This year, in honor of National Poetry Month, we compiled some of the best poems published throughout The Atlantic’s 160-year history… and we didn’t want to stop. Come back every week to read another poem from our archives, and go here to check out our month of poetry recommendations from staff and readers.
Shortly after New England poet Philip Booth passed away a decade ago, our poetry editor David Barber remembered his work:
Booth published ten collections of laconic, scrupulously crafted lyric verse notable for its spare colloquial language and contemplative presence of mind. Much of his work drew on his intimate local knowledge of the Down East Maine coast in and around his ancestral summer home in Castine, which he portrayed with an exacting nautical eye and a down-to-earth affinity for its flinty vernacular culture.
Booth’s love poem “Sixty,” from our March 1988 issue, is neither nautical nor particularly “flinty.” But it is characteristically spare, contemplative, and brief.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
Spring hills, dark contraries:
a glade in a fall valley,
its one flower steeped with sun.
The there and here of her.
The soft where.
The sweet closeness when.
From dreams awake to turn her.
And now again. Again.
Since Mother’s Day is right around the corner, this week I’ll share some verse by a poet my mom loves: Robert Frost. Here’s a bit of Frost’s “Birches:”
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
This poem, along with two others which appeared in the same issue, marked the first time Frost published his writing in The Atlantic. But it was not the first time he’d tried; that attempt, as Peter Davison recalled, occurred three years earlier:
Sometime in 1912, before Robert Frost made his famous leap to “live under thatch” in England, where he would become known as a poet, he sent some of his poems to Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and in due course received a personal reply that read, “We are sorry that we have no place in The Atlantic Monthly for your vigorous verse.” Frost’s submission included some of his finest early poems—“Reluctance,” for example.
It was only after Frost published his first two books of poetry in England and began attracting acclaim as “a new American voice” that Sedgwick reconsidered, and offered to purchase several of Frost’s poems sight unseen. And so “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “The Sound of Trees” were published in our August 1915 issue.
These first poems were accompanied by a critical essay on Frost written by Edward Garnett. Apparently oblivious to Frost’s history with The Atlantic, Garnett described his reaction to first reading the poet’s collection, North of Boston, like this:
I read it, and reread it. It seemed to me that this poet was destined to take a permanent place in American literature. I asked myself why this book was issued by an English and not by an American publisher. And to this question I have found no answer.
Despite Sedgwick’s initial ambivalence, of course, Frost did take a permanent place in the country’s literature—and in its national spirit. In a speech at a ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College (later printed in our February 1964 issue), President John F. Kennedy hailed the late poet as a powerful American voice:
Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. …
When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artists, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet, in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.
Over the course of his illustrious career, 28 more of Frost’s poems appeared in The Atlantic. “Reluctance,” included in that first rejected submission, never did—but you can read it here.
This time of year always reminds me of days spent hiking in the California mountains with my family when I was younger—something about the sunlight and the sudden, abundant greenness of everything, about the way the natural world feels more present and alive even in the middle of the city.
Though it was written about a place thousands of miles distant from the ones I explored as a child, Maxine Kumin’s “The Word” reminds me of those days, too. In the poem, Kumin captures a familiar quiet wonder and the feeling of being close to, but not quite a part of, nature as she describes interacting with wildlife around her New Hampshire home. Here are the first few lines:
We ride up softly to the hidden
oval in the woods, a plateau rimmed
with wavy stands of gray birch and white pine,
my horse thinking his thoughts, happy
in the October dapple, and I thinking
mine-and-his, which is my prerogative,
both of us just in time to see a big doe
loft up over the four-foot fence
Read the full poem here, and find more of Kumin’s work for The Atlantic here.
Amy Lowell’s legacy, as represented in the pages of The Atlantic and in the broader poetic landscape, is a spare and neglected one. Though she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, she never quite reached the heights of literary acclaim or recognition that her relatives James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell did. And her poetry hasn’t attracted the same level of praise or popular readership as that of some of her contemporaries, like Ezra Pound, who both influenced and criticized her work, or Robert Frost, who she supported and encouraged in the early years of his career.
But in “Castles in Spain,” published in our August 1918 issue—just months before the end of World War I—she spoke powerfully to the resilience of her own work in the face of war, violence, and the passage of time:
Bombs and bullets cannot menace me,
Who have no substance to be overthrown.
