Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Poem of the Week
Show Description +

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.

Show 10 Newer Notes

Poem of the Week: ‘Beauty and the Shoe Sluts’ by Mary Karr

Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Last year, Mary Karr criticized high heels in an acerbically funny New Yorker piece, concluding with an appeal to women to shed their uncomfortable shoes:

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.

Enrique Catro-Mendivil / Reuters

Whether because of the political events currently unfolding in America, the debut of the much-discussed Hulu adaptation 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.

In a 2014 discussion of the language in the book, novelist Edan Lepucki observed a broader trend in Atwood’s writing:

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:

                                                                         It
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.

You can read the full poem here and find more pieces by Atwood in our archives.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

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 workhere.

Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

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.

Ints Kalnins / Reuters

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.

Jamal Saidi / Reuters

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.
Remembering, remembering.
And now again. Again.

For more of Booth’s verse, read “Ox Pull: Canaan Fair,” from our August 1954 issue.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Today marks the end of National Poetry Month, so I’ll leave you with some verse from one of my favorite poets. From our February 1994 issue, here’s a bit of Mary Oliver’s “Mockingbirds”:

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.

This poem is beautiful in a quiet way: the short lines, the plain language, the simple, lovely images. Oliver excels at writing these idyllic natural scenes, conjuring forests or rivers, summer days or snowy nights, with just a few compact stanzas.

My favorite Oliver poems are the ones that don’t just describe those landscapes, but also draw sincere wisdom from them. At her best, Oliver is full of concise but profound insights: about survival, about goodness, about mortality and purpose—and, in “Mockingbirds,” about the essential act of listening.

In a broader sense, that’s what I love about all good poetry: its ability to get at the heartbeat of the world, at the beauty and emotion and significance that thrums at the very core of things, and put it into words.

Our archives are full of poems like that. Luckily for me, this month I had nothing better to do than listen.

From our December 1997 issue, here are the opening lines of David Solway’s “The Dream”:

I dreamed that you had ceased to love me —
not that you had come from other beds
back to mine, or gone from mine to others,
just that something in your heart had stopped.

“The Dream” has stuck with me since I first stumbled across it in our archives. I love the dream-like quality of the poem itself—its haziness and abstraction, the way the beloved woman appears only as a heart, a pair of eyes, and an empty space in the speaker’s bed. And I love the poignant futility of the fear it expresses, of losing a love that’s already lost.

Read the full poem here, and then take a look at some of Solway’s other work in our archives.

In his spare and lovely poem “The Bone Ring,” from our October 2010 issue, Donald Hall contemplates memory and inheritance in the ever-present shadow of war. Here are the first few lines:

The summer when I saw the Trylon and Perisphere,
I sat on the farm porch with my Great-Uncle Luther
who told me that when he was nine he watched
the soldier boys walking back home from Virginia.

See the full poem here, and go here to read more of Hall’s work for The Atlantic.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Song and Story,” from our May 1992 issue, begins with a poignant scene between a mother and her infant daughter:

The girl strapped in the bare mechanical crib
does not open her eyes, does not cry out.
The glottal tube is taped into her face;
bereft of sound, she seems so far away.
But a box on the stucco wall, wired to her chest,
televises the flutter of her heart—

news from the pit—her pulse rapid and shallow,
a rising line, except when her mother sings

Voigt returns to this moment again at the conclusion of the poem. But in the intervening stanzas she moves back and away from it, instead describing the mythical figure of Orpheus and his attempts to bring back his lost love with music. She links the two stories with a repeated refrain of

    old woman by the cradle, stringing beads
    old woman by the cradle, stringing beads

Voigt discussed the process of writing the poem in a November 1999 interview with The Atlantic:

“Song and Story” … began as a fragment—just the poem’s refrain … Then the refrain connected itself to a couple of those concentrated narrative “summaries”—the stanzas about Orpheus. And those concentrated narrative summaries occur inside a dramatic frame: the child in the hospital, in a crib, with a tube down her throat so she cannot speak. That frames the whole poem, which then tries to explore that occasion, but in neither a strictly narrative nor a strictly lyric way. A lyric would put the mother by the crib and have the mother speak. I have written such a poem. The narrative structure would follow how the child got there. It would bring the child to the hospital, raise the possibilities, then resolve them. And that would happen in time. What I wanted to do in “Song and Story” was some new third thing.

The result is a poem that’s emotionally and formally complex, a union of different and apparently contradictory elements—lyric and narrative styles, familial and mythic moments—that is more than the sum of its parts.

That impulse to break out of familiar forms and create something new has distinguished Voigt’s poetry throughout her long and variable literary career. Go here to find more of her poems in our archives.

Russell Cheyne / Reuters

The late Stanley Kunitz began his second tenure as U.S. poet laureate in 2000 at the age of 95. He remains the oldest person ever appointed to the role.

Five years before the appointment, our poetry editor, David Barber, praised Kunitz for continuing to produce remarkable work over the course of decades:

Stanley Kunitz … not only has continued to write poems of a startling richness at an advanced age but has arguably saved his best for last. …

Neither radical nor reactionary, answering to no mandarin aesthetic or modernist insurrection, Kunitz’s poetry has kept its own lonely counsels, austere of bearing and constrained in form, yet uninhibited in its depth of human sympathy and tragic feeling. What has emerged from this monkish discipline is poetry rooted in the American meditative vernacular and at the same time reaching back to an Old World oracular tradition of incantation and lamentation—that, and an unnerving strain of astringent grandeur that is entirely Kunitz's own.

One of my favorite Kunitz poems, “King of the River,” dates from roughly the middle of his long and extraordinary career. It exemplifies both the lonely austerity and the deep human sympathy that Barber identified in Kunitz’s work. In the poem, Kunitz grapples with the aging process as he watches a king salmon struggle against the current of a river. Here are a few lines:

If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.

Read the full poem from our July 1970 issue here. Or, to get a full sense of its incantatory rhythms and that “astringent grandeur,” listen to Kunitz read it to below.

In a eulogy for James Russell Lowell, novelist Henry James wrote:

He is one of the happy figures of literature. He had his trammels and his sorrows, but he drank deep of the full, sweet cup, and he will long count as an erect fighting figure on the side of optimism and beauty. He was strong without bitterness and bright without folly.

J. A. J. Wilcox and S. W. Rouse / Library of Congress

This bright optimism suffused Lowell’s writing, even as he confronted the violent, divided state of American politics and life in the middle of the 19th century.

In the summer of 1865, just months after both the conclusion of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, Lowell recited an ode at Harvard in memory of alumni who had died in the conflict. Despite the sad occasion and the darkness of the national atmosphere, he spoke of an essential goodness that would endure:

            Ah, there is something here
        Unfathomed by the cynic’s sneer,
        Something that gives our feeble light
        A high immunity from Night,
        Something that leaps life’s narrow bars
        To claim its birthright with the hosts of heaven;
          A seed of sunshine that doth leaven
        Our earthly dulness with the beams of stars