from our October 2006 issue here, and then take a look at some of Updike’s other poems in our archives.

In 2014’s “The Joy of the Memorized Poem,” former Poet Laureate Billy Collins describes why poetry matters in contemporary life:

Poetry privileges subjectivity. It foregrounds the interior life of the writer, who is trying to draw in a reader. And it gets readers into contact with their own subjective life. This is valuable, especially now. If you look around at the society we live in, we’re being pulled constantly into public life … I think I read recently that we’re not suffering from an overflow of information—we’ve suffering from an overflow of insignificance. Well, poetry becomes an oasis or sanctuary from the forces constantly drawing us into social and public life.

Poetry exerts a different kind of pull on us. It’s a pull towards meaning and subjectivity.

Collins offers just such an insight in “The Five Spot,” from our May 2014 issue. In a characteristically graceful and plain-spoken style, he recounts the experience of watching a musician play several instruments at the same time:

Even in my youth I saw
this not as a lesson in keeping busy
with one thing or another,
but as a joyous impossible lesson
in how to do it all at once

Allow Collins to draw you further into his interior life—and your own subjective one—by reading the full poem and exploring some of his other works in our archives.

Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Reading a poem by Robert Hass is like stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from that of the air. You scarcely know, until you feel the undertow tug at you, that you have entered into another element.

This is how former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz once described Hass’s work, as Peter Davison recalled in 1997’s “The Laureate as Onlooker.” Davison’s own assessment was more succinct: No practicing poet has more talent than Robert Hass.” He continued:

If we look to his poetry in its own right, we’ll find him most understandable as a native son, a Californian Catholic with a first-class education and a poetic sensibility that probes kindly but firmly in all directions.     

Davison calls Hass’s “Heroic Simile,” first published in our October 1976 issue, a “masterpiece.” In the poem, Hass draws on moments of heroism from classical and modern epics to find grandeur in the life of an ordinary woodsman:

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing

Read the rest here to experience the tug of Hass’s undertow for yourself.  

The first stanza of Erica Funkhouser’s lyrical, contemplative poem “The Pianist Upstairs” feels right to conclude a week of violence and military action in the Middle East:

The world’s at war and he breaks into Brahms
tonight—an intermezzo one might hum
to lull a child or coax to life numb
nerves after a round of deafening bombs.

Read the full poem from our 2005 Fiction Issue here, and go here to discover more of Funkhouser’s verse.