Essay

Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

by Marilyn Hacker

All elegy is public mourning, unless the poem or essay remains in the writer’s notebook, unpublished. All elegy makes temporary public figures of both the writer and the subject. Many of the most moving elegies in literary history were written for people of whose lives and works we readers would know nothing except for the existence of the elegy itself. Even elegies for actual public figures—a queen, a dauphin, a general, a religious martyr—often outlive the notoriety and reputations of their subjects, except for readers who are also, by vocation or avocation, historians specializing in the period. The elegiac poet is not so different, in the end, from the love poet who makes his or her work public:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII

These lines could just as well have ended an elegy—another reason for “Death [to] be not proud.” A hundred years after the fact, words are all that remain of the subject and of the poet, whether or not they were both living at the time of the poem’s composition. Some of the greatest elegies are in fact declarations of love: I would put Montaigne’s essay on friendship, written in memory of Etienne de la Boétie, dead at 32, in this category. One could also put the American poet Donald Hall’s elegies for his wife, the American poet Jane Kenyon, in that class. They have in common with Montaigne that the elegized beloved was also a writer and in that sense a public figure, simultaneously the speaking subject of his or her own discourse in the time-out-of-time that is writing. Montaigne made sure of this by publishing La Boétie's sonnets as an appendix within the body of his Essays—not in the body of the elegiac essay—while Hall’s poetry is often read in tandem with Kenyon’s by their contemporaries.

And yet elegy individualizes its subject, preserves a “personhood,” that is apart from the public sphere, is public only in its reminder of how we all mourn and will (if we’re lucky) be mourned. The difference that exists between individual elegy (even for a public figure) and “public mourning” seems to me to be a turning away from that memorialization of personhood to exhort the reader or listener to do something besides reflect upon the brevity and the existential scandal of death. Donald Hall would like us to read Jane Kenyon’s poetry: that would be “doing something,” but it does not impose upon us an opinion or a conviction. Is the elegist seeking to depose the tyrant who had her teacher executed? Is the elegist looking to rouse a lynch mob at his sister’s funeral? (Montaigne may have wished to deflect attention from the arguably seditious nature of his friend’s nonpoetic writings.)

In a Gristedes supermarket a block from my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the (un-ecological) yellow plastic bags given out to carry purchases are imprinted with a Manhattan skyline silhouette including the World Trade Center towers and the sentences “We’ll always remember,” “Always in our hearts,” and “Never Forget What They Did.” This last sentence perplexes and disturbs me. “What They Did”? The dead jihadi kamikazes? What is the purpose of exhorting shoppers to commemorate, specifically, their deed (not the 3,000-plus lives lost, or the widows, widowers, and orphans, or the heroic firefighters, or the amputated skyline), if not an incitement to revenge against “them”? But that particular “they” is 19 dead men burned to ash. Revenge against whom, then? Osama bin Laden? Whatever target the government provides, as when the majority of Americans came to believe the perpetrators were Iraqis? These words, this bit of advertising, no doubt created out of the belief that New York loyalty and patriotism are good for business, are both a form of public mourning that makes use of words, and an illustration of how readily public mourning can be diverted to other ends. These bags are still given out in 2006, almost five years after the event. Was “Never Forget What They Did” written in Japanese on shopping bags in Hiroshima? Some Americans have selective memories, would like “September 11” to be a worldwide day of mourning but Hiroshima Day forgotten.

The memory those bags and their text recall to me is of being in a bar near Columbia University on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, watching the reportage on its television—I don’t have one. Over and over, almost as frequently as the shots of the explosions and the dust-white crowd fleeing up the hazy streets, a short film clip was shown of what was said to be Palestinians in a refugee camp exulting at the news: a few men and—mostly—small boys, themselves watching a television set up in an unpaved street, cheering as for a football game. Behind me, a man who looked like a typical Upper West Sider, aka a “liberal,” with a graying blondish beard, in Bermudas, was muttering, “If they did it, Arabs, kill them all!” Why that clip, over and over again—not foreign heads of state expressing sympathy and outrage, reactions in Ohio and Nebraska, Parisians and Muscovites watching the news in disbelief, but a scene without context that seemed to equate those, even children in refugee camps, who were other than appropriately horrified at the disaster with its perpetrators?

Americans have been encouraged, or manipulated, by the current government to mourn on a large public scale, not by writing elegies but by sanctioning or participating in the organized killing, maiming, and despoiling of other people, whether or not those others were the source of their (manipulated) grief. We (Americans) are hardly the only ones to have put mourning to such use, but we are currently, along with the Israelis, the most notorious globally, which is not to say that Palestinians, Kashmiris, Lebanese, Sudanese, Serbs, Croats, Turks, and Chechens (the list is endless, back down the centuries) do not share this propensity. I am not the only American whose almost immediate reaction to the news of the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center was “What will they do? They’ll start a war—any war.” And the “they” of which I thought was not “the terrorists.” “Terrible things are going to be done in our name,” a natural scientist friend said to his poet partner. Our horror and grief at what had happened to fellow New Yorkers and to our city was overcast by fear of a government we did not trust. But we, Americans again, have the circumstances we’ve been given, since we have not yet found or demanded a way to change them. Under these circumstances, the expression of a certain kind of public mourning, which results in the memorialization, decontextualization, and reification of a tragic event, is at best disingenuous.

