Laurie Smith in one of two looks at poetic responses to September 11th in Magma 22.
The destruction of 11 September was a transfixing moment, not only in the sense that everyone can remember where they were when they first heard of or saw it – this is true of other sudden shocking public events – but in the sense that life after it may never be the same again. On all measures, the events were unprecedented. Politically, there has been no previous case of the mass killing of civilians by a secret organisation, not a state, in pursuit of an ideology, not nationalist, but opposed to the basis of western civilisation. Iconically, mass murder by the destruction of tall buildings was more dramatic than by, say, releasing poison gas in an underground rail system; and, as the world’s only superpower, attacks on the commercial and political centres of the USA had greater impact than attacks, say, on Sydney and Canberra or Brussels and Strasbourg. At a personal level, there was the film of people jumping to their deaths, two hand-in-hand, and the mobile phone calls from people on the planes and in the World Trade Centre – the intimacy with final moments that technology now allows. And beneath all this, like a persistent toothache, the realisation that what is done once quite simply – knives at the throats of pilots – can be done again by this and other more complex means.
As a transfixing moment on a huge public scale, one would expect it to be reflected in poetry, and apparently, for more than a month, poems written by readers in response to the catastrophe poured unsolicited into newspapers and magazines around the world. Introducing a selection of these in the Guardian of 20 October, Andrew Motion well summarises the writers’ motivations – “Poetry is the form we turn to instinctively at moments of intensity” – but goes on tactfully to say “these are poems in which literary skill is subordinate to other values” and it is clear that, while deeply felt, none of the poems printed (no doubt the best of those received) is memorable as poetry.
David Boll, editor of this issue of Magma makes the same point. He received a lot of poems responding to 11 September, but only one of them appears in the magazine, immediately preceding this article. This illustrates the enduring truth that the ability to write lasting poetry cannot be turned on by events, however tragic or joyful, so that we turn to published poets to help us make sense – at an emotional level more profoundly than journalism or political analysis – of what has happened.
However, professional poets have been largely silent about 11 September and Motion is inevitably defensive about this: “Faced with an event so horrific, huge and complex, it would be all too easy for a writer to seem not just inadequate but glib or self-advertising (‘Look at me and my impressive sensitivity’) if they set to work at once.” This strikes me as uncomfortable but honest, and his own poem, written for the memorial service in Westminster Abbey on 29 November, is a blank, rather abstract little piece, lacking much evidence of commitment; going through the motions, indeed.
The only significant poem written by an established poet in response to 11 September of which I am aware at the time of writing (early December) is John Burnside’s St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001 which was published within three weeks of the event. It describes the poet flying kites on the seashore with his wife and young son, “stopping to watch / as the warplanes cambered and turned / in the morning light” from a nearby airbase. The poem is a longish meditation on the need to hold on to the realities of nature – “reading from the book / of silt and tide : the rose or petrol blue / of jellyfish and sea anemone” – as a counterweight to helplessness in the face of political terror. Unfortunately the poem strays repeatedly into opaque philosophising quite unlike Burnside’s usual lucidity:
At times I think what makes us who we are
is neither kinship nor our given states
but something lost between the world we own
and what we dream about behind the names…
The poem seems to support Motion’s point, not in glibness or self-advertisement, but in lack of an integrated response. I suspect that, when it is published in book form, it will be substantially revised. How might poets respond to events like 11 September? To be clear, we are not talking about the experience of war nor of localised political disasters, from Milton’s On the late massacre in the Piedmont onwards. Rather, we are asking poets to respond to events which are global in impact, diminishing people’s view of the security of their lives, on which the individual can have no effect. In short, we are asking poets to articulate helplessness.
A few have managed it and their work shows what might be done. The closest is Lowell’s Fall 1961, written during the Cuban missile crisis. In extraordinarily taut stanzas of simple language and imagery, Lowell moves from grandeur (“Back and forth, back and forth / goes the tock, tock, tock / of the orange, bland, ambassadorial / face of the moon / on the grandfather clock”) to sarcasm (“we have talked our extinction to death”) to despair (“A father’s no shield / for his child”) to find temporary comfort in nature – “my one point of rest / is the orange and black / oriole’s swinging nest”. Unlike Burnside’s quietism, relief in the contemplation of nature has been achieved by working through pain.
Auden’s 1st September 1939 has been much quoted, partly because it is set in New York. Though parts are clinchingly precise (“low dishonest decade” permanently describes the 1930s), the cultural references and pop-psychologising strike me as overwritten and somehow evasive. According to his biographer, Auden came to hate the poem. It cannot allude, of course, to its actual provenance, that Auden, like Britten, was in the USA to avoid a possible Nazi invasion of Britain on which, as a homosexual, he would at best be imprisoned and worked to death. I have always felt that this was behind the poem’s contempt for the “dense commuters” and that, in the final affirming image of people secretly flashing messages in the dark – “Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages” – as there is no reason for justice to be ironic, as homosexuals have always had to be, the Just are also the Gay.