Cathedrals crash to rubbish, but my towers,
Carved in the whirling and enduring brain,
Fade, and persist, and rise again, like flowers.
Many of Lowell’s towers endure, beautiful and evocative, in our archives, a testament to that resilience. You can find some of them—including her very first published work—here.
Whether because of the political events currently unfolding in America, the debut of the much-discussedHuluadaptation in April, or a combination of the two, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985, has recently climbed back to the top of bestseller lists. Set in a dystopian future in which a totalitarian theocracy has taken over the United States, the novel, and the show it inspired, focus on the women subjugated under the new regime. The plot centers on these women’s bodies: their fertility, their mutilation, their subjection to physical discipline and sexual violation.
Human beings like to forget their own bodies, and it takes being ill or turned on, or being threatened by the Supreme Court, to remember them. In fiction, there aren’t enough bodies: breathing, eating, having sex, breaking down. Unlike a lot of other writers, Margaret Atwood reasserts the corporeal in all of her work. In an email today, a poet friend of mine wrote, “Then we walked to the public library, where we both took incredibly satisfying dumps.” Let’s not forget what makes us human, everyone. Atwood never does.
In our December 1994 issue, for instance, Atwood described being “Bored” not so much as a mental state as a series of mundane physical tasks, sensations, and observations:
wasn’t even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details. Myopia. The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the graying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae.
Oh, womenfolk, as we once burned our bras could we not torch the footwear crucifying us? … Our feet and spines will unknot, and high heels will fade from consciousness along with foot-binding and rib removal to shrink your waist. The species may stop reproducing, but who the hell cares.
Our staff writer Megan Garber cited that essay in her own engaging discussion of heels, which considers the style in the context of the shoe-design firm Thesis Couture’s effort to produce stilettos with the height, but not the accompanying discomfort, of a typical pair. As Megan wrote, “Heels do—heels are—so much more than mere footwear”:
Heels at once lift women up and hold them—hold us—back. And, of course: We choose, day by day and week by week and Special Occasion by Special Occasion, to let them do it. Heels are both a claim of femininity and a test of it. They are the bindings of the willfully bound.
In that sense, while Thesis’s comfortable heel represents a small feat, so to speak, it also represents a very large one: a counterargument to a longstanding assumption—rendered in fashion as well as in many other areas of the culture—that womanhood is defined, in part, by the ability to bear pain. Not just in the sense of “suffering for beauty,” as the saying goes, but in the deeper sense that the collision of those two things is integral to feminine experience.
Karr explored these collisions—between style and suffering, femininity and restriction—in “Beauty and the Shoe Sluts.” The poem, from our January 1998 issue, comprises an intimate familial scene and powerful frankness reminiscent of her best-selling memoirs. As she watches her mother search through a closet of well-worn dancing shoes, Karr recalls the Greek tragedy of The Bacchae, in which the god Dionysus lures the women of Thebes out of civilization and into an ecstatic frenzy of pleasure and violence—until
dawn spills light
on their blood-sticky mouths,
and it’s like every party you ever stayed
too late at. In chorus they sing and grieve:
“Will they come to me ever again,
the long, long dances?”
And Mother holding a black-patent ankle strap
like a shackle on a spike heel
it must’ve been teetering hell to wear glances
sidewise from her cloudy hazel eyes and says, “No,
praise God and menopause, they won’t.”
You can read the full poem here and find some of Karr’s other verse in our archives for more of her wry—and often affecting—insight.
Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edith Wharton was unpublished and unmarried Edith Jones, a young writer still developing the “sharp eye” that British novelist Margaret Drabble praised in her short stories and the “empathy and ambivalence” that our own Ta-Nehisi Coates found, and loved, in The Age of Innocence.
Wharton’s transformation from teenage poet to acclaimed novelist can be charted in our archives, beginning with writing from the very start of her career. Her work first appeared in The Atlantic in 1880, when she was just 18, after a family friend sent some of her poems to our co-founder Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Accordingly, Longfellow sent them to William Dean Howells, the editor at the time, who ultimately published five of them.
In one of these poems, titled “Wants,” Wharton describes the evolution, and continual disappointment, of women’s desires over the course of their lives. “We women want so many things,” she begins: happiness, companionship, romance. “But,” she continues,
when both love and friendship fail,
We cry for duty, work to do;
Some end to gain beyond the pale
Of self, some height to journey to.