I think the 250,000 nearly unnoticed people who arrived in Washington, D.C., in September 2005 to protest the unjust, unnecessary, unsuccessful, and ruinously expensive war in Iraq were joined in—among other things—a communal ceremony of mourning for the American soldiers killed and maimed, and for the thousands more Iraqis killed and maimed, in the ongoing, conveniently manufactured conflict: the ceremony of mourning over which this president will not preside. But the American media paid them scant notice, and the Capitol’s efficient way of herding demonstrators into a few blocks’ circumference prevented them from being seen even by the majority of inhabitants of Washington. Cindy Sheehan and her supporters have been engaging in public mourning, at their encampment in Texas and again in front of the White House. The absence of Ms. Sheehan’s name in a discussion of public mourning and its purpose surprises me. She, more than any American writer, has been told by those in power to silence her grief, and been has threatened for her expression of it, but her grief has also energized the action of others.

However, and here’s the rub: public mourning, whether in the form of poetry or television news clips, risks being used as propaganda; sometimes, indeed, that’s its stated intention. Like most of us, I will tend to approve of propaganda for what I already believe or have been convinced to believe is right; I will wince or rail at the propaganda for what I deplore and contest. Auden wished to excise some of his early political poetry from his oeuvre because he had ceased to hold the convictions there expressed: many readers go on reading these poems, wherever they stand on their politics. His “September 1, 1939,” written on the outbreak of World War II in Europe, one of those suppressed poems, was widely circulated on the Internet in the fall of 2001:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Americans and others read in it a response to what had happened in New York. It seems applicable in 2006 to much of what has transpired subsequently: the American war on Iraq; this summer’s war on Lebanese soil between Israel and the Hezbollah, with another 1,200 dead civilians.

Many poems with a propagandistic agenda transcend it (however worthy or unworthy an agenda it is) and remain good poems even when the issue is no longer relevant. But the blurring of elegy and propaganda in poems of public mourning ought at least to be done consciously by the poet: let his or her designs on the reader be honest. That still does not obviate the danger that a piece of elegiac writing not created with the intention of inflaming a spirit of revenge will be used for (or perverted to) that purpose by someone other than the author, a danger Adrienne Rich touches on:

Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

We move but our words stand
become responsible
for more than we intended

and this is verbal privilege

       —Adrienne Rich, “North American Time,” 1983

Dylan Thomas’s poems “Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London” and “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred,” elegies for victims of the World War II bombing of London, refuse a public stance on anything but the deaths (despite the first title) mourned:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth

We’re not being enjoined to hate the Nazis, to support the British war effort, or even (except indirectly) to deplore war waged on civilians, nor are we being enjoined to think of these atrocities as unique in human history. The same can be said of the sections of H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall” also written during the Blitz. But what would have been, what would be, the effect of projecting these lines in perpetuity on the reconstructed wall of a bombed building? Would that have been congruent with either poet’s project?

The Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun wrote that if the response to an atrocity is “Never Again,” something in the human world may change; if it is “Never Again to Us,” the “we” in question and whomever “we” encounter will be doomed to risk, to suffer, and to perpetrate atrocity anew. It seems to me that one potential ethical problem which can arise from a collectively sanctioned public mourning with an official imprimatur is that “Never Again to Us” is the automatic, equally public response. “Never Forget What They Did.”

As an American, I would prefer that my taxes that go out in foreign aid not come back into the domestic coffers of what Dwight Eisenhower named “the military-industrial complex” and pay for weapons used to destroy civilian property and kill civilians for whom, given the money trail, it is almost obscene for me to write elegies. (June Jordan’s furious, in-your-face 1982 poem “An Apology to All the People in Lebanon” could be printed again today.) As a Manhattanite, I would prefer to have seen the World Trade Center site become a medium-rise, Jane Jacobs–inspired low- to middle-income housing complex with neighborhood shops, a small park, a playground, a day care center, a clinic, and a community center where poetry readings, not all elegiac, were among the events on the program. And yes, plaques with poems on the playground walls.

Originally Published: September 12, 2006

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 Marilyn  Hacker

Biography

Marilyn Hacker is an award-winning poet best known for formal poems that mix high culture and colloquial speech. Over a career spanning forty years, Hacker has established herself as a preeminent voice in the tradition of Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich. From her first book, the National Book Award winning Presentation Piece (1974), Hacker has defined the dimensions of a poetic universe that she continues to explore. The . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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