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.
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.
More than a week after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, video recordings, news reports, and federal charges are revealing a situation even more dire than it seemed at the time.
As terrifying as it was to watch the attempted coup unfold on January 6, the news that afternoon offered some cause for relief. Although the U.S. Capitol was overrun, few injuries were initially reported. At first, it appeared that only one woman died in the melee. No lawmakers were harmed. The Electoral College certification went forward, despite some delay.
Every day since, as more videos and reporting have emerged, it’s become clear how dangerous the insurrection truly was. As my colleague Elaine Godfrey, who was in the crowd, wrote, “The violence could have been even worse. Some of the rioters clearly wanted it to be.” This was more than a group of people swept up in the emotions of the moment. Within the mob were radicals plotting to kill or kidnap the vice president and members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The rioters came within moments of catching up to Vice President Mike Pence.
The vice president has no obvious place in GOP electoral politics.
Updated on January 15, 2021 at 1:52 p.m. ET
Mike Pence publicly defied the president once in four years, and for that solitary show of independence, his own political future could be all but finished.
The vice president’s swift journey from acolyte to outcast was head-spinning. This is someone who would pause after mentioning Donald Trump’s name during an address so that the audience had time to clap—and who would then stand silently at the lectern when it didn’t. Editing Pence’s speeches, aides would cut references to Trump when they didn’t believe there was any reason to mention him. Reviewing the changes, Pence would take his Sharpie and add Trump’s name back in, a former Trump-administration official told me.
So far, the Disney+ show is telling a story not about an epic struggle to save humanity, but about one woman’s efforts to save herself from her grief.
This story contains mild spoilers for the first three episodes of WandaVision.
After 23 films, even a casual Marvel fan knows what it means to be an Avenger: fighting for those who can’t, against any threat, be it corporate greed or the surveillance state or a purple alien. Yet, in the series WandaVision, which premiered yesterday on Disney+, one of these storied Avengers rejects her duty in the second episode. When a mysterious man in a beekeeper outfit clambers out of a sewer and gazes menacingly at Wanda (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and her husband, Vision (Paul Bettany), she doesn’t raise her hands, flick her wrists, and wiggle her fingers to produce her signature red energy. “No,” she says quietly, dismissing the threat. The scene then rewinds to the moments before she and Vision went outside. She changes their dialogue so that they stay indoors. Back to their regularly scheduled programming.
As the FBI warns of violence, anti-government extremists are ready to get in on the chaos.
Updated at 8:47 a.m. ET on January 15, 2021.
In the menagerie of right-wing populist groups, the boogaloo bois stand out for their fashion, for their great love of memes, and, to put it plainly, for the incoherence of their ideology. Which is saying a lot, considering that the riot at the Capitol last Wednesday featured partisans of the long-gone country of South Vietnam, Falun Gong adherents, end-times Christians, neo-Nazis, QAnon believers, a handful of Orthodox Jews, and Daniel Boone impersonators.
The boogaloos weren’t a huge presence in that mob. But according to federal officials, the attack on the Capitol has galvanized them and could inspire boogaloo violence in D.C. and around the country between now and Inauguration Day. The FBI warned earlier that boogaloos could launch attacks in state capitols this Sunday, January 17.
Cloth masks are better than nothing, but they were supposed to be a stopgap measure.
If you’re like most Americans, there’s a good chance you’re going to wear a cloth mask today. Doing so makes sense. It remains the official recommendation in the United States, and it is something we’ve both advocated since the beginning of the pandemic. Both of us wrotearticles as far back as March urging people to wear homemade cloth masks. We’re also the authors (along with 17 other experts) of a paper titled “An Evidence Review of Face Masks Against COVID,” which was just published in peer-reviewed form in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But it’s past time for better solutions to be available to the public.
We first released the paper as a preprint back in April, and it took nine months to go through peer review. We’re happy that it’s published but, to be honest, we’re also deeply disappointed that it’s still relevant. We’d hoped that by 2021 supply chains would have ramped up enough to ensure that everyone had better masks. Cloth masks, especially homemade ones, were supposed to be a stopgap measure. Why are so many of us still wearing them?
Both parents and adult children often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century.
