Every day for the month of April, we’ll share a poem that speaks to us. To share your own favorite, email email@example.com, and tell us a little bit about why you love it. And to read a daily poem from the Atlantic archives, go here.
I started and finished Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene on my bus ride to work: 45 minutes flat. When I got off, I felt a little woozy—and not because I was reading on a moving vehicle.
Schizophrene is a smattering of impressions, in no particular order, from the journey of a migrant. The writing is part fiction, part poetry, part performance art, and, perhaps, part memoir—Kapil is a British-Indian writer who lives in Colorado, and her verses in Schizophrene flit back and forth between her worlds: India at the time of partition, Britain, and the “dark brown fields” of Northern Colorado. The images she creates are violently in flux, and heavy with the trauma of constantly leaving and arriving, but never belonging. This passage, towards the beginning, gave me goosebumps:
The ship docked, and I found my home in the grid system: the damp wooden stool in the bath, a slice of bread with the cheese on it, and so on. All my life, I’ve been trying to adhere to the surface of your city, your three grey rectangles split into four parts: a red dot, the axis rotated seventy-six degrees, and so on.
By now, I’ve adhered myself to the grids of many new cities. I grew up in New Delhi, and briefly lived in Dallas during middle school, when my parents flirted with the idea of immigrating to America and ultimately decided against it. But I came back to America for college, and now live in Washington, D.C. At this point, I’ve lived in the country for 10 years, apart from a stint in London.
I am lucky in that I moved around by choice—a sanctioned choice, affirmed by the documents in my nightstand drawer. That is not a luxury awarded to all migrants. People walk through deserts to put food on the table, only to be treated like malicious invaders. Some escape unimaginable circumstances, traverse oceans toward shores that have advertised themselves as beacons of opportunity—only to realize, once they land, that they’re not wanted there. If they’re told to leave, they must withstand the violence of repeated departure. If they’re allowed to stay, they must offer up their former identities in gratitude.
Those of us who can afford to “stand in line” are also at the mercy of an elusive velvet rope. And if we get in, we’ll be asked, time and again, to choose between who we are here and who we were before: Where are you really from? The answer is not easy. As immigrants, we’re neither here nor there, and in both places at once—like ghosts walking in and out of crowded rooms.
Later on in the book, Kapil writes:
Later that night it rained, washing the country away. A country both dead and living that was not, nor ever would be, my true home.
Does she mean the country she left behind or the one she lives in? Likely, it’s both.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
The forces of hatred that Trump stoked to benefit himself politically are spiraling out of control.
Donald Trump is 73. Mitch McConnell is 77. Rush Limbaugh is 68. The median Fox News viewer is 65. For good reason, observers of the American right often focus on folks who already qualify for Medicare and Social Security. But anyone wanting to understand the right’s future would do well to study the public-speaking appearance that Donald Trump Jr. made Sunday at UCLA.
Don Jr. expected leftist protesters.
As it turned out, he and his girlfriend, the former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, were drowned out and forced off stage by chanting alt-right activists.
Understanding the unexpected turn requires a bit of background. But the effort is worth it. Few events better illustrate the complex interplay of ideologies, tactics, and hypocrisies that are influencing the right’s youngest activists, who’ll ultimately decide what to do with the Birchers of their generation.
Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side
Images above: A protestor holding a sign that reads “Abortion Is Freedom” and protestors holding anti-abortion signs
In 1956, twoAmerican physicians, J. A. Presley and W. E. Brown, colleagues at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, decided that four recent admissions to their hospital were significant enough to warrant a published report. “Lysol-Induced Criminal Abortion” appeared in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. It describes four women who were admitted to the hospital in extreme distress, all of them having had “criminal abortions” with what the doctors believed to be an unusual agent: Lysol. The powerful cleaner had been pumped into their wombs. Three of them survived, and one of them died.
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
Alumni of the Obama administration love Joe Biden. But some of them think that Deval Patrick is better equipped to win the presidency.
Joe Biden rarely goes anywhere without mentioning “my friend Barack.” Pete Buttigieg has a line in his stump speech about how he first went to Iowa to campaign for another “young man with a funny name.” Even though Barack Obama will not endorse in this primary, he has made a point of meeting with almost all the candidates, and he looms over the race.
But the politician personally closest to Obama is Deval Patrick. As several people in Obama’s inner circle have been saying to me for months before Patrick’s potential presidential candidacy leaked out on Monday, Biden originally came into the Obama fold as a matter of transactional politics, picked to balance the 2008 ticket; Patrick is an actual longtime friend based on mutual affinities. That Patrick seems poised to jump into the race at the last minute is the clearest sign yet of how much anxiety there is among Obama’s inner circle about Biden’s campaign. “Deval is a lot like Obama,” a former Obama aide told me. “People who were drawn to Obama would be drawn to Patrick.”
The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false promise of civility.
Joe Biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Recalling in June his debates with segregationists like Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility,” compared with today. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition; the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Outsourcing U.S. diplomacy to Rudy Giuliani was a constitutional violation—one whose gravity Republicans might see if they weren’t so busy making excuses for the president.
The House of Representatives begins televised impeachment hearings today, and, if Republicans weren’t so desperate to avoid holding President Donald Trump accountable, they could add their own count to the indictment. Each of the three branches of government—the executive, legislative, and judiciary alike—has vital constitutional duties to perform, and no branch is free to delegate those duties to other branches of government or anybody else. Conservative legal scholars have been trying for years, for instance, to roll back legally binding regulations written by executive-branch bureaucrats rather than Congress.
But along came Trump. Overseeing American foreign policy is both the prerogative and the obligation of the president. In outsourcing U.S. policy toward Ukraine to Rudolph Giuliani, a private citizen whose loyalty lies with Trump personally—not to the office of the presidency, the interests of the United States, or the Constitution itself—Trump has been derelict in his constitutional duties.
I first met him 21 years ago, and now our relationship is the subject of a new movie. He’s never been more revered—or more misunderstood.
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding.
I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved.
Is Elizabeth Warren overly “angry”? The media are just asking questions.
In the fall of 2017, Hillary Clinton, assessing her defeat in the previous year’s presidential election, did something she had spent decades, for the most part, avoiding: She got angry in public. Clinton published a memoir, the bluntly titled What Happened, that included such admissions as “There are times when all I want to do is scream into a pillow” and “Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab.” In the book and in the media tour she undertook for its promotion, Clinton talked about the rage she felt that Donald Trump and his blustering bigotries were occupying the White House. She opened up about what it felt like for a personal loss to double as a loss of a much broader sweep. She also laid blame—on herself and her campaign, but also on James Comey, on Vladimir Putin, on the Electoral College, on the American media.