For neither Lowell nor Auden did the catastrophe actually occur. For this we might turn to Yeats’ Meditations in Time of Civil War and, in particular, to The Stare’s Nest by my Window. Yeats is trapped in his house in the country during the Irish civil war, looking on helplessly at the results of the nationalism that he has helped to promote: “Last night they trundled down the road / That dead young soldier in his blood”. He is forced to accept, in words that feel equally applicable today, that
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare
and begs the honey bees to “build in the empty house of the stare”, a wish for order and sweetness that parallels Yeats’ own turning from political engagement to greater absorption in literary symbolism.
For non-combattant rage at the political motives of the other great 20th century catastrophe, World War 1, we have to turn to the unlikely figure of Walter De la Mare. Dry August burned is set in August 1914 and describes the corruption of a young girl by military glamour. It is written with a savagery unparalleled in De la Mare who indeed could not bring himself to publish it until 1938, in a collection gloomily anticipating the next world conflict. And for a rendering of the near-catatonic exhaustion – physical, mental and moral – that accompanies the end of a war, I know nothing more powerful than Howard Nemerov’s Redeployment. It ends “I dressed in clean white clothes and went to bed. / I heard the dust falling between the walls”. One’s home cracking and crumbling is a powerful image of loss of control, of helplessness against external pressure. It appears in Yeats’ Stare’s Nest – “My wall is loosening” – and in Heaney’s Triptych,, his most profound meditation on the reality of violence in contemporary Ireland in which he sees two killers with their rifles on a hillside and a country girl carrying vegetables becomes the Sibyl:
And as forgotten water in a well might shake
At an explosion under morning
Or a crack run up a gable,
She began to speak.
‘I think our very form is bound to change’.
The crack runs up the gable before the roof falls in. Being so close to the reality of violence, Heaney cannot take refuge, as Burnside and Lowell do, in the comforts of nature – “small-eyed survivor flowers, / The pined-for, unmolested orchid” – and accepts the need for political action – “The helicopter shadowing our march at Newry, / The scared, irrevocable steps”.
By chance, writing in his diary for 13 October, the Israeli novelist David Grossman, living closer to the reality of communal violence than anywhere else on Earth, notes: “When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, a kind of deep, long crack appeared in the old reality. The muffled thunder of everything that might burst through it can be heard through the crack – violence, cruelty, fanaticism, madness.” If the effect of 11 September is permanent, Grossman speaks for us all.
All these poets have responded to large-scale political disasters with individual poems in some cases, and appropriately, more extreme than the rest of their work. The rareness of such poems suggests how difficult they are to write. I found myself wondering if there is a poet who expresses insecurity more generally in his/her work and Magma’s US correspondent, Tim Kindberg, has drawn my attention to Adam Zagajewski. The New Yorker magazine’s memorial edition for 11 September included Zagajewski’s poem Try to praise the mutilated world. It is startlingly apposite, though written years ago, and convincing in its avoidance of sentimentality, noting “the nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles” and even that “the executioners sing joyfully” while urging us to praise the moments of transcendence or at least consolation in daily life.
On further investigation, Zagajewski’s work is a revelation. He is Polish, a political dissident in the 1970s who has lived in Paris since 1982 and teaches part-time at the University of Houston. Details of translations appear below. His poems are an extraordinary combination of meditation, menace and hope, expressed in both flat political language and vivid imagery. They range from the witty unease of Traveler through the remarkable prescience of July 6, 1980 to the ferocity of Fire which, in its rendering of the attraction and horror of extreme political action, might stand as the best account yet of the forces that produced both 11 September and its aftermath:
Probably I am an ordinary middle-class
believer in individual rights, the word
“freedom” is simple to me , it doesn’t mean
the freedom of any class in particular.
Politically naive, with an average
education (brief moments of clear vision
are its main nourishment), I remember
the blazing appeal of that fire which parches
the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns
books and chars the skin of cities. I used to sing
those songs and I know how great it is
to run with others; later, by myself,
with the taste of ashes in my mouth, I heard
the lie’s ironic voice and the choir screaming
and when I touched my head I could feel
the arched skull of my country, its hard edge.
Note: Adam Zagajewski’s poems in English translation appear in Tremor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985), Canvas (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991) and Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun : Polish poetry of the last two decades of communist rule, ed Baranczak and Cavanagh (Northwestern University Press, 1991). Try to Praise the Mutilated World appears here.