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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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 hello@theatlantic.com, 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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Loneliness and Longing in Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘Stationery’

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.

Like most poems, “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love” is best read aloud. There’s audio floating around online of the poet, Warsan Shire, reciting it in a near-whisper, as if she recorded it in a shared space and didn’t want the person in the next room to overhear. It works. It makes it intimate. I revisit the audio every once in awhile, and each time I get the feeling that she’s speaking to me directly, giving me advice, perhaps a warning:

you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave

In what seems like a deeply personal poem, Shire recounts a failed relationship in the second person. She tells us about the man who couldn’t love her, who compared her to endless cumbersome objects: highways, horses, anything but a woman. Her intensity frightened him and so she tried being “softer,” “less volatile,” tried to fit into the image of the woman he was searching for. That part of the poem by itself is relatable: Having someone tell you that your feelings are holding you back—from working, thinking straight, being responsible, making a good argument, being worthy of love—is one of the greatest pains of being a woman. So you tweak yourself in the most miniscule ways possible in order to seem less demanding and less passionate. You speak more quietly. You smile more. You soften your requests with words like “just” and “only.” You take up as little space as possible.

When I first heard the poem at 21 years old, I was just becoming familiar with that pain—still figuring out that a woman like me, teeming with emotion, is often not well received. When I listened to Shire speak to me through tinny plastic headphones as I sat in bed, awake in the middle of the night in the room I grew up in, a novel idea came to me: What if it isn’t me that’s failing at love? What if it’s them? I clung to the poem like gospel. It kept me from staring down an eternity of solitude, just me alone with my big feelings.

Women who love fiercely run the risk of being painted as monsters—crazy and stubborn and “too” something. Too “difficult.” This poem is a message to those women. After each excruciating heartbreak, I come back to it, using it to remind myself that perhaps, despite what I’m told, the issue isn’t me:

you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.  

Stevo Vasiljevic / Reuters

“Confession: I did not want to live here,” begins Ada Limón in her poem “State Bird.”“Not among the goldenrod, wild onions or the dropseed, not waist high in the barrel- / aged brown corn water,” describing the land around the old tobacco weigh station in Kentucky where her speaker lives now with someone she loves. She has left other homes behind for this new place, presumably for someone else’s sake, and she’s not quite lamenting, nor is she regretful. The land she describes is rich, beautiful, and strange. She picks out the details—million-dollar racehorses, “tightly wound round hay bales,” the bedroom doors—and paints them with the affection that comes from intimacy, and some of the clarity that comes from estrangement.

I did not want to live here in D.C.—or, to be honest,  anywhere I’ve lived since I left home for college—but I am young and I live on shifting ground. Since I was 17 I’ve made plans in increments no longer than a year or two, moving into a dorm then out, passing through communal houses in Cambridge where I went to school and D.C. where I came for a fellowship at CityLab. I miss the smell of piñon smoke and the mud, dust and sage surrounding my family’s home in New Mexico, and the round mountain faint and present like a moon visible in the afternoon, and even the dry air that cracks my skin. But life at this age is a balancing act and a series of choices, and I’m moving to Chicago at the end of the summer.

The two-body problem is impossible,” nodded a friend back in Boston when I told her my boyfriend, already long-distance, had accepted a job in the Midwest. He’s from the Bronx, I’m from the West, and we both owe our mothers to come back someday. In between we have our separate ambitions and obligations. Right now, my vocation is flexible; my long path leads home but I’ll bend it for a while in a direction we can share. When the stakes are higher for me, and lower for him, he’ll do the same. We adopt what we can of each other’s hopes, and give up the ones we can spare.

Maybe it’s not the two-body problem, but the one-body problem that haunts us: every person alive has just one body, with an internal compass whose needle swings variably to point to home or companionship or duty or something else, and one limited life.

“But, love, I’ll concede this:” Limón finishes,

whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.

Many readers are joining our staff in sharing favorite poems this month. Alba writes:

I could never take Charles Bukowski seriously. His books always seemed to be props for a certain type of guy I was endlessly attracted to. These guys were never into Wallace Stevens, say, or Lucille Clifton, just Bukowski. So Bukowski ended up being shorthand for pretentious guys who wanted to seem cool, and edgy, and arty.

Fast forward a few years: I’m done with those guys, living a life I hadn’t planned on—my choice, yes, but still difficult. I woke up this morning wondering how to keep going today with my responsibilities, with the to-dos, with all the work of a life that feels at this moment so constricted. I opened YouTube and “The Laughing Heart” appeared as a suggestion. I’m not sure why I clicked on it, but I did. It was the poem I needed—the poem that told me why and how to be today.

The opening lines:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.

Read the rest here.

***

“For those down and hard times,” Norris sends “Don’t Quit” by John Greenleaf Whittier:

When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Full poem here.

