Every day for the month of April, we’ll share a poem that speaks to us. To share your own favorite, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us a little bit about why you love it. And to read a daily poem from the Atlantic archives, go here.
In her 13-section poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” Adrienne Rich portrays an America of devastation and longing. The first 12 sections chart the geography of American history, traversing the country from California to Vermont, as well as a geography of human empowerment, from “some for whom peace is a white man’s word and a white man’s privilege” to:
some who have learned to handle and contemplate the shapes of
powerlessness and power
as the nurse learns hip and thigh and weight of the body he has
to lift and sponge, day upon day …
In particular, Rich interrogates national identity and patriotism when horrific events—she mentions Selma and Wounded Knee—exemplify “your country’s moment.”
Yet if the antidote to despair is hope, then "Dedications," the last of the 13 sections, is a kaleidoscopic testament to hope, at once a letter and a prayer. Rich turns directly to the reader:
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window …
She evokes the image of feeble light against growing darkness throughout the poem, juxtaposing the dim desolation of life with the illumination of resistance.
Published in 1991, “An Atlas of the Difficult World” is anchored in grievance and anger over the loss of life in the Gulf War. But Rich’s treatment of division and helplessness is timeless. She repeats, “I know you are reading this poem …” 12 times, as though to represent the 12 sections of the poem that come before this one. She speaks to different individuals—a mother, a child, an immigrant—and, by directly summoning them as readers, acknowledges their struggles. “Dedications” becomes a microcosm of the larger poem itself, a cross-section of the country’s people. Rich writes:
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear…
And she captures the way a country itself can seem like an ever-narrowing room, its barriers increasingly stifling. Rich maps the lives of those whose voices are not heard, focusing on events or moments often invisible to others. By doing so, she reconstructs the space of her poetry, using it as a vessel to honor them.
you are reading this poem through your failing sight …
because even the alphabet is precious.
Here, the very act of reading becomes an act of survival, an endurance of hope despite adversity. It reminds me of what Junot Díaz wrote shortly after the election—that radical hope is our best weapon, the response to the question: “What now?” The persistence of the imagined readers of this poem—who will read this poem against all odds, against all misfortunes, across language barriers—reflects radical hope. The poem ends as such:
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
The nakedness of this last image suggests complete vulnerability, yet also hints at a beginning. It doesn’t gloss over or sentimentalize the hardship, but reveals the fundamental empathy in poetry. For me, radical hope is when you find a home in words; when, stripped as you are, there is promise in what comes next.
In 1927, the year before my grandmother was born, James Weldon Johnson published a book of poems with the intent of preserving the oral tradition of old-time black preachers. Johnson wrote that he wanted to capture the “tempo of the preacher” without using black dialect––the resulting collection, God’s Trombones, mimics the soulful intonations of a sermon, but within the confines of verse.
This rings true in the poem “Go Down, Death,” in which God commands Death “to find Sister Caroline.” Subtitled “A Funeral Sermon,” the poem begins with the narrator, an old-time preacher, consoling the family members of Sister Caroline, assuring them that she is not dead, but simply “resting in the bosom of Jesus.”
The next several stanzas mark a dramatic shift in tone: Johnson portrays a conversation between God and Death with the high drama and ethereal imagery of a Baroque painting, with Death riding his white horse out of the “shadowy place” and through the Deep South to claim sweet old Ms. Caroline.
I like this poem because it gives dignity and gravity to the life (and death) of Sister Caroline, who would otherwise go quietly and faintly. That Death would ride up “the golden street” through the syrupy heat of Georgia to find her shows that no matter the humble conditions one endures in life, everybody achieves the grand finality of an end:
And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,
She’s labored long in my vineyard,
And she’s tired—
She’s weary —
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.
Johnson’s poem reminds me of the tradition in which I was raised. His invocation of Jesus whips me back to when my Mississippi-born grandmother, who would have turned 89 this month, embraced the words of these folk sermons: “Take your rest, / Take your rest.” And it reminds me how I also found solace in them:
Weep not––weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.