And then, before our task is done,
With sudden weariness oppressed,
We leave the shining goal unwon,
And only ask for rest.
This poem contains hints of the literary skills that distinguish Wharton’s later writing: the deft navigation of tonal shifts, the insight into women’s position in American society, and the ability to sympathize with that society even as she exposes its shortcomings.
It also marks, along with thefourotherpoems Howells published that year, the beginning of a lengthy and mutually fond relationship between Wharton and The Atlantic. From those first poems to the shortstories she published in the early 20th century to her 1933 literary “confessions,” it was a relationship that spanned almost as many genres as it did decades.
In an undated letter to another Atlantic editor, Bliss Perry, Wharton expressed her admiration and hopes for the magazine:
I cannot tell you how much praise I think you deserve for maintaining the tradition of what a good magazine should be in the face of our howling mob of critics and readers … And I hope that the Atlantic will long continue to nurse its little flame of sweetness and light in the chaotic darkness of American ‘literary’ conditions.
The late Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet Galway Kinnell excelled at creating immersive moments. The stanzas and scenes of his plain-spoken verse are grounded in physical detail and acute psychological insight, even as they explore more abstract philosophical territory. From his dark preoccupations—mortality, and the familiar ugliness of everyday life—he draws a sense of beauty and wonder that always resonates with me when I go back to his poetry.
“The Cellist,” from our October 1994 issue, exemplifies a lot of the things I love about Kinnell’s writing: that immersion in a scene, that empathetic insight into his characters, that entwinement of ugliness and beauty. In the poem, he describes a girl playing the cello as he watches from the audience. She’s nervous for her solo, both before she comes on stage and as the performance begins:
Her bow niggles at the string like a hand
stroking skin it never wanted to touch.
Probably under her scorn she is sick
that she can’t do better by it. As I am,
at the dreary in me, such as the disparity
between all the tenderness I’ve received
and the amount I’ve given, and the way
I used to shrug off the imbalance
simply as how things are
But as she plays, and as he watches, she becomes more confident and more passionately connected to her own music, until
At last she lifts off the bow and sits back.
Her face shines with the unselfconsciousness of a cat
screaming at night and the teary radiance of one
who gives everything no matter what has been given.
I love this ending, and this poem, and Kinnell’s poetic voice. For more of the second, you can read the rest of “The Cellist” here. And for more of the last, you can read “Everyone Was in Love,” from our September 2006 issue, here.
In 1966, at the age of fourteen, Palestinian-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye moved from Missouri to the West Bank with her family in the fraught lead-up to the Six-Day War. They stayed there for only a year, departing for San Antonio before the fighting began, but the experience left a lasting impression on Nye—as did later conflicts in the region.
Nye explores one such conflict, and her relationship to it, in “Darling,” from our March 1995 issue. In the poem, she shifts between descriptions of everyday life in Texas and struggle in the Middle East, drawing tenuous connections between the two places through her own memories and experiences. The stanzas are weighted with a sense of loss and separation, even as they link disparate scenes together. But in the contemplative final section, and through her deft navigation between Texas and Lebanon earlier in the poem, Nye speaks to language’s power, however fragile, to bridge divisions between places and cultures—or, at least, to the hope that it can.
Here are the first few lines:
I break this toast for the ghost of bread in Lebanon.
The split stone, the toppled doorway.
Someone’s kettle has been crushed.
Someone’s sister has a gash above her right eye.
And now our tea has trouble being sweet.
A strawberry softens, turns musty,
In honor of this week’s Fourth of July celebrations, here are the first few lines from Alicia Ostriker’s “America,” from our July/August 2012 issue:
Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
In first grade when we learned to sing America
The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
And say the Pledge of Allegiance to America
We put our hands over our first-grade hearts
We felt proud to be part of America
It felt a little strange to celebrate my country’s Independence Day this year, as the Trump administration remains under investigation for possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, millions of Americans await the possible loss of health-care coverage they’ve come to rely on, and the country stays mired in a Middle Eastern conflict that’s already spanned most of my lifetime and cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. The spirit of the holiday was just so incongruous with how I’ve been feeling about America in recent months: angry, sad, embarrassed, and more than a little pessimistic.
But I grew up in a time of uncertain patriotism, too, coming to national consciousness as the United States invaded first Iraq and then Afghanistan, and as President George W. Bush’s administration oversaw the erosion of civil liberties and a descent into national—and then global—recession.
