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The Poetry Of 9/11 And Its Aftermath

First Posted: 09/09/11 09:15 AM ET Updated: 11/09/11 05:12 AM ET

The Poetry Foundation:

Beyond Grief and Grievance
The poetry of 9/11 and its aftermath
BY PHILIP METRES

It was my second week as a newly-minted professor in the Midwest, September 11, 2001, and I hustled to complete a lecture on imagery when my wife called. All I could think was, "why is she calling me ten minutes before I have to teach?" - something about a plane crash something something New York - and then, "why do I need to know this before class?" I hung up, and returned to the poem before me, Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel."

By the time I arrived in the classroom, after hearing the full extent of the morning's events, I could barely get through the poem without breaking down in tears.

It wasn't just the bag of ears that the Colonel pours across his opulent table. It's the violence at the perimeters of vision-the filed nails of the daughter, the moon hanging on a cord, the house surrounded by a wall of broken bottles, the gratings on the window, even the rack of lamb.

The poem works not merely by intimating torture, but by decorating it so uncannily like homes in our own country. In the home of Forché's Colonel, an American cop show plays on television, and a maid serves a delectable spread. Forché's poem, in its raw confrontation, jolts us awake to the violence of privilege. But that's what made it so difficult to teach on that day. What was 9/11 but the end of the fantasy of our separateness, our invulnerability?

The events of 9/11 occasioned a tremendous outpouring of poetry; people in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand. In Curtis Fox's words, "poetry was suddenly everywhere in the city." Outside the immediate radius of what became known as "ground zero," aided by email, listserves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written. By February, 2002, over 25,000 poems written in response to 9/11 had been published on poems.com alone. Three years later, the number of poems there had more than doubled.

Often invisible in American culture, poetry suddenly became relevant, even-and perhaps dangerously-useful. People turned to poems when other forms failed to give shape to their feelings. Some of these poems, certainly, employed the language of faith, a faith that has often been mobilized as a weapon of grievance. Some were desperately angry, in the way Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" promises to put a "boot in the ass" of those that "messed" with the U.S. of A. In Cleveland, I recall hearing some rather salty Osama limericks involving his mama.

Of course, poems that take on subjects as public and iconic as the attacks of September 11th risk not only devolving into cliché and hysterical jingoism, but also, even when most well-meaning, perpetuating the violence of terror, and the violence of grievance and revenge, as mass media did by endlessly replaying images of the planes exploding into the World Trade Center towers. Likewise, when we read enough 9/11 poems, we become awash in falling people, planes described as birds, flaming towers of Babel, ash and angels, angels and ash. The mythic nature of this attack, this disaster-echoing everything from the tower of Babel to the fall of Icarus-is undeniable, and the acts of heroism and the brute loss of so many makes it difficult to find adequate words, even for our most accomplished poets.

In a riposte to John Lundberg's 2010 essay on the Huffington Post, "Remembering 9/11 Through Poetry," one commenter acidly posted: "isn't 9/11 bad enough without adding poetry to it?" The commenter known as "Zymos" may just be a poetry-hater, but he also has a point, made more articulately by Theodor Adorno, that "to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Adorno reflects on the dangers of art to render traumatic events too easily understandable, too easily commodifiable. In his essay, "Commitment," Adorno extends his original critique, saying that:

"by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them… The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice."

With such pressure to avoid doing injustice to the victims, it is no wonder that it has become a commonplace to say that the best poem about 9/11 is one written six decades before: W.H. Auden's "September 1st, 1939." It was certainly among the most circulated poems in the days after the attacks, and among the most discussed, though this poem's relevance to the events, and its position as the best 9/11 poem, is questionable at best, since Auden wrote it to mark the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Continuing to put forth Auden's poem, regardless of its merits, neglects the vital response of contemporary poets to this tragedy.

But we cannot be silent. So between the Scylla of cliché and the Charybdis of exploitation, poetry moves. Martín Espada's "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100," for example, offers a globalist ode to the workers on the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center who perished in the attacks. By focusing on people often unnoticed, sometimes undocumented, and occasionally disparaged, Espada celebrates the diverse gathering of humanity that the American project has enabled, and that the attacks threatened to separate, in the rhetoric of security and the ideology of fear.


for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local l00, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.

Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.


The poem's concluding lines brings the victims of war - from the 9/11 victims to the victims of war in Afghanistan - into conversation again. Perhaps the best response to Adorno's legitimate concerns is that "music is all we have."

Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska also manages to avoid the troubling possibility of art's exploitation for easy (and false) transcendence, in her poem "Photograph from September 11."


They jumped from the burning floors-
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There's enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They're still within the air's reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

They jumped from the burning floors-
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There's enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They're still within the air's reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line.


Szymborska takes the photograph of the so-called "falling man" - the trigger to a number of poems and at least two novels (Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") - and uses it as a monument to our elegiac desire to freeze the beloved in the moments before death. By not adding a last line and by not giving the poem its expected (and easy) closure, Szymborska keeps the work open, the wound fresh.


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Filed by Zoë Triska  |