Reporter's Notebook

Picks for Poetry Month
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Every day for the month of April, we’ll share a poem that speaks to us. To share your own favorite, email, and tell us a little bit about why you love it. And to read a daily poem from the Atlantic archives, go here.

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While everyone else slept, I’d be awake, sitting alone under the ugly tube light in the common room of my freshman dorm. I must have seemed like I was working hard, and to be fair, I was trying. But as the sun would rise, my heart would sink at the realization that somehow, I’d done it again. Night after night, I had let time just slip away.

In retrospect, I was going through some stuff. I’d just moved from India to the U.S. to attend college, and it hadn’t been an easy transition. For me, “Who am I?” —a question at the forefront of most people’s minds at that age—came with the addendum, “Who can I be in this new country?” The answers were many, rough, and unsatisfactory—hence, the nighttime paralysis. (The other part of it was that I had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder, which I later learned manifests quite differently in women than it does in young men.)

But that’s the context in which I read Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, which includes works from 1956 to the time of her suicide in 1963. “Monologue at 3 a.m.” comes toward the beginning of the collection. It’s short—but in just two paragraphs, it captures the violence of the ticking clock I felt so viscerally:

... to sit mute, twitching so
under prickling stars,
with stare, with curse
blackening the time
goodbyes were said, trains let go,
and I, great magnanimous fool, thus wrenched from
my one kingdom.

Plath wrote in a shiny postwar world where women were told that everything was possible, and was acquainted with the anxiety of having too many choices (on paper, at least). In The Bell Jar, she famously likens the feeling to standing in front of a fig tree: Each possibility in front of her was a “fat purple fig” that slowly rotted, and then fell, as she stood frozen with indecision. In 2006, I, too, had found myself in a new world of possibility, hyperaware of trains I could miss and the kingdoms I might so easily abandon.

Jon Nazca / Reuters

Rachel Zucker is a unicorn: She is a famous living poet. Or maybe I should say, famous for a living poet. Obscurity is a badge of honor among many poets I know, who seem to see their art as operating on a unique ethereal level. In my MFA program at NYU, the poets always look at the novelists the way a selfless social worker might look at a craven hedge-fund manager. The poet’s art is for art’s sake, and their obscurity is the ironclad proof.

Thus, when Zucker was invited in January 2015 to speak to our low-residency MFA class in Paris (Paris, I know; I try not to ask a lot of questions lest NYU realize how deliciously extravagant it is), a ripple shot through the circle of poets. “Who is she?” a few of us novelists asked. She, it turned out, was a poet so dizzyingly famous that she had earned a profile in The New Yorker—this was imparted in the hushed tones of both awe and scandal. Having missed the profile, myself—and, well, almost all poetry and poetry-related happenings in their entirety in the modern era (and if I’m being really honest, in any era)—I came to Zucker a tabula rasa.

Or so I thought. For I also came to her as the hassled mother of a small child. The week before, as I prepared to leave for Paris, I had fetishized my flight—eager to be alone in a steel tube hurtling over the ocean, unable to nurture another soul for a solid seven hours in which my only “job” was to sit quietly in a chair. Heaven. And when Zucker began to read “I’d Like a Little Flashlight”—

and I’d like to get naked and into bed and be hot radiating heat from the inside these sweaters and fleeceys do nothing to keep out the out or keep my vitals in—some drafty body I’ve got leaking in and out in all directions I’d like to get naked into bed but hot

I knew then: Not only was I not a tabula rasa uncompromised by knowledge of her, I was in fact Zucker’s long-lost sister. We’d never met, but I knew her in my bones.

As she read, I was rapt. A wrenching detail about a sensory-deprivation tank (a place “to do what? play dead and not die?”) brought my tears forward. And by the end, Zucker had given me exactly what she described—“oh look here a bright spot of life, oh look another!”

She opened me up to her work and to poetry more broadly, which in this month of poetry is something I am very excited to honor. Because now, I think, maybe it is true: Maybe those poets do operate on a higher level:“But hot.”

“I’d Like a Little Flashlight” is certainly worth reading, but there’s something about hearing Zucker read it that, for this overcommitted writerly mother, was quite simply transcendent.

