If the year 2020 seemed, for better or worse, to mark the start of a new era—one heralded by a global pandemic and a widespread civil-rights protest movement—2021 perhaps felt characterized more by frustration, bringing neither the “return to normal” that many hoped would come with a COVID vaccine nor the kind of radical social restructuring for which the moment might have been ripe. Instead, the pandemic continues—wave after wave, variant upon variant—as political and environmental crises grow only more dire, producing the uncanny sense of both stasis and dread reflected in Clarence Major’s poem “The End of the World.” Major describes a night scene at once familiar and discomfiting, whose apparent tranquillity belies an undercurrent of peril: “Neighborly windows mostly dark,” he observes. “The front door locked. / Always locked at eleven.” This quietude suggests a certain security—everything in its place—yet lets us imagine that the Rapture has come and gone, leaving an eerie, unpeopled environment in which street lights still glow, trains still run, and all that’s missing is any sign of life. Finally, though, the speaker turns back to the television, where he is “watching a movie / about the end of the world— / always about to happen.” The apocalypse remains at bay—a fiction playing out on a screen—but the impression and anticipation of it linger, along with a question: If the end of the world were to arrive, would we recognize it as such? Or would we just keep watching movies about it on TV?
“The End of the World” exemplifies the power of poetry to navigate between truth and artifice, observation and speculation, the momentary and the momentous—to grapple with the liminal, the ambiguous, the contradictory. The poetry that The New Yorker published in 2021 attests to the overwhelming sorrow, fury, and strangeness of our time, and locates small yet significant instances of genuine mercy, beauty, wonder, possibility. These poems bear the weight of loss and trauma, incurred in recent months and inherited across generations, but as they mourn they also marvel at the multifarious, improbable experience of being alive, urging us to attend to both what is and what could be. The magazine extended offerings from beloved poets including Robert Pinsky, Linda Gregerson, D. Nurkse, and Anne Carson, and welcomed several newcomers to our pages, including Tyree Daye, Miller Oberman, Sylvie Baumgartel, and Sasha Debevec-McKenney. Online, we featured multimedia poetry sequences by Monica Youn, Lee Bains, and Amanda Gorman that explored, respectively, the strange case of Dr. Seuss’s invented daughter; the labor and histories that intersect in Southern cuisine; and the need for hope even in hopeless circumstances. And we published posthumous poems by Jean Valentine (1934-2020), Jane Mead (1958-2019), and Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021), the last of whom writes, in “Poetry Reading,” translated by Clare Cavanagh, of poetry’s “Silent brotherhood, which survives / in spite of all”: “We started reading / and strength returned / and we became servants of poetry, / older than us and younger, / omnipotent and helpless.”
A glance at our year in poetry follows; to read and listen to these poems in full, and to find many others, visit The New Yorker’s poetry archive.
“I Catch Sight of the Now,” by Jorie Graham (January 4th & 11th)
there is no fire, there is no
room, actually there is nothing, though you can
start carving the nothing, you can test your strength
against the nothing, the subject is
loss, the dark is inside your
open mouth not knowing what else there is again to
say, a kind of howling without
sorrow, no amazement, no
wisdom, just the roomlessness of this your suddenly—
“Last Words,” by Rita Dove (January 25th)
I don’t want to die in a poem
the words burning in eulogy
the sun howling why
the moon sighing why not
I don’t want to die in bed
which is a poem gone wrong
a world turned in on itself
a floating navel of dreams
“Turner,” by Maurice Manning (February 15th & 22nd)
As if a painting could convey
its time and also imagine a time
after, but keep the original time
to let it heavily hang in the present.
The point is, something in the world
is timeless, beyond the measure of time,
yet we perceive the timeless in time,
aware of its weight and of its passing
lightly like a song through a voice.
“Related Matters,” by Emily Jungmin Yoon (March 1st)
I look at the ocean like it’s goodbye.
Somewhere, it is touching a land laying prey to fire.
My grieving mother brings the forest inside, a green excess.
When she repots the trees, it is not unlike changing diapers.
But she no longer tends to the small abject frames of the dying.
These days, everything feels like the end.
“Allegory,” by Gregory Pardlo (March 1st)
Professional wrestler Owen Hart embodied his own
omen when he battled gravity from rafters to canvas
in a Kansas City stadium. Like a great tent collapsing,
he fell without warning, no hoverboard, no humming-
bird’s finesse for the illusion of flight, no suspension
of disbelief to hammock his burden—the birth of virtue—
in its virtual reality.
“Poem That Ends at the Ocean,” by Jim Moore (March 8th)
I turn off the notification app for good,
no longer needing to know exactly how many gone.
After all, clinging to life
is what we have always done best.
We are still trying to hide
from the truth of things and who
can blame us.
