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.
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.
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.
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
… 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.
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.
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.
Emerson first read the poem publicly on January 1, 1863, in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln had issued just hours earlier.
It wasn’t the first time he’d paid such tribute: In “The President’s Proclamation,” published in November 1862 in anticipation of Lincoln’s official order, Emerson wrote about the coming proclamation at greater length and in his own voice. The article, like “Boston Hymn,” provides a ringing endorsement for emancipation:
The force of the act is that it commits the country to this justice,—that it compels the innumerable officers, civil, military, naval, of the Republic to range themselves on the line of this equity. … This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain. It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired. With a victory like this, we can stand many disasters. It does not promise the redemption of the black race: that lies not with us: but it relieves it of our opposition.
Earlier the same year, Emerson had similarly espoused his support for abolition, and for President Lincoln’s efforts to further it, in “American Civilization”:
Well, now here comes this conspiracy of slavery, — they call it an institution, I call it a destitution, — this stealing of men and setting them to work, — stealing their labor, and the thief sitting idle himself; and for two or three ages it has lasted, and has yielded a certain quantity of rice, cotton, and sugar. … In this national crisis, it is not argument that we want, but that rare courage which dares commit itself to a principle. … We want men of original perception and original action, who can open their eyes wider than to a nationality, namely, to considerations of benefit to the human race, can act in the interest of civilization.
As James observed, each of these writings is fervently hopeful and full of heart. From the midst of the Civil War, Emerson offered a righteous indictment of slavery and a vision of an America that was more moral, more equal, and more true to the principles of its founders.
Emerson sees this America clearly. In these lines, you can see it too.
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 TheAtlantic—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:
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.
The Green New Deal’s mastermind is a precocious New Yorker with big ambitions. Sound familiar?
The economic thinker who most influenced the Green New Deal isn’t Marx or Lenin. No, if you want to understand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bid to remake the economy to fight climate change, you need to read Hamilton.
Yes, Alexander Hamilton. Long before he was associated with theatrical hip-hop, former Treasury Secretary Hamilton called for policies that sound familiar to us today. Like Representative Ocasio-Cortez, he wanted massive federal spending on new infrastructure. Like Donald Trump, he believed that very high tariffs can nurture American manufacturing. And like Elizabeth Warren, he was willing to bend the Constitution to reform the financial system.
Hamilton, in short, successfully used the power of the federal government to boost manufacturing, to pick winners and losers, and to shape the fate of the U.S. economy. He is the father of American industrial policy: the set of laws and regulations that say the federal government can guide economic growth without micromanaging it. And the Green New Deal, for all its socialist regalia, only makes sense in light of his capitalistic work.
The former deputy director of the FBI explains why the bureau felt obligated to investigate the president—and how the Mueller probe might end.
In the months before President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, FBI counterintelligence agents investigating Russian election interference were also collecting evidence suggesting that Trump could be compromised by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who oversaw the bureau’s Russia investigation, told me in an interview conducted late last week that concerns about Trump had been building “for some time”—and that he was convinced the FBI would have been justified in opening a case against the president.
“We felt like we had credible, articulable facts to indicate that a threat to national security may exist,” McCabe told me. And FBI officials felt this way, he said, even before Trump fired Comey. That firing set off a chain of events that, as McCabe put it, turned the world “upside down.” McCabe wrote contemporaneous memos describing “key” conversations he had during that chaotic period—with the president, with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and others—that are now in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Even though many Democrats blame him for Donald Trump’s election—and his rivals think he’ll fade
He’s a 77-year-old socialist who’s abrasive when he’s in a good mood, and who’s still blamed by many Democrats for Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump. But go ahead, try to argue that Bernie Sanders isn’t the front-runner in the 2020 Democratic race right now.
Sanders blew past every other announced candidate’s early fundraising numbers in just the first few hours after making his second presidential run official on Tuesday, and he’s expecting to easily hit the 1 million website sign-ups he asked for as a first show of support for his campaign.
For all the more conventional Democrats who greeted the news of his candidacy with sighs of “Oh no!” or “Give me a break,” no one else running could do that.
Claims that insects will disappear within a century are absurd, but the reality isn’t reassuring either.
In 1828, a teenager named Charles Darwin opened a letter to his cousin with “I am dying by inches, from not having anybody to talk to about insects.” Almost two centuries on, Darwin would probably be thrilled and horrified: People are abuzz about insects, but their discussions are flecked with words such as apocalypse and Armageddon.
The drumbeats of doom began in late 2017, after a German study showed that the total mass of local flying insects had fallen by 80 percent in three decades. The alarms intensified after TheNew York Times Magazine published a masterful feature on the decline of insect life late last year. And panic truly set in this month when the researchers Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, having reviewed dozens of studies, claimed that “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.” The Guardian, in covering the duo’s review, wrote that “insects could vanish within a century”—a crisis that Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys believe could lead to a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.”
