Holzer clearly formulates her own regret “that the Symborska poem isn’t in the collection, because it would have been a proper addition to what is a realistic description of life in New York. There are poems about how glorious and friendly the city can be [but] the Symborska would have been one about tragedy, and a memorial [so] it was a real loss not to have [it].” It’s a real loss not to have it precisely because its omission deprives us of the pain out of which true mourning must arise. And its omission underlines, too, the ways in which the horror that accompanied the extraordinarily spectacular cataclysm of 9/11/01 has been, and continues to be, co-opted for purposes strikingly other than the mourning that such mass death inevitably elicited.
An anxiety about the co-optation of grief seems, in fact, to be a common theme in all the comments included here. While Holzer herself regrets the substitution of sunny optimism for a recognition of tragedy, many respondents to my initial statement worried about the ways in which, as Marilyn Hacker puts it, “Americans have currently been encouraged . . . 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.” Mark Doty notes that “public grief is . . . easily manipulated and . . . readily turns to cant,” while Martin Espada reminds us that “phrases such as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ bleed language of its meaning.” In a slightly different but comparable vein, Rafael Campo urges that “in this age of ‘shock and awe,’ we must be even more cautious to avoid [the] facile and often conveniently public ‘I feel your pain’ notion of empathy [which performs a] kind of disengagement from the truths of war and suffering.” And more sardonically, James Tatum comments on the “strong disposition of public grief’s organizers and commentators to corral passersby,” almost like P.T. Barnum, for ends that have little to do with loss.
At the same time, all the respondents believe that it should be—must be—in Alicia Ostriker’s words, “possible to grieve for soldiers” (and other victims of catastrophe) “without being patriotically inspired by them and without representing them as sacred martyrs.” As Eavan Boland remarks, “If poetry does not address public grief in some way, it runs the risk of abandoning one of its great roles.” Yet finally, as Jahan Ramazani writes, “contemporary elegies” inevitably “mourn without healing” because “anything more comforting would risk serving a . . . logic of substitution, in which individual lives are redeemed in the life of the nation, institution, or artwork.”
Thus the central question here still remains open: how can we formulate a poetics of public grief without repressing or denying pain and without being co-opted by manipulative propaganda? As Gail Holst-Warhaft insists, we need a “poetry capable of confronting the fanatical belief that toppled the Twin Towers” without replacing such belief with another fanaticism. Szymborska’s marvelous poem is one example of such a work, for it expresses public lamentation marked by what Doty insightfully defines as an “incompletion [that] is an act of mercy.” I am glad that the Poetry Foundation has included the piece on this Web site, so that in a small way we can rectify the omission of tragedy from the installation at 7 World Trade Center that Holzer, too, regrets.