Lists don’t make sense anymore,
unless toilet paper and peanut butter head them.
Last-stage patients are not being told
how crowded the ferry will be
that will take them across the river.
“Peers,” by Craig Morgan Teicher (April 5th)
I’m thinking of you beautiful
and young, of me young
and confused and maybe
beautiful. There were lots of us—
these were our twenties, when,
post-9/11, we were about to
inherit the world, and we had no idea
what to do with it. And look
what we did, and we didn’t.
And now look at us, and it.
“Let Me,” by Camille T. Dungy (April 12th)
Let me tell you, America, this one last thing.
I will never be finished dreaming about you.
I had a lover once. If you could call him that.
I drove to his apartment in a faraway town,
like the lost bear who wandered to our cul-de-sac
that summer smoke from the burning mountain
altered our air. I don’t know what became of her.
I drove to so many apartments in the day.
America, this is really the very last thing.
“Farolitos,” Arthur Sze (April 19th)
We pour sand into brown lunch bags, then place
a votive candle
inside each; at night, lined along the driveway,
the flickering lights
form a spirit way, but what spirit? what way?
“In the Presence of Sunlight,” by José Antonio Rodríguez (April 26th & May 3rd)
And when they started losing their traces,
Branches blending in with the purpling sky behind them,
I knew to turn back to the kitchen so as not to miss it—
My family slowly fading away, beginning at the edges,
The nearest part of their bodies always the last to go,
Then the glint of the eyes,
Then hardly shadows with voices
Humbly calling out, “The sun is leaving us.”
“The Way Things Were Up Until Now,” by Bianca Stone (April 26th & May 3rd)
I am bored of all the excuses.
Bored as Mayakovsky
at the Finnish painters’ exhibition
barking like a dog through the foreign minister’s toast
until he cried and sat down. Deadly serious.
I am bored as an elegy. I mean,
why care at all, speaking as a pitfall
in a world of pits. But we do. To the death.
“Notes from the Ruined City,” by Aria Aber (May 10th)
On the mud-spattered steps
of Kabul’s blue mosque, a pomegranate half
vibrates with worms.
God has no clock
but the muezzin’s song,
which veils the city’s vascular glass
and dilapidated buildings
each fifth hour—it must.
“The Great Confinement,” by Sandy Solomon (June 7th)
Year of forgetting in the days’ drift. Then
abruptly remembering: sadness sensed
in a jolt, the way when I opened the kitchen bin—
just emptied, just cleaned, it seemed—
a rotten smell hit me, knocked me back.
Year of sighs, year of sighs, names
of the ones gone away, their faces appearing.
For months, as afternoon light grew long,
I thought, Must call Mom. Even after.
“The Surrealist,” by Jiordan Castle (June 14th)
Magritte is said
to have said that
everything we see
hides another thing, that
we always want to see
what is hidden
by what we see . . .
“Bioluminescence,” by Paul Tran (June 28th)
I, after so much isolation, so much indifference, kept going
even if going meant only waiting, hovering in place. So far below, so far
away from the rest of life, the terrestrial made possible by and thereby
dependent upon light, I did what I had to do. I stalked. I killed.
I wanted to feel in my body my body at work, working to stay
alive. I swam. I kept going. I waited. I found myself without meaning
to, without contriving meaning at the time, in time, in the company
of creatures who, hideous like me, had to be their own illumination.
“A Song Near the End of the World,” by Sharon Olds (July 12th & 19th)
He was like a god—so much space was filled with bear.
Like a cumulonimbus come down to earth—a density of bear
with blood in him, and teeth, and a bear
liver and bear
lights. A pirate bear, a private bear, a lone bear,
it may be a father bear, it is a son bear,
a quarantine bear,
doing the essential work of his life—an endangered bear.
“Notes Toward an Elegy,” by Elisa Gonzalez (August 9th)
White wine greening in a glass.
Lion rampant in the sky. Moon reclined gorgeous in her silver shift.
Polished newels. Door askew in its frame.
Hot mornings. Hot apple tea, honeyed.
The mountains a fist knuckled on the horizon.
Dust is coming, dust is not yet here.
Whenever her hands dance, I tell her how beautiful.
She says there’s so much other movement I do not perceive.
And I accept the presence of dances invisible to me.
“Gertrude Stein,” by Diane Seuss (August 16th)
There I was, broad-shouldered, witch-shaped
without the associated magic—with my dog in my shack—
once mauve faded to pink—beyond sex or reason—
a numbness had set in—Gertrude Stein, Picasso’s portrait of her—
that above-it-all—or within-it-all—look on—not a face
but the planes that suggest a face—the eyes
aren’t really lined up right or the real eyes are peering
from behind the cut-out shapes of eyes.
“The Gate of Horn & the Gate of Ivory,” by Bessie Golding (August 30th)