Sometimes my work feels more like ministry than therapy. As a psychologist specializing in family estrangement, my days are spent sitting with parents who are struggling with profound feelings of grief and uncertainty. “If I get sick during the pandemic, will my son break his four years of silence and contact me? Or will I just die alone?” “How am I supposed to live with this kind of pain if I never see my daughter again?” “My grandchildren and I were so close and this estrangement has nothing to do with them. Do they think I abandoned them?”
Since I wrote my book When Parents Hurt, my practice has filled with mothers and fathers who want help healing the distance with their adult children and learning how to cope with the pain of losing them. I also treat adult children who are estranged from their parents. Some of those adult children want no contact because their parents behaved in ways that were clearly abusive or rejecting. To make matters worse for their children and themselves, some parents are unable to repair or empathize with the damage they caused or continue to inflict. However, my recent research—and my clinical work over the past four decades—has shown me that you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older.
So far, cumulative acts of civic virtue have saved the republic. But the constitutional order is still in danger.
The next time an insurgent mob arrives to sack the Capitol, if one happens to try between now and Inauguration Day, mere strength of numbers will not overwhelm the defenses. In the 10 days since the January 6 assault on Congress, the Secret Service has overseen the establishment of an instant “green zone,” fortified by eight-foot steel barriers and patrolled by some 20,000 National Guardsmen. Those are real bullets in the magazines of their Army-issued M-4 assault rifles, not at all the standard gear for maintaining civic order.
A healthy democracy does not need a division-size force to safeguard the incoming president in its capital. Generals and admirals in a thriving republic do not have to enjoin the troops against “violence, sedition and insurrection” or reaffirm that “there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.” A nation secure in the peaceful transfer of power does not require 10 former defense secretaries to remind their successor that he is “bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration.”
The virus is mutating as expected. We can still stop it.
In the final, darkest days of the deadliest year in U.S. history, the world received ominous news of a mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Scientists in the U.K. had identified a form of the virus that was spreading rapidly throughout the nation. Then, on January 4, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown that began almost immediately and will last until at least the middle of February. “It’s been both frustrating and alarming to see the speed with which the new variant is spreading,” he said in an address, noting that “our scientists have confirmed this new variant is between 50 and 70 percent more transmissible” than previous strains.
Those figures, based on an early estimate by British government scientists in late December, made for terrifying push alerts and headlines. Though this strain of the virus (officially called “B.1.1.7”) quickly became known as “the U.K. variant,” it has already been found in 45 countries, suggesting that the opportunity to contain it with travel restrictions has passed. On January 8, Australia locked down Brisbane, a city of 2.3 million people, after discovering a single case.
The congresswoman tested positive for COVID-19 after sheltering with Republicans who refused to wear masks.
It still hurts to swallow or drink. Water tastes off. She can’t sleep. She buried herself under blankets all weekend, but she couldn’t stay warm. Then came the pounding headache, the blocked sinuses. So far, she’s spent more than a week in self-isolation, toggling between British TV dramas and news reports about the rioters who wanted to assassinate her colleagues in Congress. Her husband’s symptoms are the same, but he is older than her and in a high-risk group. It’s been four days since they tested positive, nine days since the insurrection. Pramila Jayapal, the 55-year-old representative from Washington, told me that her anger is “next-level.”
Jayapal received her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on January 4, and she tested negative for the coronavirus on January 5, the night before she entered the Capitol. She believes that she contracted it last Wednesday when she huddled inside a room with about 100 of her congressional colleagues, including multiple Republicans who refused to wear masks.
The insurrection could spur a federal-government crackdown on white-nationalist groups, as well as strengthen the case for systemic police reform.
For four years, Donald Trump downplayed the risk of white-supremacist violence and denied that racial bias is pervasive in law enforcement. In a single, searing day, the assault on the U.S. Capitol exposed the price of both of those choices—and may have provided Joe Biden new political momentum for reversing direction on each front.
At once, the rioters demonstrated how much the threat of white extremism has metastasized under Trump, while the restrained police response vivified a racial double standard in policing. The attack could strengthen the case for systemic police reform, both through congressional action and a revival of Justice Department oversight of local police practices that the Trump administration essentially shelved. Representative Karen Bass of California, the lead sponsor of a police-reform bill that passed the House last summer, told me she believes that the lower chamber will approve a new version “within the first quarter” of 2021. “This was yet another example in the disparity of treatment between African Americans and others,” Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, told me. “This is yet another example of how police agencies viewed citizens differently.”