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.
It expands by 10,000 times in a fraction of a second, it’s 100,000 times softer than Jell-O, and it fends off sharks and Priuses alike.
At first glance, the hagfish—a sinuous, tubular animal with pink-grey skin and a paddle-shaped tail—looks very much like an eel. Naturalists can tell the two apart because hagfish, unlike other fish, lack backbones (and, also, jaws). For everyone else, there’s an even easier method. “Look at the hand holding the fish,” the marine biologist Andrew Thaler once noted. “Is it completely covered in slime? Then, it’s a hagfish.”
Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce opinions—readily, swiftly, defensively, and prodigiously. They slime when attacked or simply when stressed. On July 14, 2017, a truck full of hagfishoverturned on an Oregon highway. The animals were destined for South Korea, where they are eaten as a delicacy, but instead, they were strewn across a stretch of Highway 101, covering the road (and at least one unfortunate car) in slime.
It’s much less scientific—and more prone to gratuitous procedures—than you may think.
In the early 2000s Terry Mitchell’s dentist retired. For a while, Mitchell, an electrician in his 50s, stopped seeking dental care altogether. But when one of his wisdom teeth began to ache, he started looking for someone new. An acquaintance recommended John Roger Lund, whose practice was a convenient 10-minute walk from Mitchell’s home, in San Jose, California. Lund’s practice was situated in a one-story building with clay roof tiles that housed several dental offices. The interior was a little dated, but not dingy. The waiting room was small and the decor minimal: some plants and photos, no fish. Lund was a good-looking middle-aged guy with arched eyebrows, round glasses, and graying hair that framed a youthful face. He was charming, chatty, and upbeat. At the time, Mitchell and Lund both owned Chevrolet Chevelles, and they bonded over their mutual love of classic cars.
I now had two children, but was only just beginning to understand what it means to be a parent.
Just after midnight, I felt the first unmistakable contraction. I still had two days until my due date, but I knew it was time to get to the hospital. A bulldozer inside my uterus revved its engine, shifted into high gear, and rammed a baby out into the world less than two hours later. Her name would be Isobel, Izzy for short.
She weighed five pounds, three ounces, below the threshold for “normal.” This was surprising—I’d had an uneventful pregnancy, and in one of my last prenatal checkups, my obstetrician predicted that she’d weigh about seven pounds.
Did the doctor miscalculate my due date? I wondered. Should I have taken more prenatal vitamins? Eaten better, worked less?
There would be no explanation, at least not then. We moved upstairs into a recovery room with a view of the summer sun rising behind the Oakland, California, hills. In those early-morning hours, I cradled Izzy’s warm, powdery body and nestled into a feeling that everything was fine.
Lou Ortenzio was a trusted West Virginia doctor who got his patients—and himself—hooked on opioids. Now he’s trying to rescue his community from an epidemic he helped start.
Well past seven one evening in 1988, after the nurses and the office manager had gone home, as he prepared to see the last of his patients and return some phone calls, Dr. Lou Ortenzio stopped by the cupboard where the drug samples were kept.
Ortenzio, a 35-year-old family practitioner in Clarksburg, West Virginia, reached for a box of extra-strength Vicodin. The box contained 20 pills, wrapped in foil. Each pill combined 750 milligrams of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, with 7.5 milligrams of hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller.
Ortenzio routinely saw patients long after normal office hours ended. Attempting to keep up with the workload on this day, he had grown weary and was suffering from a tension headache; he needed something to keep him going. He unwrapped a pill, a sample left by a drug-company sales rep, certain that no one would ever know he’d taken it. Ortenzio popped the pill in his mouth.
Investigators have to determine how the militants went from defacing places of worship to launching a devastating attack.
Sri Lanka has a bloody history marked by a brutal, nearly 30-year civil war. In recent years, it’s been mostly spared from violence, until Easter Sunday, when large-scale, apparently coordinated terrorist attacks on churches and hotels killed nearly 300 people.
The government blamed the attack on a little-known Islamist militant group, National Thowheed Jamath, which had gained notoriety in Sri Lanka for defacing four statues of the Buddha outside temples in Mawanella, a town in the country’s center, in December 2018. What investigators will now have to piece together is how the group’s capability skyrocketed from vandalism to a sophisticated, multipronged attack and, perhaps more important, why now.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the second episode of Season 8.
Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.
David Sims: Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones was all about the human stakes of the conflict ahead, and the unlikely alliances and friendships that had been forged over the past seven seasons. “Winterfell” existed to build up serious dramatic tension ahead of the climactic clash with the Night King and his army of the dead. This week’s episode, titled “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” and written by series mainstay Bryan Cogman, served the exact same purpose. Set on the eve before battle, it saw almost all the show’s friendly characters gather at Winterfell to hash out old grievances, pursue long-simmering romances, and generally cast a wistful glance back at all the crazy circumstances that brought them together.
No one knows what shoes to wear to work. Silicon Valley has an answer.
The first time I tried on a pair of Allbirds sneakers, I was in the brand’s San Francisco boutique, sitting on a gently curved wooden stool designed to tip forward in aid of shoe-changing. The stool was created by the same people who design the start-up’s shoes, and it made me feel the same combination of familiarity and irritation: Do we really need tech to disrupt the established technology of stools and sneakers?
My answer, after sitting on the stool and trying the shoes, is a begrudging, contemptuous “sometimes.” The tip forward helped. And the shoes, I silently admitted to myself, were astonishingly comfortable.
Allbirds has been selling sneakers made from environmentally friendly materials since 2016. The brand’s most recognizable style is its Runner, which looks a lot like a logo-free, work-appropriate version of Nike’s popular Roshe One. It’s what a running shoe needs to be in order to fly under the radar in an office.
Gérard Araud says that Trump is right about trade. Kushner is “extremely smart” but has “no guts.” And John Bolton’s not so bad, actually.
Gérard Araud, the charmingly blunt French ambassador to the United States, is famous for two things: the lavish parties he hosts at his Kalorama mansion, and his willingness to say (and tweet) things that other ambassadors might not even think, much less state in public.
Araud ends his nearly five-year tenure in Washington today, and when I spoke with him last week, he was, even by his usual standards, direct to the point of discomfort. He told me his view of the U.S. (“The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over”) and Donald Trump (“brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right” on free trade), and he shared his opinions of John Bolton (he’s a “real professional,” even though “he hates international organizations”) and Jared Kushner (“extremely smart, but he has no guts”).
He said she was oversensitive. She said his constant criticism was tantamount to emotional abuse.
Just a few months into her new life in a new state with her boyfriend of three years, Lauren was nearing the breaking point. “I go back and forth between thinking I have to break up with him,” she told a friend, “and thinking that I don't want to be without him.”
She Gchatted a different friend to say her boyfriend had called her at work to complain that a box of her crafting supplies had fallen off the kitchen table and dented the floor. Lauren began to see the way he treated her wasn’t okay. She devised a move-out plan: She would return to her hometown for a while and find a new job.
Ultimately, “... I couldn’t do it,” she wrote to another friend. She had invested so much time. Being single again would leave her adrift. So, she stayed.
“James’s performance, I’m sure, is causing grief for an accountant somewhere.”
Ken Jennings rose to fame after an unprecedented run on Jeopardy 15 years ago: Over the course of 74 episodes, he won a total of roughly $2.5 million.
Recently, a contestant named James Holzhauer has been working toward Jennings’s record at an astonishing pace. After the Friday-evening broadcast of the quiz program, Holzhauer had won about $850,000 over just 12 episodes. If he keeps up that rate, he’ll reach $2.5 million in less than half the time it took Jennings to do so.