I could have picked any number of wonderful poems, but the first that popped to mind was one I found five years ago in a poetry book I randomly bought at a used bookstore in Oakland. (The shop’s name is too good not to mention: Walden Pond Books. Looking back, maybe it was a sign that I would one day write for the same publication as Thoreau ... )
Anyway. The book I picked up was The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood; the poem I’m thinking of, “This Is a Photograph of Me,” was the first in the collection. It gave me major goosebumps then, and it’s given me chills every time I’ve read it since.
The poem begins with a few stanzas of the speaker describing an old photograph in great detail: “It was taken some time ago.” The print looks a bit “smeared.” You can “see in the left-hand corner a thing that is like a branch.” There’s a glimpse of “a small frame house,” “a lake,” and “beyond that, some low hills.”
And then, the twist, which hits like a sledgehammer:
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water on light
is a distortion
but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)
First: How terrifying is that? As if learning the speaker is dead—no, drowned—weren’t enough, the reader/viewer is told that all along she’s been “looking” at a photograph of the body. The mundane, orderly beginning to the poem feels a bit like a homeowner giving a gentle, if slightly boring, tour of a perfectly nice house: We just got these frosted sconces; the guest bathroom is at the end of the hall on the left; we love the backsplash, too. The seemingly straightforward title doesn’t hint at the haunting direction the poem will take, even though you’re waiting for Atwood to finally describe the figure of a person. Before readers know it, they’re complicit in something awful and unexplained.
Once you’ve had a moment to collect yourself, you can perhaps see how “This Is a Photograph of Me” plays with notions of identity, visibility, passivity, and words versus image. It invites the reader to recognize the speaker, who is silent and invisible while making herself both seen and heard. The beauty of the natural landscape (the ripple of water, the refraction of sunlight) almost totally obscures her—but you nonetheless feel her specter viscerally. Even if, like me, you want to turn away rather than stare long enough to actually “see” her.
Maybe others won’t feel the same sudden anxiety I did when they read this for the first time, but I’ll always see “This Is a Photograph of Me” as a subtle work of horror. The shift halfway in isn’t a jump-scare; its force is more insidious and paralyzing. But now that I reflect on this poem years after first encountering it, I can also find something curiously tragic in it. The speaker seems lost, alone, and less ghoulish than I first thought. She introduces herself in parentheses as if whispering for someone to witness, if not the fullness of her life, then at least the fact of her death.
More than 50 years after her death, it’s difficult to untie Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy from her sensational, tragic trajectory: a troubled poet who succumbed to her mental illness. And yet, she was so much more than those last days: a Fulbright scholar, self-aware and brilliant, with a voice that’s evocative, turbulent, and unflinchingly confrontational. Like hundreds of other young women, I turned to Plath, with her pure, fearless authenticity, to ferry me through the tangle of growing up.
“Tulips,” a poem published posthumously in 1965 in her most famous collection of poems, Ariel, burns with the achingly vivid imagery and unrestrained fervor that was Plath’s trademark. Composed after a stint in hospital recovering from an appendectomy, the poem finds Plath lying in an all-white room as she considers a bouquet of tulips next to her:
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Reading “Tulips” now, I am always struck by the stark clash of red and white, the almost carnivorous quality of the flowers, and the desperate desire to be left alone. It was a desire that began creeping up on me too as I passed from girlhood to womanhood and the world, which had once seemed so light and open, started imposing its constraints. Suddenly, my body was a double-edged weapon; at night, I walked quickly, with my arms crossed over my chest. Suddenly, I entered a world that had been set up without my permission and seemed, sometimes, to whittle my ambitions down. Tulips put into words all the feelings I could not say—portraying the real life of one women, and in doing so, revealing a part of us all.
In the midst of composing Ariel, Plath sensed that she was creating something special. “I am writing the best poems of my life,” she wrote in a letter to her mother. “They will make me famous.” So many years later, I read this poem and the pain in it—barely restrained by the language—still stings afresh.
