Tracy K. Smith, Amanda Gorman: The Book Brief

After her second miscarriage, poet Lindsay Turner found herself searching for a way to commemorate her loss. Friends assured him that the experience was common; meanwhile, life went on as if nothing had happened. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was missing now – she didn’t believe it was a person – but she still felt grief. “Was it possible,” she wondered, “that I got nothing, and therefore lost nothing?” It certainly sounded like something.

So, being a poet, Turner did what she knew how to do: she read poems. Two of Sharon Olds stood out: In “To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now” and “To Our Miscarried One, Age Fifty Now,” Olds searches for the person she could have created who she will never meet again. And in “Parliament Hill Fields,” Sylvia Plath speaks to the miscarriage she herself lost between her two children: “Your absence is discreet; / No one can say what I miss. Turner realized she could speak directly about her loss, even if the “you” she was talking to was ambiguous. “To say ‘you’ to a lost thing in a poem,” she writes, “is to acknowledge the thing…and to say goodbye to it when you are ready, even if you have no idea what is this thing, or if it never existed.

Sometimes our pain calls for more than just prose. Poems can offer new ways of understanding our experiences, especially those that are confusing, distressing, or just plain hard to put your finger on. For poets like Natasha Trethewey, poetry is an “act of memory”; she used it to process memories of her mother’s death and her stepfather’s abuse. For Carolyn Forché, it’s a way to testify, a way to mark injustice and convey its urgency to the world. And for Tracy K. Smith, poetry is a way to address the long history of violence against black Americans — it can even resurrect those who have been erased from the record, if only on the page.

By allowing us to work on what hurts or scares us, poetry helps us move forward. It allows us to do so with more courage and compassion, better able to drag others along with us. When Amanda Gorman delivered her inaugural poem just weeks after Jan. 6, 2021, she was afraid to be on Capitol Hill. But “that space had to be repurposed and it had to be reconciled,” she told writer Clint Smith. “And I thought one of the few and also the most fervent ways we have to do that is with poems.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we continue Atlantic stories about books that share similar ideas. Do you know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward this email to them.

When you purchase a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for your support Atlantic.

What we read

Vanessa Saba

The loss I had no words for
“Poetry allowed me to reach a “you” that was ambiguous, if only to let go. And in doing so, I – like the writers of miscarriage poems before me – could experience this loss as real and meaningful.

A collage of Natasha Trethewey's eyes and mother on a purple background with white tears

Natasha Trethewey / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

How poetry can guide us through trauma
“Whether conveying the magnitude of national grief during a pandemic or exposing the relentlessness of racism, poetry has already created new ways of living and surviving the darkest chapters of life. And in composing their words, and themselves, through this endless darkness, Trethewey and other working poets are composing the rest of us too.

the cover of

Penguin Press

How to Write Poetry About Conflict
“Forché confronted historical and present crises in each of his five books of poetry, writing not only about his experiences in Lebanon and El Salvador, but also about the Holocaust, the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more recently, the refugee crisis in the Aegean. She devoted herself as much to poetry as to testimony.

📚 What You Heard Is True: A Memoir of Testimony and Resistanceby Carolyn Forche

A photo of Tracy K Smith smiling against an orange background

Mary Hudetz/AP/Arsh Raziuddin/The Atlantic

What Tracy K. Smith sees in America
“Like the best poets, Smith shows her readers that they share a common foundation and also questions how that foundation was laid. Through these poems, she offers a model of how Americans can best listen to the long buried voices of the country, and its marginal voices now.

Amanda Gorman against the backdrop of a red and white striped flag and a sign of Gorman reading on a podium

Jeff Kravitz/Jon Kopaloff/Getty; Atlantic

“I still think poetry is my home”
“I also just wanted to disrupt my readers’ perception of what qualifies as poetry, what poetry looks like. I wanted them to literally look at the experience of the pandemic again, and that means turning the page sideways or upside down, it means playing with shadows or having you fill in the blanks in a hangman poem. I hope one of these moments will be some sort of aha or eye-opening moment for my reader through which they see things in a new light.

About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Faith Hill. The book she reads next is A time outside of this timeby Amitava Kumar.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to contact the Books Briefing team.

Did you receive this newsletter from a friend? Sign up.

About Karren Campbell

Check Also

Del Valle ISD Book Bus is bringing free books to families this summer

DEL VALLE, Texas – The Del Valle ISD Book Bus is back to bring books …