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.
Biden’s running mate is two decades younger than he is; the potential vice presidency seems like merely a first step.
If Joe Biden is elected in November, his presidency will likely be defined by history-shaping decisions made after long, deliberative, some might say operatic processes. Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate—the first woman of color to appear on a major-party ticket—was precisely that sort of careful, drawn-out decision.
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, says that Biden’s selection of a half-Indian, half-Jamaican woman shows that Biden is running a very different campaign than Donald Trump. “In the selection of a vice president, he’s created a deep contrast between the pettiest of men and a man who obviously has no pettiness within him,” Tanden told me, minutes after Harris was announced.
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
In attacking her record on crime policy, her critics are ignoring how politics actually works.
The racial-justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has had two quite different effects on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. It has intensified the pressure on Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate. And it has also intensified the pressure on him to choose a running mate with a history of challenging police brutality. Those two political imperatives are now colliding in the debate over whether Biden should pick Senator Kamala Harris—a former prosecutor whom some progressives in California have characterized as too deferential to police.
Biden had previously vowed to choose a female running mate, and the typical vice-presidential pick is a senator or governor. Harris is the sole Black woman in either category. In one sense, therefore, she clearly benefits from the new political reality that the Black Lives Matter movement has created. But that new political reality has also amplified criticism from progressives. In yesterday’s New York Times, the reporters Danny Hakim, Stephanie Saul, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. quoted David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who argues that when Harris “had the opportunity to do something about police accountability” as the city’s district attorney, “she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” Criticisms like these, the Times notes, have led progressives to ask: “Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed?”
The senator from California seems like the obvious choice to be Joe Biden’s running mate. So why is she keeping mum about her thinking?
A few weeks ago, an adviser to Kamala Harris called me to talk through some polling data. “We understand that Joe Biden’s the nominee, but the party is so much different than a septuagenarian white male,” the adviser said. “Kamala Harris is more symbolic of that changing America—America coming together—than some of the other potential candidates” for vice president.
The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity because, officially, Harris is pretending that she’s not campaigning to be Biden’s running mate.
In public, Harris has repeatedly insisted that she’s not talking about or thinking about her prospects of being picked. But judging from my conversations with people around Harris, she and her team use her prospects to book events and television hits that aim to show she’s neither overeager nor overambitious. She and her team are avoiding situations that could create stumbles. They’re hoping that her résumé, her background, and the force of her personality propel her. They’re picking specific moments for her to grab attention on the Senate floor or send a calibrated tweet. They’re tuning out political reporters who are stuck on their couches, looking to drum up content during the pandemic. They’re trying to ease concerns in Biden’s orbit that if she’s picked and they win, she’ll start running for president the morning after the inauguration. They want her on the ticket, and positioned to be the Democratic nominee in 2024.
Something fundamental has changed about the ways Americans vote.
As polling places closed on November 6, 2018, the expected “blue wave” looked more like a ripple. Not only had some of the highest-profile Democratic candidates lost, but the party’s gains in the House and the Senate looked smaller than anticipated.
The wave, it turned out, simply hadn’t crested yet. Over the ensuing weeks, as more ballots were counted, Democrats kept winning races—eventually netting 41 House seats. In Arizona, the Republican Martha McSally conceded the Senate race to the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who picked up more than 70,000 votes in post–Election Day counting. Democrats narrowed deficits in races in Florida and Georgia too. Republicans were stunned.
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
The ads are everywhere. You can learn to serve like Serena Williams or write like Margaret Atwood. But what MasterClass really delivers is something altogether different.
Image above, clockwise from top left: MasterClass instructors Serena Williams (who teaches tennis on the platform); Natalie Portman (acting); Gordon Ramsay (cooking); Malcolm Gladwell (writing)
Sometimes an advertisement is so perfectly tailored to a cultural moment that it casts that moment into stark relief, which is how I felt upon first seeing an ad for the mega-best-selling writer James Patterson’s course on MasterClass a few years ago. In the ad, Patterson is sitting at a table, reciting a twisty opening line in voice-over. Then an overhead shot of him gazing out a window, lost in thought like a character in a movie. A title card appears: “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter that I’d never read a book by Patterson before—I was hooked. What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. MasterClass dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to ever-elusive success.
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million.
The electorate is split into separate information bubbles. But unconventional messengers, appeals to patriotism, and even jokes can reach voters who don’t want to listen.
A few weeks ago, I went to a political rally in a farmyard. The Polish presidential candidate Rafał Trzaskowski was speaking; in the background, a golden wheat field shimmered in the late-afternoon sun. The audience was enthusiastic—the host, a local farmer, had spread news of the candidate’s visit only the day before—but the juxtaposition of Trzaskowski and the wheat field was odd. He is the mayor of Warsaw, speaks several languages, has degrees in economics, and belongs to the half of Poland that identifies as educated, urban, and European. What does he know from wheat?
But Trzaskowski was running for president in a country whose other half lives in an information bubble that teaches people to be suspicious of anyone from Warsaw who is educated, urban, and European. Polish state television, fully controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party, was sending aggressive messages into that bubble, warning its inhabitants that Trzaskowski was dubious, foreign, in hock to “LGBT ideology”—which the incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, called “worse than communism”—and beholden to Germans and Jews. The messages, constantly repeated on a wide array of radio stations and television channels, were designed to reinforce tribal loyalties and convince Law and Justice voters that they are “real” Poles, not impostors or traitors like their political opponents.