I also grew up in a place I loved. I grew up road-tripping to national parks, excitedly learning to use technologies dreamt up in Silicon Valley, and reading Whitman, Faulkner, Dickinson, Vonnegut. I grew up surrounded by people who came from somewhere else in search of some kind of better life, and hearing stories about ancestors who did the same. I grew up in the midst of a constant cacophony of protest, struggle, and criticism aimed at building a fairer and more peaceful country for the future; in a place where the only thing stronger than the dissatisfaction with the way things were often seemed to be the drive to make them better.
Ostriker captures some of the ambivalence I’ve long felt in her later stanzas, settling into a persistent and almost unsettling rhythm as she describes a shift in her perception of the country over time. Moving beyond her idyllic beginning, she weaves pettier adolescent gripes into broader and more abstract concerns, so that the poem almost seems to mature as its speaker does. In the penultimate stanza she writes,
this land is two lands
One triumphant bully one hopeful America
But, she concludes,
Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
Somehow or other still carried away by America
And, despite its worst transgressions, sometimes I do, too.
W. G. Sebald was born in Germany just a year before the end of World War II, and grew up in the conflict’s long shadow. In his prose, he explored the landscapes of postwar Europe—the ruined cities, the lethal machinery of the Holocaust, the vast collections of records—and the themes of memory, loss, and decay that they embodied. Though he wrote them decades after moving to England to work as a university lecturer, his books deal largely with the Holocaust and the shame and reticence that pervaded post-war Germany, and he grappled often in his writing with his own German identity.
His poetry, though more abstract and concise, confronts much of that same subject matter with a similar tone of understated grief. At times—as in “The Secrets,” posthumously published in our January/February 2012 issue—his verse is opaque, constructed of references to and snapshots of Germany without much explication of their thematic or emotional weight.
But in others, like “Memo,” which appeared in our pages later that same year, the significance of Sebald’s phrases is clearer, even in their abstraction. In six increasingly short couplets, the poem lays out a bare-bones guide for mourning, or moving forward, or a little of both.
Translated from the original German, here’s “Memo” in its entirety:
Earlier today, The Atlantic debuted its flagship podcast, Radio Atlantic, along with its theme song: Julia Ward Howe’s iconic Civil-War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” reinterpreted by renowned jazz musician Jon Batiste.
The lyrics of the “Battle Hymn” premiered in our pages in February 1862, a little more than 155 years ago, for the price of four dollars. The song captured the spirit of the young magazine, which had been founded less than five years earlier with the aims of ending slavery and advancing “the American idea.” And it resonated similarly with the moral and patriotic ideals of the embattled Union. As Dominic Tierney wrote in 2010:
During the Civil War, the “Battle Hymn” became a rallying cry of the northern cause, reprinted a million times, and sung on a thousand marches.
Like The Atlantic, the song endured long after the abolitionist cause won the day. Of its lasting impact, Tierney observed:
The story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. The song … is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem. We have turned to it repeatedly in national crises. The “Battle Hymn” has inspired suffragists and labor organizers, civil rights leaders and novelists—like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. … It would endure as America’s wartime anthem long after the guns fell silent in 1865.
The song has retained a special significance for us at The Atlantic, too, embodying the remarkable history and guiding principles of the publication even now, a century and a half after we first published it. As our editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg says on Radio Atlantic, “Julia Ward Howe’s poem was the best investment of four dollars our magazine has ever made.”
Here are the opening lines of the “Battle Hymn”:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
As the impeachment inquiry intensifies, some associates of the president predict that his already erratic behavior is going to get worse.
The country is entering a new and precarious phase, in which the central question about President Donald Trump is not whether he is coming unstrung, but rather just how unstrung he is going to get.
The boiling mind of Trump has spawned a cottage industry for cognitive experts who have questioned whether he is, well, all there. But as the impeachment inquiry barrels ahead on Capitol Hill, several associates of the president, including former White House aides, worry that his behavior is likely to get worse. Angered by the proceedings, unencumbered by aides willing to question his judgment, and more and more isolated in the West Wing, Trump is apt to lash out more at enemies imagined and real, these people told me. Conduct that has long been unsettling figures to deteriorate as Trump comes under mounting stress. What unfolded Wednesday inside the West Wing’s walls might be only a foretaste of what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described that day, after a meeting with Trump, as a presidential “meltdown.”
