In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, poems began popping up around New York City, some propped up in windows or taped to lamp posts. It seemed that in the turmoil of all that tragedy, poetry helped people cope with emotions that they otherwise struggled to grasp.
Some of our best-known poets shared their emotional and spiritual struggles publicly, as Deborah Garrison did in her poem "I Saw You Walking," published in the New Yorker just a month after the event:
I saw you walking through Newark Penn Station
in your shoes of white ash. At the corner
of my nervous glance your dazed passage
first forced me away, tracing the crescent
berth you'd give a drunk, a lurcher, nuzzling
all comers with ill will and his stench, but
not this one, not today: one shirt arm's sheared
clean from the shoulder, the whole bare limb
wet with muscle and shining dimly pink,
the other full-sheathed in cotton, Brooks Bros.
type, the cuff yet buttoned at the wrist, a
parody of careful dress, preparedness --
so you had not rolled up your sleeves yet this
morning when your suit jacket (here are
the pants, dark gray, with subtle stripe, as worn
by men like you on ordinary days)
and briefcase (you've none, reverse commuter
come from the pit with nothing to carry
but your life) were torn from you, as your life
was not. Your face itself seemed to be walking,
leading your body north, though the age
of the face, blank and ashen, passing forth
and away from me, was unclear, the sandy
crown of hair powdered white like your feet, but
underneath not yet gray -- forty-seven?
forty-eight? the age of someone's father--
and I trembled for your luck, for your broad,
dusted back, half shirted, walking away;
I should have dropped to my knees to thank God
you were alive, o my God, in whom I don't believe.
W.S. Merwin, similarly, published a poem in October of 2001 entitled "To the Words:"
When it happens you are not there
oh you beyond numbers
passed on from breath to breath
from day to day from age
charged with knowledge
indispensable and sleepless
keepers of our names
before ever we came
to be called by them
you that were
formed to begin with
you that were cried out
you that were spoken
to begin with
to say what could not be said
and helpless ones
As time has passed, poets have tried to use the transformational power of poetry to memorialize 9/11. In a 2006 podcast, Poetry Foundation producer Curtis Fox described poetry's ability "to memorialize the victims, to transform the terrible images from that day into something more dignified, more elegiac." Galway Kinnell aimed to do this in his poem "When the Towers Fell," (published in the New Yorker in September of '02). First by recalling the terrible images:
Some with torn clothing, some bloodied,
some limping at top speed like children
in a three-legged race, some half dragged,
some intact in neat suits and dresses,
they straggle out of step up the avenues,
each dusted to a ghostly whiteness,
their eyes rubbed red as the eyes of a Zahoris,
who can see the dead under the ground.
And then by trying to transform them:
As each tower goes down, it concentrates
into itself, transforms itself
infinitely slowly into a black hole
infinitesimally small: mass
without space, where each light,
each life, put out, lies down within us.
The great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska attempted something similar in her poem "Photograph from September 11":
They jumped from the burning floors --
one, two, a few more,
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.
(translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)
"Photograph" was intended to be included as part of the Holzer installation at the 9/11 memorial site, but was judged to be too distressing. That's not to say that the poem's intentions aren't noble, but those close to the tragedy may need more time before these sorts of dignified or elegiac transformations -- even when attempted by our finest poets -- are possible.
Feel free to share your thoughts and any poems you associate with 9/11 in the comments section below.
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