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
At sixteen, I was captivated by this image: two dazzled lovers clasped in each other's arms, the couple captured just star-sparkled moments before their fateful kiss. So was Keats. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the Romantic poet speaks to the classical scenes he imagines carved on ancient pottery. Keats is enthralled by how the art renders its stories immortal, and maybe he’s motivated by a sense of his own impermanence—before he published this ode, Keats contracted the tuberculosis that would end his life at 25.
I still remember my high-school English teacher, with her high gaze and firm shoulders, pulling this stanza apart for my class. For four decades she had choreographed her lessons with the precision and rigor of the Royal Ballet, and she demanded the same from her students. I wanted intensely to pierce those ironclad expectations; I was never sure I had.
“Look at the moment these lovers are locked in,” she said. Our couple, inches from the kiss they’ve waited for, will never reach it. They’re robbed of their story’s climax.
But that’s what enthralls Keats—the eternal, resplendent pause. Anticipating a moment, my teacher proposed, may be more of a thrill than the moment itself. It’s the breath pressing in your ribs before a long exhale, the wait at the top of a coaster before the plunge down. Keats revels in this instant before the end. He wishes he could linger there longer.
For years after high school, I returned to the insight of those lines—and that of my teacher. At times I’d be reminded of one of her difficult lessons and find a delicate wisdom I had missed before. My memory of a rigid, impenetrable lecturer gave way to one of a mentor who had played the long game.
One day I came back to school and walked the quiet corridors to my teacher’s door. Through the window I could see a ramrod figure reviewing papers at her lectern. I lifted my hand to knock and froze. What if, I wondered, she didn’t remember me? Or, worse, what if she didn’t remember me fondly? Panic gripped. I dropped my arm and slipped off.
That was the last time I would see my teacher; she passed away a year later. I cried hot tears at her memorial service.
Since then, I’ve looked back to Keats often, to his dazzled lovers trapped in their wanting and waiting. The image is still revelatory: a reminder to appreciate the pause of anticipation, to understand it as a thrill worth savoring. Now I know it’s no replacement for the act itself.
In honor of National Poetry Month, we asked readers to join us in sharing some favorite poems. Leo Rubinkowski obliged:
I have a favorite poem for you. It’s not my absolute favorite, but I don’t think the poem I’ve long felt is my absolute favorite really lends itself to quick reading. Kenneth Patchen’s “I Have No Place to Take Thee” from Panels for the Walls of Heaven (1946) [Ed note: find it in here] is two-and-a-half pages of unbroken text …
Even if it’s not my absolute favorite, though, Henrik Nordbrandt’s “At the Gate” packs more of a violent punch than any other poem I know.
I’m constantly amazed at the economy with which Nordbrandt expresses deep loss. The seven stanzas are each so vivid, but the third stands out. Nordbrandt questions the ability of language to encapsulate grief, but also explicitly relies on his language to express fully the scope of grief:
What can I say about the world
in which your ashes sit in an urn
other than that?
The construction turns back on itself, wrapping existence up in what can be said, whether because feeling is too much or too little. It reminds me of Wittgenstein: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass in silence.”
And then the sixth and seventh stanzas: a crescendo of emotion, followed by a quiet, absolute statement, both inadequate to the task and perfectly expressive of the condition of the world.
My favorite poem about war and loss—and single mothers—focuses on war’s aftermath. It is attributed to a late Sung/early Yuan Dynasty poet (ca. 1200 CE) named Hsu Chao (Xu Chao in Pinyin), who may have been the Buddhist monk of the same name. To my mind, the imagery anticipates the drones and cruise missiles of today’s warfare. Here is the American poet Donald Rexroth’s translation from his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.
In the poem, a swarm of locusts hatches from a soldier’s corpse and flies away from the battlefield, warning the soldier’s wife that he has died. The last few lines:
She would not let her children
Injure any insect which
Might have fed on the dead. She
Would lift her face to the sky
And say, “O locusts, if you
Are seeking a place to winter,
You can find shelter in my heart.”