President Trump’s third chief of staff seemed destined for the door until impeachment came along.
Mick Mulvaney's job was in danger even before his disastrous press conference yesterday, and his equally disastrous attempt to walk that performance back. The fumble could not have been more poorly timed: According to multiple current and former White House officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations, Trump has been steadily souring on Mulvaney for weeks.
In his maiden briefing-room appearance yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff acknowledged that the Trump administration had held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a politically motivated investigation—a quid pro quo that Trump has repeatedly insisted never took place, and is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Common infections such as strep throat might have a mysterious link to anorexia and bulimia.
In 2007, Carlo Carandang, then an attending physician at a hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, saw a most unusual patient: an 8-year-old boy who had recently adopted some strange beliefs, all while losing 18 pounds. The boy thought that nurses were “evil,” and that he could inject other people with his fat cells simply by walking past them.
The boy’s symptoms had begun a few months prior. After his school held a lesson on healthy eating, he started to scrutinize food labels and avoid fat and carbs, according to Carandang, who now works as a data scientist. The boy worried that he was too fat, and he would examine his stomach in the mirror throughout the day. He grew suspicious of what his mother might be putting in his food and began preparing all of his own meals. Before long, he was eating just 200 calories a day.
Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society.
Just under a century ago, the Soviet Union embarked on one of the strangest attempts to reshape the common calendar that has ever been undertaken. As Joseph Stalin raced to turn an agricultural backwater into an industrialized nation, his government downsized the week from seven to five days. Saturday and Sunday were abolished.
In place of the weekend, a new system of respite was introduced in 1929. The government divided workers into five groups, and assigned each to a different day off. On any given day, four-fifths of the proletariat would show up to their factories and work while the other fifth rested. Each laborer received a colored slip of paper—yellow, orange, red, purple, or green—that signified his or her group. The staggered schedule was known as nepreryvka, or the “continuous workweek,” since production never stopped.
The extremely common treatment might be causing more harm than previously thought.
After giving birth to a baby, a young woman told her nurses at Boston Medical Center that she was having pain in her hip. That happens sometimes after births, says Ali Guermazi, one of the doctors involved. As he recounts the case from a few years ago, he looked at X-rays and saw a small amount of extra fluid in the joint. Otherwise things looked normal. “We injected her hip with steroids, hoping to help with the pain,” Guermazi says. They seemed to help, and the women went home with her baby.
Guermazi didn’t think more of it until the woman returned to the hospital six months later, unable to walk. “The head of her femur was gone,” says Guermazi, who is now the chief of radiology at VA Boston Healthcare System. The bone appeared to have simply vanished. The new mother needed a total hip replacement. “We didn’t know what happened, and still can’t know for certain,” Guermazi says. “But I feared it was related to the injection.”
Winning images from the annual photo competition produced by the Natural History Museum in London
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, founded in 1965, is an annual international showcase of the best in nature photography. This year, the contest attracted more than 48,000 entries from 100 countries. Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. The owners and sponsors have once again been kind enough to share the following 15 winning images from this year’s competition. The museum’s website has images from previous years and more information about the current contest and exhibition. Captions are provided by the photographers and WPY organizers, and are lightly edited for style.
Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.
On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.
What the Amazon founder and CEO wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us.
Where in the pantheon of American commercial titans does Jeffrey Bezos belong? Andrew Carnegie’s hearths forged the steel that became the skeleton of the railroad and the city. John D. Rockefeller refined 90 percent of American oil, which supplied the pre-electric nation with light. Bill Gates created a program that was considered a prerequisite for turning on a computer.
At 55, Bezos has never dominated a major market as thoroughly as any of these forebears, and while he is presently the richest man on the planet, he has less wealth than Gates did at his zenith. Yet Rockefeller largely contented himself with oil wells, pump stations, and railcars; Gates’s fortune depended on an operating system. The scope of the empire the founder and CEO of Amazon has built is wider. Indeed, it is without precedent in the long history of American capitalism.
As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.
Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.
I am never offended by freebies. But this arrangement seemed almost obscenely generous. To throw cash at people every time they walk into a restaurant does not sound like a business. It sounds like a plot to lose money as fast as possible—or to provide New Yorkers, who are constantly dining out, with a kind of minimum basic income.