To wrap up our series for Poetry Month, we’ll begin with a poem about an ending: W.H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome.” From reader and Atlantic contributor Michael LaPointe:

If a civilization is measured by its margins, then the Rome of Auden’s poem is instantly recognizable as in a state of decay:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

As the poem’s roving eye approaches the city, its rhymes generate startling juxtapositions—“Fantastic grow the evening gowns" resolves with “The sewers of provincial towns"—that impress the empire's gross inequalities. A single stanza can go from top to bottom with scalpel-like swiftness, an autopsy of Rome’s rotten anatomy:

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Line by line, society rends itself apart, all to the music of Auden's formal perfectionism—a hypnotic sleepwalk to the edge. And yet the poem is more than a litany of collapse. Auden famously revised his early, radical political anthems to reflect a less simplistic worldview, and in “The Fall of Rome,” we’re given a sense of the wisdom that prompted those revisions. The poem closes with two astonishing stanzas, the lens zooming out to take in the space around the poem, a world indifferent to grand, world-historical catastrophes:

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

Beauty resides, spontaneous and preserved, in that “altogether elsewhere.” It’s we who have built Rome, and must fall with it.

Full poem here.


On that note, Brett Kirkpatrick writes:

Etheridge Knight offers us a wisdom that transcends geography, history and race. ​In “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” he helps us to understand what happens when our heroes are broken:

He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

Full poem here.


Rahel’s favorite poem is “The Brooklyn Village Womyn,” by Melissa Kiguwa:

learned to wrap stories around shoulders for protection. wound pashmina memories from shoulder blade to shoulder blade making sure neck to back covered. times is chilly so she always wants to be secure.

Find it in Kiguwa’s collection Reveries of Longing, and read an interview with the poet here.


Elena Yee recommends “So Much Happiness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye:

When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.

Read the rest here. From Elena:

On my 40th birthday, I received a book of poetry from a friend who was also an English professor. The last thing I wanted to read was poetry, as I didn’t see myself as a poetry person. Yet another professor had often said that the reason I didn’t like poetry was that I simply hadn’t found “my poet.”

Then I read “So Much Happiness” and I felt for the first time that someone was able to describe in full what happiness felt like for me. It was also two years after 9/11, and so many of us, including myself were still trying to process that tragedy for our nation, wondering if we could ever experience what it meant to be happy again.

So when I read this poem, I felt I had finally found “my poet.” A couple of years later I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Nye and introducing her at a college convocation—and no greater joy or happiness did I experience than in that moment.


Wm. has a similar story of finding poetry at a dark political moment:

I came of age in the early ’70s, which, as you know, were incredibly depressing years. After political assassinations, the Vietnam War, protesting college kids being shot on campuses, Nixon’s Watergate and on and on, I really wasn't optimistic about the future. There was always the threat of violence that hung in the air like filthy low-hanging clouds. Everyone around me—my siblings, my parents, my teachers, my coaches, my community—seemed really quite depressed.

The only thing that opened my eyes as a young teenager to a different, more interesting world came from the music that my brother listened to and the books that my sisters brought home. I used to carry around a small paperback anthology of poetry. Of course, I was attracted to the poems that were not too challenging and those which an angsty teen could appreciate.

One poem that I liked, and which I had memorized, was “I Am Not Yours” by Sara Teasdale:

I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

It perfectly expressed my dual desires to be loved and yet to disappear from the world.

Read the rest here.


More on those dual desires in Olivia’s recommendation, “Gacela of the Dark Death” by Federico Garcia Lorca:

     I want to sleep for half a second,
a second, a minute, a century,
but I want everyone to know that I am still alive,
that I have a golden manger inside my lips,
that I am the little friend of the west wind,
that I am the elephantine shadow of my own tears.

Full poem here.



The question of what one would do with a time machine—which is a terribly interesting one among, at the very least, 18-year-old boys—often provokes an answer variating on the theme of going back to a historical hero’s heyday to meet him face to face. My own answer, at 18, was one of these: I wanted to go hang around outside the old Scribner’s building with a couple pairs of boxing gloves and challenge Ernest Hemingway to a fight. So many of his stories, and so many stories about him, involve teaching a lesser guy to box. He gave lessons to Fitzgerald. I figured it made me sound macho and cultured at once.

Eighteen-year-old-me’s answer was not as clever as he thought it was, but it was also more clever than he intended it to be. Because at that stage one wrestles with the central question of what kind of thing to become, and in Hemingway—who lived largely, dangerously, often violently and drunkenly, and, it must be admitted, stylishly—there was a ready-made template for what a man should be.

The dictates of this traditional masculinity are ill-defined but strict: First, make a scene. Be big, be brash, do physically courageous and dangerous things. Violent things. Be a spectacle in your actions, but in your thoughts and feelings, inscrutable. Insensitivity to pain and fear in the physical sense is but one side of the coin, and the other is that hallowed quiet strength, the cowboy mystery. Simplicity. Never admit a feeling you can’t control, or an unseen pain you can’t handle. More tersely: Blood yes, tears no.

In an octave called “Ernest” that came to me by way of Paul Hendrickson’s magnificent biography, Hemingway’s Boat, Malcolm Cowley teased out the problem with the form of masculinity Hemingway exemplified.