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Poem of the Week
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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.

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Poem of the Week: ‘Memo’ by W. G. Sebald

Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters

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:

Build fire and read
the future in smoke

Carry out ash and
scatter over head

Be sure
not to look back

Try out
the art of metamorphosis

Paint face
with cinnebar

As a sign
of grief

Hyungwon Kang / Reuters

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.

Mahfouz Abu Turk / Reuters

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,

overnight each apple grows a bruise.

Read the full poem here.

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

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.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

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.

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.