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.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whoever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
Israel has vaccinated six times more of its population than the United States. Can others learn from its success?
One nation has already provided more than a quarter of its people with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, outpacing every other country in the world and more than sextupling the percentage in the United States. During one recent three-day period, in fact, it administered a dose of the vaccine to a higher percentage of its population than the U.S. has altogether. Nearly three-fourths of those over age 60 have gotten their first shot. And most of the population could be vaccinated by the end of March, which would be earlier than any nation except, perhaps, tiny Palau and the Vatican. The government is now preparing “passports” for the twice-jabbed that will exempt them from quarantines.
It’s the kind of standout success one would expect from the now-familiar stars of the global response to COVID-19—Taiwan, South Korea, or New Zealand. But it’s actually been achieved by Israel, in several respects a surprising country to be the world’s front-runner on vaccine distribution. A 2019 Johns Hopkins study ranked Israel an unspectacular 54th among 195 countries in terms of preparedness for a pandemic. After initially appearing to vanquish the coronavirus, Israel has since suffered some of the world’s worst outbreaks—something that remains true as it celebrates its vaccine advances. And during a pandemic in which public trust in government has emerged as arguably the most consistent ingredient across countries for success in combatting the virus, public confidence in Israel’s political leaders is dismally low. The Israeli government currently has the distinction of being one of the most unstable in the democratic world.
The uncertain meaning behind a half-black, half-white, two-headed toy: An Object Lesson
The doll is two-headed and two-bodied—one black body and one white, conjoined at the lower waist where the hips and legs would ordinarily be. The lining of one's dress is the outside of the other’s, so that the skirt flips over to conceal one body when the other is upright. Two dolls in one, yet only one can be played with at a time.
The topsy-turvy doll, as it’s known, most likely originated in American plantation nurseries of the early 19th century. By the mid-20th century, they’d grown so popular that they were mass-manufactured and widely available in department stores across the country, but today, they’re found mostly in museums, privatecollections, and contemporaryart. In recent years, the dolls have seen a renewed interest from collectors and scholars alike, largely motivated by the ongoing question that surrounds their use: What were they supposed to symbolize?
A new study proves that half of people are correct. The other is also correct.
This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surrounds geopolitical discourse—so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desensitizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death.
One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.
The war is alive again of late because a study that came out this month from Skidmore College. The study is, somehow, the first to look specifically at this question. It is titled: “Are Two Spaces Better Than One? The Effect of Spacing Following Periods and Commas During Reading.”
Quarantine is turning you into a stiff, hunched-over, itchy, sore, headachy husk.
The first time my hips locked up, the reason was at least a little bit glamorous. It was 2018, and I was returning from vacation in Sicily, which was the fanciest thing I’d ever done by several orders of magnitude. As I went through the motions—and, perhaps more important, the lack of motion—of international flight, my gait began to stiffen, and my stride contracted to a fraction of its former self. My body, settling into its mid-30s, rebelled against the hours spent in airplane seats, the nights in unfamiliar beds, the constant, awkward physicality of travel.
The same thing happened a few more times over the next year and a half, always after long-haul flights. I began to think of it as “airplane hip,” and the condition was annoying but temporary; I don’t spend much time on planes, and a yoga move called “pigeon pose” would stretch my stiff waddle back into a walk in a day or two. Usually, the discomfort was worth it—a small musculoskeletal price to pay for the occasional privilege of seeing parts of the world still new to me.
“You can understand the predator wanting to be near the prey, but not really the other way around.”
To watch a bald eagle raid a nesting colony of great blue herons is a gut-churning experience. “The herons have a progression of alarms,” explains Ross Vennesland, a researcher with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “They start with a chortle, and quickly move to really hideous screaming as the eagle swoops in and lands on the nest.” The adult herons are usually forced to flee, while the eagle cracks open an egg or flies away with a chick. “It’s a pretty horrible scene to witness,” he says.
You’d think the herons would want to build their nests as far away from bald eagles as possible. But you’d be dead wrong. Research on the southwest coast of British Columbia shows that herons are deliberately seeking out nesting pairs of eagles—and building right next to them.
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
History suggests that Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to have a tough two years and a disaster in the midterms. Here’s their plan to avoid that.
Joe Biden’s team is planning a party. His inauguration on Wednesday, held under threat from the coronavirus and pro-Trump extremists, wasn’t much of a celebration. But the Biden administration hopes that January 20, 2022—a year from now—will mark what some aides are describing as a “renewing of the vows,” an anniversary that could be a genuinely happy moment.
By then, Biden hopes, he will have made Americans feel like they’ve put the horrors of 2020 behind them. More than anything, that depends on whether he can dig the country out from the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine distribution and economic recovery will be key.
Basic competence of government could go a long way: Imagine the political boost Biden could earn when people start going to the movies again, or children start seeing their grandparents. Biden is already planning to push ahead on an additional $1,400 in relief checks (a disappointment to those who wanted another $2,000) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—both part of a $2 trillion relief package. He’s also planning an infrastructure bill that would create new green jobs, and include other measures to help fight climate change.