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 Delta variant is winning, for the moment, and the CDC’s coronavirus map shows that we’re failing to fight it.
The CDC’s color-coded coronavirus case map, if you can find it, is easy enough to read. It’s a county-by-county snapshot of viral transmission—the agency’s new fallback for advising fully vaccinated people on whether they need to don a mask indoors. The parts painted in those scary shades of orangeor redare areas of substantial or high transmission, respectively; they’re the places where you should be shielding your face indoors, regardless of how shot-fortified your immune system is. According to the agency, not everyone has to mask up again, so the map is, in theory, something inoculated Americans could check like a weather forecast to decide their face’s fate. Use the map, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky advised in a press briefing this week. It’s updated daily.
In the time I spent with Mike Lindell, I came to learn that he is affable, devout, philanthropic—and a clear threat to the nation.
When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.
Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.
Like it or not, the way we work has already evolved.
In 2019, Steven Spielbergcalled for a ban on Oscar eligibility for streaming films, claiming that “movie theaters need to be around forever” and that audiences had to be given “the motion picture theatrical experience” for a movie to be a movie. Spielberg’s fury was about not only the threat that streaming posed to the in-person viewing experience but the ways in which the streaming giant Netflix reported theatrical grosses and budgets, despite these not being the ways in which one evaluates whether a movie is good or not. Netflix held firm, saying that it stood for “everyone, everywhere [enjoying] releases at the same time,” and for “giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” Ultimately, Spielberg balked, and last month his company even signed a deal with Netflix, likely because he now sees the writing on the wall: Modern audiences enjoy watching movies at home.
A crop of anti-gay comments by fellow rappers suggests that bigotry is on the defensive in hip-hop right now.
One big reason HIV/AIDS remains a deadly crisis despite the existence of lifesaving drugs is stigma: Fear of shame and ostracization discourages people from accessing testing, preventive measures, and treatment. In other words, a factor causing needless suffering is people like DaBaby, one of the hottest names in hip-hop. Performing in Miami this past weekend, the rapper asked fans to raise their phones if they didn’t have AIDS or “any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two to three weeks” and also weren’t “fellas … sucking dick in the parking lot.”
The comments were nonsensical—no one dies of any STD in three weeks—and brought backlash from listeners, celebrities, and businesses. On Instagram, DaBaby then made things worse by explaining that he had been trying to show that his gay fans “got class,” unlike the “nasty … junkies on the street” who get AIDS. He also tweeted that he knew his comments were insensitive to people with HIV and AIDS but that he’d meant no offense. He insists, too, that he’s not homophobic. But the reactions he’s kicked up, and some other recent developments in hip-hop, have outed bigots and underlined the cognitive dissonance they live with.
The vaccines promised freedom, but political opportunists have spoiled that.
“Just think back to where this nation was a year ago,” an ebullient Joe Biden said on July 4, as he gave remarks billed as a celebration of U.S. independence—and independence from COVID-19. “Think back to where you were a year ago. And think about how far we’ve come.”
You might not have to work very hard to remember. Across the country, summer 2021 is starting to look distressingly like summer 2020. Not everything is the same: Today, roughly half of the population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, a step that (we are learning) does not necessarily prevent infection, but that does provide a good shield against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.
But the highly transmissible Delta variant is ravaging the United States. In many parts of the country, vaccination rates still lag far behind that 50 percent mark, and far behind the 70 percent target that Biden set for mid-summer. Hospitals in hard-hit areas of the country are filling up and sometimes overfilling with Delta patients. Health-care providers who have worked themselves to exhaustion for 16 months are being asked to find a little more energy. Businesses are putting office reopenings on hold. Elected and public-health officials are bringing back restrictions. The CDC said this week that Americans, even those who are vaccinated, should wear masks indoors in public spaces if they live in areas with substantial or high transmission of the virus.
Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens?