Michael recommends A. R. Ammons’s “In View of the Fact” as “a poignant, funny, beautiful rumination on loss, death, and love”:
On the aesthetics, I love the way the poem moves. It starts with the commonplace idea that the people an older person knows begin to die off to the point that funerals take over their social calendar, much the way younger people seem to spend the summers of their late 20s and early 30s attending an endless string of weddings. The poem then pivots from its resigned stance toward the inevitability of loss and death:
at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip
to the ones left: ...
While death and loss will come, Ammons will hang on to what earthly pleasures he can while time allows. Finally, the poem ends on a sublime note, lines written so softly that they should be whispered, full of truth and a love for life and even death:
until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. …
Personally, I love this poem because I discovered it in the worst year of my young life. I lost two grandparents within a few months of each other, as well as a close friend from high school due to mental health issues.
Great poetry can do many things—challenge us intellectually, show us beauty, allow us to inhabit the gray areas of language, entertain us. This poem does all those things for me, but it also gave me comfort in a time of loss, and in its ending lines I found wisdom on how to live in light of death and loss.
If you have a poem that speaks to you, we’d like to hear about it: email@example.com. Update from another reader, Ken:
Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy” is the most devastating description of the pain of mourning a child while your life returns to “normal.”
From the poem:
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!
Barney recommends Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Bells,” about the death of a friend:
But I hear nothing, nothing … only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There’s not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait—
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten …
And from Joseph, a poem about loss along with the story of how it was found:
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—my friend Ashley was walking down the street, to get to her next mortuary science class at UM-Twin Cities. It was a windy autumn morning. The wind blew this poem into her hands.
Ashley told me later on, that the poem gave such a perfect definition of human kindness—better by far than any dictionary, encyclopedia, or religious text could have furnished—that she kept the poem the wind blew at her, for that reason. This was notable because ordinarily Ashley hates poetry. Since that autumn, I have always recited that poem from memory, for every Thanksgiving celebration I have attended.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
I return to Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in every season of my life. Maybe it’s because, as a Lebanese person, my father handed me Gibran’s best-known body of work before I was even old enough to grasp its philosophy. But I love the thin book of poetry because it’s organized by subject, meant to offer wisdom on the cyclical nature of emotions as you move through life. There are chapters On Love, On Joy and Sorrow, and On Work. When I am hurt, I turn to “On Pain,” which reflects the inevitability and necessity of heartbreak.
“On Pain” is one of Gibran’s shortest and least resolved poems. It opens with a powerful and clarifying description:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
Gibran’s poem offers little comfort or advice for how to vanquish the feeling. Instead, we are urged to welcome our pain with fresh eyes as a wondrous and remarkable force:
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Pain, just like other emotions, is fleeting. It comes and it goes, only coming to an end when our earthly bodies do. But there is one clean truth:
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility.
I’ve never thought hard about why I love May Sarton’s “Dead Center”—I’ve never seriously studied Letters from Maine, the collection in which it appears, or Sarton herself. But “Dead Center” is one of those poems that I’m drawn to in the somber, reflective moments, often after a tough day, when I’m seeking a sense of equilibrium, and maybe a little bleakness to match my mood. Here’s a taste:
Temperature zero, the road an icy glare,
The field, once ermine soft, now hard and bright.
Even my cat’s paws find no footing there.
And I sit watching barren winter sunlight
Travel the empty house. I sit and stare.
It’s a poem about being in the cold, which is probably where my attraction to it starts. I’ve always loved cold winter days and how they challenge the senses: the sharpness of inhaling and exhaling in frigid air, the unrelenting glitter of sun on snow, the heightened awareness of where my body is and what parts of it are exposed and how very much alive I am, despite the thermostat. I hear echoes of this same experience in “Dead Center”: it’s a reminder that the body is a miracle, resilient in adverse conditions, physical or emotional. Continuing on:
This is dead center. I am the one
Who holds it in myself, the one who sees
And can contain ocean and sky and sun
And keep myself alive in the deep freeze
With a warm uncontaminated vision.
