Reporter's Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full poem here.


On that note, Brett Kirkpatrick writes:

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

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

Full poem here.


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

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

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


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

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

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

Read the rest here. From Elena:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.


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

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

Full poem here.


Jon Nazca / Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Semansky / AP

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

I first read Pablo Neruda’s collection of 100 love sonnets when I was 11 or 12, and I remember dog-earing the page of my library-book copy on Sonnet XVII. I hadn’t been in love yet, and didn’t have any real-life feelings with which to frame or understand the poem. Yet something about it tugged at me—tugs at me still, 12 years later, with more than one heartbreak under my belt. The love Neruda describes here is all at once quiet and intense, uncomplicated and overwhelming. It’s a secret shared only with the object of his love, made all the more beautiful by that intimacy: “I love you as the plant that never blooms / but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.”

Neruda wrote this sonnet (as he did all 99 of the others) to his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, with whom he had an affair during his second marriage. The nature of their love, which was hidden for so long, seeps through in Sonnet XVII’s lines about darkness, secrets, shadows. The collection itself begins with a beautiful dedication to Matilde, which reads, in part: “I built up these lumber piles of love, and with fourteen boards each I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them.”

There are so many poems in this collection that feel vitally important and true to my own life: poems that express hunger, desire, desperation, or a profound sense of loneliness even in the deepest and most intense feelings of love. (From Sonnet XI:  “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair / Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.”) But Sonnet XVII gets me for its expression of a feeling at once unbearably sweet and possibly codependent. So many of us have this tendency—to try and squish ourselves so close to another person that we can no longer remember where the seams are:

… so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Whereas I went one day to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and the pharmacy was closed, and I decided a book of poetry was the next best thing to medicine;

Whereas the book I selected was Layli Long Soldier’s collection titled Whereas;

Whereas in January of this year, President Trump signed an order to expedite the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and, as my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote,

For roughly four hours after these orders were issued, they only existed online in an image from an Associated Press photographer. That version was missing at least a page, and some words were so blurry as to be non-parseable.

Whereas poems can be made to peel apart language, and language can be made to flail, to strike, to obfuscate and blur, or to shift responsibility and blame from one party to another;

Layli Long Soldier’s collection is a direct response to the official “Apology to Native Peoples” on behalf of the U.S. government buried quietly in the 2010 defense appropriations bill. At the time, the apology attracted little notice; President Obama signed it without fanfare or ceremony. Long Soldier pays close attention to its language, dividing her book into sections whose titles are borrowed from the apology: “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” “Disclaimer.”

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

“One Art” is the only poem I’ve ever lost. My high-school English teacher gave me a wallet-sized copy that I misplaced, along with the wallet, the next year. The wallet I replaced, twice; the poem I did not. Still, a year walking around with it in my pocket was enough to learn the opening lines:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

But the poem is only about the loss of commonplace items on its surface. As the poem implies, Bishop’s life was full of losses of all sizes: “my mother’s watch,” “three loved houses,” “a continent.” And though matching art to autobiography can often miss the point, here it illuminates. As she wrote “One Art,” writes Megan Marshall, Bishop stripped draft after draft of references to a pair of “blue eyes” belonging to her lover Alice Methfessel, whose rejection—along with the suicide of Bishop’s previous partner, Lota de Macendo Soares—is believed to have inspired the poem. Meanwhile, the poem’s recurring first line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” remained the same in all 17 drafts. (This all might sound a bit depressing, but Methfessel and Bishop would later get back together.)

Still, there’s much more to see here beyond coded insights into Bishop’s life (you can read our latest issue for that).

Kieran Doherty / Reuters

Robert Frost once described his initial joy in making a poem as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” As a method of getting at the truth, poetry has no claims to scientific rigor—and that’s not why I read it. Rather, I think of poetry as the fact of feeling: what happens when experience transcends received forms of knowledge. Much of the pleasure I take in reading poetry is discovering, through the beauty of language, human truths that I feel but cannot utter.

Such is the case with Frost’s “Directive,” which I love for its depiction of a grief so enormous and incomprehensible that it can only be understood through the story the speaker tells. It’s a story of the impossibility of wholeness and the inevitability of loss—of how humans’ carefully built structures of order and meaning must give way to the indifferent natural laws of death, erosion, and decay:

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

John Donne begins the fourteenth of his Holy Sonnets with a demand that surprised me with its intensity:

Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you
As yet but knock breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Donne himself was a man of apparently conflicting pursuits and passions: He not only wrote many love poems, but also delivered some of the most influential sermons ever penned in English. In Sonnet 14, his speaker, addressing the Trinity, seems to wrestle with an angel and argue with a partner at once, wrangling abstraction and spirituality in visceral, bodily terms.