***

To Brennan, “one of the most beautiful poems ever written” is Mark Strand’s “My Mother On An Evening In Late Summer”:

and as she gazes,
under the hour’s spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

Full poem here.

***

Matthew Brady and Alexander Hesler / Library of Congress

In 1925, when The Atlantic first published “The Bear Hunt,” the editor’s preface remarked that Abraham Lincoln “neither wrote, nor attempted to write, much verse.” But what he did write ain’t half bad! There’s a reason why American poet Carl Sandburg took up Honest Abe as a muse.

To me, Lincoln’s most enchanting poems are the three-canto series he sent to his former Springfield neighbor, Andrew Johnston, in 1847. The first two—published together in Johnston’s Whig newspaper as “My Childhood Home I See Again” —were subtitled “Reflection” and “The Maniac.” These poems convey Lincoln’s early bout with melancholy, dealing with nostalgia and loss, fear and anguish—the pain of losing loved ones or one’s mind. (Lincoln even asked to remain anonymous as the author when he sent the third canto.) They moved me to contemplate the battle commemorations in my hometown of Gettysburg and to record Lincoln’s poems to original music.

But the final canto, published almost 80 years after the first two as “The Bear Hunt,” is jolly escapism—it’s most joyous when read aloud. The scene transports us to the woods, where a bear’s “short-lived fun” of preying on pigs is cut short as “man and horse, with dog and gun / For vengeance, at him fly.” We settle inside the bear’s mind for a minute as it runs through a thicket—where Lincoln even manages to drop a dog pun:

A sound of danger strikes his ear;
He gives the breeze a snuff;
Away he bounds, with little fear,
And seeks the tangled rough.

He then recruits an entire “merry corps” to fill the senses—as dogs “scent around,” horses throw riders, and “bang—bang! the rifles go!” I won’t spoil the ending, but a dispute mints this great Lincoln coinage:

But, who did this, and how to trace
What ’s true from what ’s a lie,—
Like lawyers in a murder case
They stoutly argufy.

The argument doesn’t end with a verdict, but you’ll have to read the full story to find out who wins “The Bear Hunt.”

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

I started and finished Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene on my bus ride to work: 45 minutes flat. When I got off, I felt a little woozy—and not because I was reading on a moving vehicle.

Schizophrene is a smattering of impressions, in no particular order, from the journey of a migrant. The writing is part fiction, part poetry, part performance art, and, perhaps, part memoir—Kapil is a British-Indian writer who lives in Colorado, and her verses in Schizophrene flit back and forth between her worlds: India at the time of partition, Britain, and the “dark brown fields” of Northern Colorado. The images she creates are violently in flux, and heavy with the trauma of constantly leaving and arriving, but never belonging. This passage, towards the beginning, gave me goosebumps:

The ship docked, and I found my home in the grid system: the damp wooden stool in the bath, a slice of bread with the cheese on it, and so on. All my life, I’ve been trying to adhere to the surface of your city, your three grey rectangles split into four parts: a red dot, the axis rotated seventy-six degrees, and so on.

Bruno Domingos / Reuters

In her 13-section poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” Adrienne Rich portrays an America of devastation and longing. The first 12 sections chart the geography of American history, traversing the country from California to Vermont, as well as a geography of human empowerment, from “some for whom peace is a white man’s word and a white man’s privilege” to:

some who have learned to handle and contemplate the shapes of
                    powerlessness and power
as the nurse learns hip and thigh and weight of the body he has
                    to lift and sponge, day upon day …

In particular, Rich interrogates national identity and patriotism when horrific events—she mentions Selma and Wounded Knee—exemplify “your country’s moment.”

Yet if the antidote to despair is hope, then "Dedications," the last of the 13 sections, is a kaleidoscopic testament to hope, at once a letter and a prayer. Rich turns directly to the reader:

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window …

She evokes the image of feeble light against growing darkness throughout the poem, juxtaposing the dim desolation of life with the illumination of resistance.

A black church service in Heard County, Georgia, April 1941 Jack Delano / Farm Security Administration / The New York Public Library

In 1927, the year before my grandmother was born, James Weldon Johnson published a book of poems with the intent of preserving the oral tradition of old-time black preachers. Johnson wrote that he wanted to capture the “tempo of the preacher” without using black dialect––the resulting collection, God’s Trombones, mimics the soulful intonations of a sermon, but within the confines of verse.

This rings true in the poem “Go Down, Death,” in which God commands Death “to find Sister Caroline.” Subtitled “A Funeral Sermon,” the poem begins with the narrator, an old-time preacher, consoling the family members of Sister Caroline, assuring them that she is not dead, but simply “resting in the bosom of Jesus.”

The next several stanzas mark a dramatic shift in tone: Johnson portrays a conversation between God and Death with the high drama and ethereal imagery of a Baroque painting, with Death riding his white horse out of the “shadowy place” and through the Deep South to claim sweet old Ms. Caroline.

