The Poetics of Public Grief: An Epilogue

by Sandra M. Gilbert
My first reaction to the story that emerges from Jenny Holzer’s discussion with John Yau and Shelley Jackson is regret: an artwork that might have been luminously elegiac, at a site where catastrophe reshaped history, has been co-opted by what seems like an exercise in Big Apple boosterism. Holzer notes that E.B. White’s lyrical love letter to the city, Here Is New York, appears in its entirety as part of the streaming text of her installation—and it’s all very well to have it there, given everyone’s desire to pay tribute to a beloved community and its survival of a terrible ordeal. But what about the mournful collection of photographs, also entitled Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, a book whose images also appear online and as a traveling exhibit that carried images of the collapse of the Twin Towers around the world? White’s lovely tribute takes readers on a journey around a city that now seems like a relic of the distant past. Yes, it’s the New York where I grew up, riding the E train and the F train, strolling around Washington Square, and even, on hot nights, sailing across the water on the Staten Island Ferry. But where is the New York that has had to come to terms with sudden sorrow, the city that has had to mourn, the city that watched—along with the poet Wislawa Szymborska—as living bodies catapulted out of the sky? Is this the city of which Octavio Paz was speaking when he declared that “the word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips”?

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.
Originally Published: September 12, 2006


On December 21, 2012 at 8:45am Thomas Chisholm wrote:
This discussion has been an education for me, still searching after a life of questioning. How do I respond effectively to the most recent carnage in Connecticut, this time beautiful children and our most important servants, teachers. How do I demand our erstwhile leaders listen to me rather than to the ineffective and repetitious questions of the media? How do I protest the vacuous responses of those mediocre representatives of corporate power and the NRA more interested in their fiscal ideology and positions than poetry and genuine anger and grief?

The sun is just rising on this Winter Solstice, "a ribbon at a time...But how it set I know not. There seemed a purple stile which little yellow boys and girls were climbing all the while. Til when they reached the other side, a domine in gray put gently up the evening bars--and led the flock away."

Those children, that flock, those teachers will never see the sun rise or the sunset again. If we do not protest this perpetual carnage of 110 years in prose and poetry and presence, we are merely guilty bystanders.

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 Sandra M. Gilbert


Though widely acclaimed as a leading feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert is also a renowned poet who has published numerous collections of poetry, including the Patterson Prize winning Ghost Volcano (1997), and Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems 1969–1999 (2000), which won an American Book Award. Recent collections include Belongings (2006) and Aftermath: Poems (2011). Gilbert’s poetry is known for its erudition, . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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