I think it’s Sarton’s parsing of what “dead center” is—a celebration of the blood that keeps on pumping, through loss and cold and “leaps into the dark, lovers unkind,” alongside an acknowledgement of mortality (“Temperature zero, and death on my mind”)—that brings me back to these stanzas over and over again. There’s a certain comfort in thinking about self-reliance as a matter of flesh and blood and breath.
It is all in myself, hope and despair.
The heartbeat never stops. The veins are filled
And my warm blood in the cold winter air
Will not be frozen or be winter-killed.
Poetry comes back with the starving deer.
Poetry, like music, takes me back to the time when I first heard that piece. I first heard the work of the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi when I was in college. The priest at the Episcopal campus ministry, who became my mentor, would substitute a Rumi poem for a biblical reading or use it in one of his sermons. This poem, “A Great Wagon,” is the one that has stayed with me over the last 12 years. You can read it in full here.
Like most of Rumi’s poems, its themes are mystical, drawing out what connects humanity to each other and to the divine. This is my favorite stanza, because it talks about music:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
There’s a simple story to follow: you wake up, don’t do x, do y. The first several times I heard this stanza, I followed the story. But now when I hear or read these words, I am always drawn to the line, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”
It doesn’t quite make logical sense—I’ll find myself thinking through the syntax two or three times. But on an intuitive and poetic level, I think Rumi is talking about the sacredness and beauty of all life and work.
My priest was a living embodiment of these verses. Walking into his office, you were fifty times more likely to see him picking on his guitar than reading the latest on biblical exegesis. He’d be singing one of the songs he’d written, like this one that uses cooking and baking as analogies for embracing God. His music was the beauty he loved and he made it his life, just as Rumi instructs. When he died last month, “A Great Wagon” was the first thing that came to mind.
I’ve been thinking a lot about H. D.’s “Eurydice” in recent months, as politics and life in America have suddenly veered into chaos and darkness—chaos and darkness that seem to have a particular appetite for women, and women’s rights.
In Greek myth, Eurydice is a tragic object of love. When a fatal snake bite sends her to hell, her husband Orpheus won’t let her go, so he leverages his musical talents into a deal with Hades and Persephone: He may take Eurydice back to earth, and life, with him if he goes in front and doesn’t look back at her along the way. But, afraid she is not really there, he does look back. And she is lost forever.
H. D. picks up where the myth ends, with Eurydice cut off, with one glance, from the living world and consigned to an eternity in hell. Addressed to Orpheus, “Eurydice” gives voice to his mythical love’s anger and sense of loss, beginning:
So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash
There’s something beautiful about the bitterness she stokes as she goes on, presenting the flowers, the light, the hope she’s lost like receipts of what he promised but did not deliver. Here is what I could have had. Here is what you took.
It builds and builds, this bitterness, line by line, until it breaks—“such loss is no loss”—in a turn that finally allows Eurydice to become more than the tragic, beloved thing that Orpheus saw. That enables her to find something of value in herself, beyond the reach of his damning glance or even the darkness of hell.
I love the delicate, persistent way that H. D. articulates this feminine anger. And I love this ending we are left with: this image of a woman who’s mistreated, lost, condemned—and strong enough, somehow, to endure.
It’s a parting reminder I’ve needed often though the arguments and apocalyptic articles and elections of the last year: that anger and loss are not all-encompassing. That, as H. D.’s “Eurydice” concludes,
hell must break before I am lost;
before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.
In 1997’s “Poland’s Blithe Spirit,” our poetry editor David Barber perfectly describes the pleasure of discovering 1996 Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska—“a supremely lucid and sublimely beguiling poet, as accessible as she is ineffable”—and her poems in translation:
With their brisk and bracing wit, vivacious intelligence, and buoyant sense of play, hers are poems of abundant charm—so charming, in fact, that it can take a while to realize just how disquieting they are.