Not long ago, a New York City data analyst who had been laid off shortly after the pandemic hit told me she had filed for unemployment-insurance payments and then spent the next six months calling, emailing, and using social media to try to figure out why the state’s Labor Department would not send her the money she was owed.
A mother in Philadelphia living below the poverty line told me about her struggle to maintain government aid. Disabled herself and caring for a disabled daughter, she had not gotten all of her stimulus checks and, because she does not regularly file taxes or use a computer, needed help from a legal-aid group to make sure she would get the newly expanded child-tax-credit payments.
The world’s best gymnast doesn’t need to look invincible.
Simone Biles was expected to be the story of the Tokyo Olympics because of her long series of jaw-dropping performances up to now. Instead, she’s become the story of these Olympics because she’s not performing. Citing her mental health, Biles removed herself from the women’s gymnastics team final after one rotation on Tuesday night. A day later, she withdrew from the individual all-around competition. At one point this week, she acknowledged losing track of her position while in midair—a dangerous outcome for a gymnast.
The 24-year-old’s decision to prioritize her well-being has been mostly praised. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” USA Gymnastics, the organization that oversees the sport, said in a statement. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.” Figures as varied as Justin Bieber and former first lady Michelle Obama have offered words of encouragement, telling the gymnast how inspirational she has been.
This article was published online on July 30, 2021.
Me, I can fake it.
Stale as I may be from the night before, one foot—one leg—stuck in the underworld, I can still crank up the sociability. I can manufacture perkiness at an early hour. Good morning! Good morning! Am I even faking it? Perhaps not. It is good to wake up. I do rejoice in the restoration of consciousness, the grand democracy of daylight. Yes! Good morning!
You, on the other hand … No faking for you. You’re condemned to a splendid and groaning authenticity. Waking is suffering, humans are intolerable, and you cannot, you will not, hide it. You wince, you flinch, you shuffle around. Should you happen, by some mischance, to encounter another person before you’ve gotten yourself together, you rear back like a scalded troll. The hours of sleep, it appears, have not refreshed you—they have flayed you.
Gather friends and feed them, laugh in the face of calamity, and cut out all the things––people, jobs, body parts––that no longer serve you.
“The only thing a uterus is good for after a certain point is causing pain and killing you. Why are we even talking about this?” Nora jams a fork into her chopped chicken salad, the one she insisted I order as well. “If your doctor says it needs to come out, yank it out.” Nora speaks her mind the way others breathe: an involuntary reflex, not a choice. (Obviously, all dialogue here, including my own, is recorded from the distortion field of memory.)
“But the uterus …” I say, spearing a slice of egg. “It’s so …”
“Yes. Don’t roll your eyes.”
“I’m not rolling my eyes.” She leans in. “I’m trying to get you to face a, well, it’s not even a hard truth. It’s an easy one. Promise me the minute you leave this lunch you’ll pick up the phone and schedule the hysterectomy today. Not tomorrow. Today.”
The only thing getting me through my 30s is a cranky, agoraphobic chihuahua named Midge.
This article was published online on July 29, 2021.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I have asked one question more than any other. It’s come up time and again, day and night, as frequently in my post-vaccination spring and summer as it did in the dark moments of the pandemic’s first wave: Are you my booboo?
The question is never answered by Midge, my agoraphobic chihuahua, but the answer is obvious. She’s been my booboo since 2018, when I brought her home from a cat shelter, where she had been stashed by a Long Island dog rescue after her foster family gave her back—she didn’t like them, or anyone, and cats aren’t looking for new friends. At 12 pounds, she is twice as big as the most desirable chihuahuas, and she has a moderately bad personality, which is maybe why the puppy mill where she spent the first year of her life decided it didn’t want any more of her robust and extremely rude babies. Now almost five years old, she has grown to tolerate me. I ask her questions she doesn’t answer—if she’s my booboo (yes), if she’s a big girl (relatively speaking), if she has a kibble tummy (a little bit).