Never gratuitously annoy the person who is deciding how long you’ll spend in federal prison.
Updated at 12:00 pm E.T. on February 19, 2019.
Roger Stone, the trash-talking, Richard Nixon–tattooed Donald Trump adviser recently indicted for lying to Congress and threatening a witness, had an eventful Presidents’ Day. In the space of time you or I might enjoy a leisurely brunch, Stone posted an online attack on United States District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is presiding in his case, then altered the post, deleted the post, offered a defense for the post, and finally had his lawyers file a “notice of apology” for the post in federal court. None of this is normal, not even in 2019.
This surreal chain of events began—as many do—on Stone’s Instagram page, where he has been relentlessly decrying his prosecution and soliciting defense funds. “Through legal trickery Deep State hitman Robert Mueller has guaranteed that my upcoming show trial is before Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointed Judge who dismissed the Benghazi charges against Hillary Clinton and incarcerated Paul Manafort prior to his conviction for any crime,” Stone proclaimed. He added a picture of Jackson with a small symbol in the upper-left-hand corner—a cross in a circle, or, according to some, crosshairs.
The reflections of more than a dozen people who did dedicated cleanouts of their living spaces years ago
For Martin Law, Marie Kondo’s tidying regimen was life-changing, until it wasn’t. Law, a 32-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, went through with most of Kondo’s popular tidying method two years ago. “I managed to get rid of a great deal of items that I previously had found difficult to let go of,” he told me, including about half of his clothing.
After Law’s big cleanout, though, the stuff gradually crept back in. His kitchen gained a series of useful but not vital devices: a new cookie cutter, a larger whisk, a machine for making peanut butter. The accumulations of the past two years have added up. “The house is probably no better than it was—perhaps marginally better, but in reality probably no better,” he says. His commitment to having very little has, he confesses, petered out.
At the Munich Security Conference, Europe and the Trump administration stopped pretending to respect each other.
Europe and the Trump administration have stopped pretending to respect each other. For the past two years, we have been treated to a transatlantic charade. Everyone knows there’s a problem, but publicly the leaders proclaim that nothing has fundamentally changed. But at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, which took place over the weekend, the charade ended. The American position is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. The Europeans are defaulting to nostalgia for a multilateral order. Meanwhile, the true challenge of a rising authoritarian bloc goes largely ignored.
The mood of defiance was summed up by Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, in his opening and closing remarks. Ischinger, who is 72, opened the forum’s proceedings sporting a hoodie emblazoned with the EU flag—a gift from his grandson, and a not-too-subtle rebuke to an American administration that has reversed a 70-year policy of support for Europe. Three days later, in a suit and tie, he offered his closing observation: “As this conference concludes, critics might argue that some speakers were less interested in putting the pieces back together than in creating more disarray in our international system.”
Bernie Sanders is running for president again, hoping to improve on his surprisingly successful 2016 campaign. Who else is running, who’s not, and who can’t decide? A quick guide to the crowded field.
The Bern is back.
Vermont’s democratic-socialist senator is running for president again, he announced Tuesday morning. With Joe Biden still waiting on the sidelines, Sanders immediately becomes the highest-profile Democrat in the race—even though, as his detractors like to point out, he’s actually an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate. Given Sanders’s strong showing in the 2016 race, it was easy to think of his second run as a foregone conclusion, but Sanders hesitated before jumping into the already crowded field of Democratic contenders.
Some pundits deemed Sanders the 2020 Democratic frontrunner as early as 2017, but there are plausible cases for both a positive and negative outlook. For the former, Sanders has shown that he can run a big-time campaign and draw astonishing grassroots support and fundraising. And while Sanders’s campaign centered around his sometimes meandering, hectoring advocacy for leftist policies, he proved able to turn his gruffness into a sort of anti-charisma that captivated many Americans. There’s no reason to believe any of that has changed in the last few years, and this time there’s not an anointed party pick like Hillary Clinton in his path. Moreover, Sanders showed that anyone underestimating him does so at his or her own risk.
He has grades and test scores that I think should qualify him for the Ivy League—but he’s also white and upper-middle-class.
My son is in the middle of the college-application process. He has very good grades and very good SAT and ACT scores; he is an Eagle Scout and a captain of the cross-country team. He is also white, male, and upper-middle-class—and that is the problem.
According to all of the statistics and reports, he should be accepted at Ivy League schools, but he has not been. He will eventually get into a “good” school, but it is my guess (based on what we are seeing with his peer group) that he will be overqualified for the school he ends up at.
He is very frustrated and very upset. How do you explain to a bright, eager boy that the system is rigged against him? For example, his twin brother, who has similar grades and an almost identical resume, is going to the U.S. Naval Academy, and his application process, though difficult, was smooth and straightforward.