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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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: ‘Song and Story’ by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Song and Story,” from our May 1992 issue, begins with a poignant scene between a mother and her infant daughter:

The girl strapped in the bare mechanical crib
does not open her eyes, does not cry out.
The glottal tube is taped into her face;
bereft of sound, she seems so far away.
But a box on the stucco wall, wired to her chest,
televises the flutter of her heart—

news from the pit—her pulse rapid and shallow,
a rising line, except when her mother sings

Voigt returns to this moment again at the conclusion of the poem. But in the intervening stanzas she moves back and away from it, instead describing the mythical figure of Orpheus and his attempts to bring back his lost love with music. She links the two stories with a repeated refrain of

    old woman by the cradle, stringing beads
    old woman by the cradle, stringing beads

Voigt discussed the process of writing the poem in a November 1999 interview with The Atlantic:

“Song and Story” … began as a fragment—just the poem’s refrain … Then the refrain connected itself to a couple of those concentrated narrative “summaries”—the stanzas about Orpheus. And those concentrated narrative summaries occur inside a dramatic frame: the child in the hospital, in a crib, with a tube down her throat so she cannot speak. That frames the whole poem, which then tries to explore that occasion, but in neither a strictly narrative nor a strictly lyric way. A lyric would put the mother by the crib and have the mother speak. I have written such a poem. The narrative structure would follow how the child got there. It would bring the child to the hospital, raise the possibilities, then resolve them. And that would happen in time. What I wanted to do in “Song and Story” was some new third thing.

The result is a poem that’s emotionally and formally complex, a union of different and apparently contradictory elements—lyric and narrative styles, familial and mythic moments—that is more than the sum of its parts.

That impulse to break out of familiar forms and create something new has distinguished Voigt’s poetry throughout her long and variable literary career. Go here to find more of her poems in our archives.

Russell Cheyne / Reuters

The late Stanley Kunitz began his second tenure as U.S. poet laureate in 2000 at the age of 95. He remains the oldest person ever appointed to the role.

Five years before the appointment, our poetry editor, David Barber, praised Kunitz for continuing to produce remarkable work over the course of decades:

Stanley Kunitz … not only has continued to write poems of a startling richness at an advanced age but has arguably saved his best for last. …

Neither radical nor reactionary, answering to no mandarin aesthetic or modernist insurrection, Kunitz’s poetry has kept its own lonely counsels, austere of bearing and constrained in form, yet uninhibited in its depth of human sympathy and tragic feeling. What has emerged from this monkish discipline is poetry rooted in the American meditative vernacular and at the same time reaching back to an Old World oracular tradition of incantation and lamentation—that, and an unnerving strain of astringent grandeur that is entirely Kunitz's own.

One of my favorite Kunitz poems, “King of the River,” dates from roughly the middle of his long and extraordinary career. It exemplifies both the lonely austerity and the deep human sympathy that Barber identified in Kunitz’s work. In the poem, Kunitz grapples with the aging process as he watches a king salmon struggle against the current of a river. Here are a few lines:

If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.

Read the full poem from our July 1970 issue here. Or, to get a full sense of its incantatory rhythms and that “astringent grandeur,” listen to Kunitz read it to below.

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.