A wonderful teacher once broke down the word “translate” into its Latin parts: trans + latus, “to carry across,” to ferry meaning from one side to another. For me, this sparked an interest in how translations vary, how the shift of one word or an alternate choice of phrase can profoundly change the music of the poem, or its resonance.
In one of my favorites, “Under One Small Star” (translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh), Szymborska serves as patron saint of serial apologizers, and of all those who labor with words. In part:
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
I love the poet’s humility in the face of the great crushing world, while still asserting a place in it, and the mix of the concrete and the intangible, playful and serious:
My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
Compare the patterns and repetitions in English with the untranslated original (“Pod Jedną Gwiazdką”), with its thicket of Polish consonants. In his essay, Barber precisely identifies the language as “briery,” the exact word for the stroked, accented, and curling-tailed letters, the spiky brambles of lines on the page, and the sweet/sharp images they evoke. I imagine it sounds thorny too, those wild consonantal roses.
It’s hard to stop at just one Szymborska poem, so here’s another. My favorite of her poems published in the Atlantic, 1997’s “A Word on Statistics” (translated by Joanna Trzeciak) begins:
Out of every hundred people,
those who always know better:
Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.
Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:
… and tumbles on inevitably toward its last lines’ gentle, brutal kicker.
Finally, her Nobel speech from 1996, on the power of asking questions, and of not presuming we know the answers, is worth reading today:
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don't want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. … In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.
This note is a birthday present for one of my dearest friends, who has sent me countless poems over the years—may you all know someone who does the same!
April is National Poetry Month, which makes it a good time to celebrate The Atlantic’s literary heritage. As our poetry editor, David Barber, wrote in 2010:
For more than 150 years and counting, The Atlantic has published poetry in virtually every issue. It’s safe to assume our founding braintrust wouldn’t have had it any other way. Among their number were several poets of no uncertain stature, and with no bit part in what we now like to call the national conversation. They aimed to have their say on the pressing matters of the day, but they were equally bent on channeling the literary spirit of the age. They wanted their good gray columns of type to resound with reasoned discourse and enlightened thinking, but they also wanted them to sing.
This month, we’ll honor that history with a daily poem from our archives. And we’ll also honor the poems that speak, or sing, to us now: Each day for the rest of April, we’ll post a poem recommended by one of our staffers on this thread.
We’d like to hear your favorites too: If you’d like to respond to one of our picks, or share one of your own, please send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. But to start us off, here’s W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby,” which begins:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
It’s a love poem, but a strangely distant one: Auden’s speaker treats the lover beside him as almost an abstraction, denying his individuality and anticipating his own unfaithfulness almost from the very first lines. Later on, he rejects hopeful romantic murmurings as the “pedantic boring cry” of “fashionable madmen.”
It would all seem breathtakingly cold, if not for the deep tenderness he shows for his lover’s (and his own) “mortal, guilty” qualities. The flip side of his radical distance is an equally radical empathy—love not for one person, but for nothing less than humanity itself.
Auden is one of my favorite poets—I’ve written about himin Notesbefore—and this relentless, cerebral self-consciousness is part of what I love about his work. Deep feeling seems to go hand-in-hand with doubt and even cynicism; he’s skeptical of sentimentality, yet acknowledges deeper meanings behind it. A poem like “Lullaby” gets at the full contradictory scope of a human experience, at once expressing and picking apart its meaning—and that dual purpose, I think, may be why people write poetry. It’s certainly why I read it.
The Lakers legend was fearless, driven, and excellent.
My first real interaction with Kobe Bryant started over a disagreement. The legendary Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard had made some dismissive comments in 2014 about the case of Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager who had been shot to death in Florida by the neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmernan two years before.
Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal on second-degree murder charges incensed many black athetes—but not Bryant, who told The New Yorker, “if we’ve progressed as a society, then you don’t jump to somebody's defense just because they're African-American.” I was working at ESPN at the time, and criticized Bryant on camera as tone deaf, among other things.
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
Understanding the events of 1979 is crucial for those trying to figure out a better future for today’s Middle East.
What happened to us? The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra. You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country, Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings. It is a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars.
Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise. What happened to us? The question may not occur to those too young to remember a different world, whose parents did not tell them of a youth spent reciting poetry in Peshawar, debating Marxism in the bars of Beirut, or riding bicycles on the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad. The question may surprise those in the West who assume that the extremism and bloodletting of today have always been the norm.
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”
In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.
This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century. The Atlantic published it in the August 1963 issue.
The American inheritance and the American promise are both precious and precarious. If we don’t defend them vigorously, no one else will.
In August 1784, when the American merchant vessel Empress of China finally docked in Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) after six months at sea, Captain John Green of Philadelphia and his crew found a civilization at its height. The Qianlong emperor ruled 10 percent of the world’s land mass and 30 percent of its population. He controlled one-third of the global economy. He could look out on an empire of extraordinary political and cultural achievement, a civilization that had endured more than three millennia. The name China, Zhōngguó, means “Middle Kingdom”—the kingdom at the center of the cosmos, the kingdom at the heart of heaven and Earth—and he had no reason to doubt it.
In 2013, when Xi Jinping took power as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, he embarked China on a mission of “national rejuvenation” (guojia fuxing). Six years later, China is poised to become, once again, the largest economy in the world, overtaking the United States. China is home to six of the world’s 10 busiest shipping-container ports (seven, if you include Hong Kong), contributing to its increased control of global maritime trade routes. According to the World Bank, China is on pace to eliminate absolute poverty by the end of next year, completing a stunning process through which 850 million people have emerged from poverty since the early 1980s—the largest and fastest poverty reduction in human history, to accompany the largest and fastest economic expansion ever recorded. Meanwhile, Chinese political, economic, and military investments across the world intend to roll back American power, replacing a Pax Americana with a Pax Sinica (though it is not clear whether China intends to preserve the Pax part).
In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per American has doubled.
American exceptionalism takes on many forms, both flattering (our immigrant-founded start-ups) and unfortunate (our health-care prices). But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.
While public attention is focused on the Senate, the president is making controversial policy moves.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Emanuel’s point was that a moment of cataclysm meant a chance for big structural reforms that wouldn’t be possible in moments of calm.
But there are other ways to take advantage of a crisis, as the Trump administration is demonstrating right now. Even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.
It isn’t, as has sometimes been claimed, that Trump wanted to be impeached, or that the impeachment is somehow a brilliant Machiavellian distraction he has orchestrated. The president has made clear that he wants the trial over as quickly as possible. But as long as it’s going on, the White House is using the crisis as best as it can.
A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
China’s attempt to curb a viral outbreak is a radical experiment in authoritarian medicine.
A construction team is racing to build a new, 1,000-bed hospital in the next six days. As a virus spreads through one of the world’s largest cities, no one is allowed to leave. When the count of the dead in Wuhan, China, reached 15 yesterday, government officials declared a quarantine. Trains and public transit came to a halt, and air travel was canceled. Residents were urged to stay at home, and to wear masks if they must go out. The state told people not to spit, and “not to spread alarmist rumors.”
In short order, infections were also confirmed in multiple other parts of China. Travel was also banned in the cities of Huanggang and Ezhou. As of today, the state has essentially quarantined an area estimated to encompass 35 million people—a population greater than the 10 largest U.S. cities combined.
Mike Pompeo’s dig about not finding Ukraine on a map undermines his credibility.
Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bungled an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and stormed out instead of answering her last questions. (You can listen to their exchange here.) Then Pompeo’s aide made one of the most desirable entreaties a journalist can hear after an interview: Would Kelly speak with the secretary again, and leave her recording device behind? This invitation is always attractive, because it often means that the interview subject is emotional, bereft of judgment, and ready to say something even he knows he shouldn’t say. According to Kelly, who is a contributor to The Atlantic, Pompeo berated her, used profanity, and at one point directed his aide to get a map. He challenged Kelly to identify Ukraine, the largest country wholly within Europe. Pompeo issued a statement today all but confirming Kelly’s account.