The poem’s formal excellence lies not in appearing effortless, but in actualizing immense effort, doubt, and strain. Fine, hairline cracks appear in the sonnet’s form—the occasional extra syllable, for example—as it drags readers inexorably from line to line, and from one phrase of its unusual argument to the next. The poem, like the poet, generously accommodates tension, paradox, and even outright contradiction to achieve a final unity.

It’s a piece worth keeping posted on your wall as a reminder to continue pushing and being pulled by whichever gods batter your heart.

Luke MacGregor / Reuters

There are endless poems about the beginning and end of love. Poems celebrating loves that have somehow managed to endure years of familiarity, however, are somewhat thinner on the ground. That’s a pity, because we need them—both to reflect many people’s lived experience, and to give readers trying to make sense of a new love affair hope that the accompanying angst, joy, and general hysterics won’t necessarily end up sputtering out in meaninglessness somewhere down the line.

Thom Gunn’s poem “The Hug” provides a beautiful snapshot of this sort of enduring love. The poet, sleeping drunkenly after his lover’s birthday party, wakes during the night. He finds himself locked in a tight heel-to-shoulder hug with his partner, in which the intervening years of their relationship seem to disappear:

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
             Or braced, to mine,
         And locking me to you
     As if we were still twenty-two
     When our grand passion had not yet
         Become familial.

There’s a bittersweet history hiding behind this simple poem from Gunn. A British poet who in his early years was linked to the bleak, clear-eyed austerity of The Movement, he escaped in the 1950s to commune life and, ultimately, gay liberation in San Francisco. Gunn lived to reflect devastatingly on the death of many friends from AIDS, but much of his later poetry, written before the epidemic’s axe fell, contains a strain of clear contentment.

Does “The Hug” show the direction in which all our mature loves might happily progress? I certainly hope so.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who passed away in 2001, wrote about a lot of things. Some of those things were specific—Hindu ceremonies, American highways, his mother—but many of them were universal: saying goodbye, the moon, friendship, God. What strikes me about Ali was how he always seemed to be writing from a distance, like he was observing something through a window or from very far away.

I like to imagine it’s because he felt caught, like I often do, between two places that were meant to be home but suggested hostility. For a child of immigrants, his poetry is cathartic. It makes me think about China—about how I can recognize its images and symbols, but don’t really know it. And about how fully I accept America as part of myself, but how it doesn’t always feel the same way about me.

Ali wrote about the violence that tore Kashmir into two separate parcels of land, as well as his lasting feeling of dislocation in American tableaus after he moved to the States at 26. Maybe that’s why he had moments like he does in “Stationery,” a short, dreamy piece about an ownerless landscape and a vague wish that it would say something back to him. And I think everyone who’s ever felt adrift, or abandoned, or lonely, can relate to these last two lines:

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

“If I should have a daughter,” writes Sarah Kay,

instead of “Mom,” she’s gonna call me “Point B.” Because that way, she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.

We call my mother Pollyanna. No matter how bad the weather, the argument, the traffic, or the grade, she will fervently insist that the glass is still half full. In her eyes every door closed opens a window, every obstacle faced builds character. Her optimism is genuine, sweet, occasionally infuriating, and ever reliable.

When I left home for college, I didn’t get to bring Pollyanna with me. But I found that I could revisit her rose-colored worldview in Sarah Kay’s spoken-word poem “B.” Kay has noted that she thinks “people find poetry when they need to,” and I found “B” right when I needed a familiar voice of encouragement. I have watched her perform the piece dozens of times (as have millions of others—it serves as the introduction to her viral TED Talk of the same title). Each time she inspires in me, as many favorite artists have, an irrational certainty that unbeknownst to her, we are already close friends.

And while Kay describes herself in the poem as “pretty damn naive,” her willingness to continually acknowledge life’s hardships give her words of encouragement credibility. Both Kay’s performance and her prose feel precocious, more dynamic and mature than you might initially give them credit for. She gathers simple, well-known symbols of childhood—rain puddles and superheroes and shooting stars—to put together a motherly pep talk that rings true rather than trite:

… this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily but don’t be afraid to stick out your tongue and taste it.

I leave “B” as I leave every phone call with my mother—reminded once again that I can find my way back to hope and back to the woman who first showed it to me.