I like this poem because it gives dignity and gravity to the life (and death) of Sister Caroline, who would otherwise go quietly and faintly. That Death would ride up “the golden street” through the syrupy heat of Georgia to find her shows that no matter the humble conditions one endures in life, everybody achieves the grand finality of an end:

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,
She’s labored long in my vineyard,
And she’s tired—
She’s weary —
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

Johnson’s poem reminds me of the tradition in which I was raised. His invocation of Jesus whips me back to when my Mississippi-born grandmother, who would have turned 89 this month, embraced the words of these folk sermons: “Take your rest, / Take your rest.” And it reminds me how I also found solace in them:

Weep not––weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.

Joe Penney / Reuters

I could have picked any number of wonderful poems, but the first that popped to mind was one I found five years ago in a poetry book I randomly bought at a used bookstore in Oakland. (The shop’s name is too good not to mention: Walden Pond Books. Looking back, maybe it was a sign that I would one day write for the same publication as Thoreau ... )

Anyway. The book I picked up was The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood; the poem I’m thinking of, “This Is a Photograph of Me,” was the first in the collection. It gave me major goosebumps then, and it’s given me chills every time I’ve read it since.

The poem begins with a few stanzas of the speaker describing an old photograph in great detail: “It was taken some time ago.” The print looks a bit “smeared.” You can “see in the left-hand corner a thing that is like a branch.” There’s a glimpse of “a small frame house,” “a lake,” and “beyond that, some low hills.”

And then, the twist, which hits like a sledgehammer:

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water on light
is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

First: How terrifying is that? As if learning the speaker is dead—no, drowned—weren’t enough, the reader/viewer is told that all along she’s been “looking” at a photograph of the body. The mundane, orderly beginning to the poem feels a bit like a homeowner giving a gentle, if slightly boring, tour of a perfectly nice house: We just got these frosted sconces; the guest bathroom is at the end of the hall on the left; we love the backsplash, too. The seemingly straightforward title doesn’t hint at the haunting direction the poem will take, even though you’re waiting for Atwood to finally describe the figure of a person. Before readers know it, they’re complicit in something awful and unexplained.

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

More than 50 years after her death, it’s difficult to untie Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy from her sensational, tragic trajectory: a troubled poet who succumbed to her mental illness. And yet, she was so much more than those last days: a Fulbright scholar, self-aware and brilliant, with a voice that’s evocative, turbulent, and unflinchingly confrontational. Like hundreds of other young women, I turned to Plath, with her pure, fearless authenticity, to ferry me through the tangle of growing up.

“Tulips,” a poem published posthumously in 1965 in her most famous collection of poems, Ariel, burns with the achingly vivid imagery and unrestrained fervor that was Plath’s trademark. Composed after a stint in hospital recovering from an appendectomy, the poem finds Plath lying in an all-white room as she considers a bouquet of tulips next to her:

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe   
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.   
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,   
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,   
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.   
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,   
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow   
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,   
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Reading “Tulips” now, I am always struck by the stark clash of red and white, the almost carnivorous quality of the flowers, and the desperate desire to be left alone. It was a desire that began creeping up on me too as I passed from girlhood to womanhood and the world, which had once seemed so light and open, started imposing its constraints. Suddenly, my body was a double-edged weapon; at night, I walked quickly, with my arms crossed over my chest. Suddenly, I entered a world that had been set up without my permission and seemed, sometimes, to whittle my ambitions down. Tulips put into words all the feelings I could not say—portraying the real life of one women, and in doing so, revealing a part of us all.

In the midst of composing Ariel, Plath sensed that she was creating something special. “I am writing the best poems of my life,” she wrote in a letter to her mother. “They will make me famous.” So many years later, I read this poem and the pain in it—barely restrained by the language—still stings afresh.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

At sixteen, I was captivated by this image: two dazzled lovers clasped in each other's arms, the couple captured just star-sparkled moments before their fateful kiss. So was Keats. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the Romantic poet speaks to the classical scenes he imagines carved on ancient pottery. Keats is enthralled by how the art renders its stories immortal, and maybe he’s motivated by a sense of his own impermanence—before he published this ode, Keats contracted the tuberculosis that would end his life at 25.

I still remember my high-school English teacher, with her high gaze and firm shoulders, pulling this stanza  apart for my class. For four decades she had choreographed her lessons with the precision and rigor of the Royal Ballet, and  she demanded the same from her students. I wanted intensely to pierce those ironclad expectations; I was never sure I had.

“Look at the moment these lovers are locked in,” she said. Our couple, inches from the kiss they’ve waited for, will never reach it. They’re robbed of their story’s climax.

But that’s what enthralls Keats—the eternal, resplendent pause. Anticipating a moment, my teacher proposed, may be more of a thrill than the moment itself. It’s the breath pressing in your ribs before a long exhale, the wait at the top of a coaster before the plunge down. Keats revels in this instant before the end. He wishes he could linger there longer.