Poetry and Sept. 11: A Guided Anthology

The interest in poetry in the wake of the calamitous attacks of last fall surprised some observers. But the art of poetry makes the breath of any one reader its medium: a commanding appeal, heightened at a time when many of us felt overdosed or overwhelmed by mass media.

Mass media, mass scale—and the scale of the disaster itself, the size of the buildings in New York and Washington, the number dead, the size of the airplanes, all conveyed and somehow multiplied by the tremendous reach and vividness of the medium of television, the immediate irrevocability called up by the medium of still photography. We have a significant thirst for individual scale. Great poems and mediocre ones, by the singular nature of the art, share that quality of personal scale with teddy bears and photographs pinned to the chain-link fence surrounding a disaster site. Great poems and mediocre ones have been invoked, aptly and inaptly, in response to this particular calamity.

More often than not, the best poems about an event are written long before it happens. Last Sept. 21, I presented in Slate some poems of that kind. I thought they anticipated, in indelible form, things that many were saying or feeling. For instance, the commonplace observation that life had been transformed, a sense of permanent anxieties making remote what had been normal. We see this in Mark Strand’s translation of a poem written decades before our catastrophe of last year, by the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade:

         Souvenir of the Ancient WorldClara strolled in the garden with the children.
The sky was green over the grass,
the water was golden under the bridges,
other elements were blue and rose and orange,
a policeman smiled, bicycles passed,
a girl stepped onto the lawn to catch a bird,
the whole world—Germany, China—
             All was quiet around Clara.The children looked at the sky: it was not forbidden.
Mouth, nose, eyes were open. There was no danger.
What Clara feared were the flu, the heat, the insects.
Clara feared missing the eleven o’clock trolley,
waiting for letters slow to arrive,
not always being able to wear a new dress. But
           she strolled in the garden, in the morning!They had gardens, they had mornings in those days!

The abrupt pivoting of this poem on the innocent little fulcrum “But” so near the ending imitates the sudden leverage of calamity that can make the living feel suddenly transmogrified into the ancients.

Drummond de Andrade’s poem is a distinguished version of the commonplace that life is fragile, subject to instant, irrevocable change. A different, perhaps opposite commonplace—the observation that mutability is an absolute, with nothing to be done or said about it—attains memorable form in an even older poem that I presented in Slate last September, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The House on the Hill”:

They are all gone away,
The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to sayThrough broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill;
They are all gone away. Nor is there one today
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.Why is it then we stray
Around that shrunken sill?
They are all gone away.And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,There is nothing more to say.

The stoic reticence of these lines, like the sneaky pathos of Drummond de Andrade’s, has the penetration of historical momentum: Precisely that they are not occasional, not a response to a specific moment, gives them historical urgency.

An error implicit in the past year’s talk about poetry and Sept. 11 is the notion that great historical events inspire great works of art. Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” make exceptions of the Easter Rebellion and the death of Abraham Lincoln. The World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg is pitched against the very notion of great events, passionately tilted toward the horrible experience of mechanized war as individual, personal experience.

I mean no disrespect toward anyone who has written about the terrorist crime or our response to it. (I have written a poem about the event, to be published the week of the anniversary by the Washington Post magazine section.) But some historical perspective is appropriate. Within a year of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Basic Books published an anthology of poems responding to his death and presidency. The list of contributors is impressive, but so far as I know none of the poems is much read today. Some of them are embarrassing.

Of the poems I have seen about the events of Sept. 11, one I admire is Frank Bidart’s “Curse,” which stands out for its candid refusal to be nice or large-minded. Exactly as the title conveys, the poem is a curse upon the perpetrators, in the classical Christian terms of punishment being full consciousness of the sin. Here is the poem, first published in Threepenny Review:

                          CurseMay breath for a dead moment cease as jerking yourhead upward you hear as if in slow motion floorcollapse evenly upon floor as one hundred and tenfloors descend upon you.May what you have made descend upon you.
May the listening ears of your victims  their eyes  theirbreathenter you, and eat like acid
the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.May their breath now, in eternity, be your breath.*Now, as you wished, you cannot for us
not be. May this be your single profit.Of your rectitude at last disenthralled, you
seek the dead. Each time you enter themthey spit you out. The dead find you are not food.Out of the great secret of morals, the imagination to enter
the skin of another
, what I have made is a curse.

A rueful regret in the last two lines does not undo the poem’s virtue of anger. Rather, the implied concession that a curse is not the most desirable accomplishment separates the poet from the blind complacency of the killers in their bubble of rectitude.

Another, quite different poem imagines the quotidian, unsuspecting vulnerability of airplane passengers. This is Teresa Cader’s poem, published here for the first time:

                       September 11      after George HerbertUnderstanding something isn’t prayer, necessarily.Cinnamon croissants, hot pretzels speared under glass,
cafe latte behind hostility’s headlines. Godin the details: man well-dressed, reversed thunder
from a milky-breathed baby. Engines pitted againsttime, take-off code from the air traffic control tower,
radar plumbing the atmosphere. Slumped in blue jeanbell-bottoms, teens nodding to heavy metal on ear phones.
Hard not to hear. Journey of strangers locked in a tube.Annals of the absurd faithful, prepared to meet the stars
in a biff of pressured air. Softness of cruising, blissof landing, love waiting in the wings, the cockpit.
In ordinary hearts, a slivered wish. Muted joyat unfastening seatbelts. Paraphrased as relief.
Flying from ice pole to desert to birders’ paradisein privileged pilgrimage, the best cuts of wool.
Storing luggage in the overheads, not knowingthe six days world would be transposed in one hour.

In an interesting parallel to Bidart’s “Curse,” this poem of Cader’s is based partly on George Herbert’s 17th-century poem “Prayer,” which ends with the phrase “something understood.” The string of substantives in Herbert’s ecstatic devotion is essayed by the ordinary flood of sensations associated with air travel.

Poetry, situated in the intimacy of breath and the shared agora of language, has the power to refresh both experience and cognition. The most familiar feelings, events, propositions, can be honed to pertinence by cadences. What could be more formulaic, more like a weary editorial, than the call for prudence among dangers? How can our mood of anxious caution be made lyric? By the arch-poet Horace. I’ll conclude this small anthology with his “To Licinius,” the 10th in Horace’s Second Book of Odes, as translated by David Ferry in his book The Odes of Horace:

                      To LiciniusYou’ll do better, Licinius, not to spend your life
Venturing too far out on the dangerous waters,
Or else, for fear of storms, staying too close in
To the dangerous rocky shoreline. That man does best
Who chooses the middle way, so he doesn’t end up
Living under a roof that’s going to ruin
Or in some gorgeous mansion everyone envies.
The tallest pine shakes most in a wind storm;
The loftiest tower falls down with the loudest crash;
The lightning bolt heads straight for the mountain top.
Always expect reversals; be hopeful in trouble,
Be worried when things go well. That’s how it is
For the man whose heart is ready for anything.
It’s true that Jupiter brings on the hard winters;
It’s also true that Jupiter takes them away.
If things are bad right now, they won’t always be.
Apollo isn’t always drawing his bow;
There are times when he takes up his lyre and plays,
And awakens the music sleeping upon the strings.
Be resolute when things are going against you,
But shorten sail when the fair wind blows too strong.

The harbor shoreline can be dangerous, so can fair winds. Neither bad times nor good times last forever. The difference between platitude and poetry is there, ineffable, somewhere between the paraphrase and the exact words, the artful rhythms and colors we crave.