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Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

Here’s the Szymborska poem that will not be included in the stream of text in Jenny Holzer’s installation at 7 World Trade Center:

Photograph from September 11th

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.

                    —Wislawa Szymborska,
translated by Clare Cavanagh and
Stanislaw Baranczk

The speaker in this remarkably dense little poem seems to be holding a newspaper, looking at one of the unforgettable—and unspeakable—images that burned themselves into international consciousness in the early years of this century. They are the first signature images of this new era—first, those bodies plummeting while faces look out at them between the vertical lines of the Towers, and then, just a few years later, the awful black-shrouded figure of the prisoner at Abu Ghraib, wires running from his fingers. They’re the instantly recognizable markers of what’s already a dark and tumultuous decade.

What can the artist do, in the face of the dreadful, that which can’t be assimilated? Syzmborska first echoes a familiar 20th-century ethos: she will serve as a witness (in the way that Akhmatova, writing of the siege of Leningrad, suggested that the poet must find the courage to describe this, however unbearable the moment may be). But the poet here goes a further, heartbreaking step: she will not allow, this time, the moment of falling to come to its inevitable end. She will not complete the poem (even though it is, in its way, concluded by a refusal). Here, incompletion is an act of mercy. At least in the limited confines of this poem, the dying can be allowed to remain in suspension.

But it’s also true that what happens to those people caught in midair is unthinkable, beyond the limits of speech. To name it is to diminish it and, in the process, to come head to head with the inadequacy of the tools of poetry to circumscribe such experience. It is a gesture recognizable from Neruda’s great poem occasioned by the Spanish Civil War, “I Explain Some Things,” in which he writes that the blood of the children ran in the street “como el sangre de ninos”—“like the blood of children.” There is no adequate gesture, nothing in the arsenals of figuration that will serve; only a terrible plainness of saying, or of pointing toward what cannot be said, can rise to these occasions. Perhaps Akhmatova’s famous response to the woman in line during the siege of Leningrad who asked “Can you describe this?” must be understood as not only “Yes, I can” but also, beneath the poet’s hard-won courage, an understanding that “It cannot be written about.” The poem of witness requires a profound understanding of the ways in which pain refuses articulation and horror cancels out speech.

I was a little shocked, just a few weeks after 9/11, when calls for contributions to poetry anthologies concerning the event began to circulate. I understand the human need to say something, to give shape to grief, but surely the first response to such a rupture in the fabric of the world ought to be a resonant, enormous silence. To come too quickly to words is, ultimately, a form of arrogance; the easy poem suggests that loss is graspable, that the poet has ready command of speech in the face of anything. I have a hard enough time groping my way toward an acknowledgment of the fact of one death, much less 3,000. I believe that elegy needs to fumble its way toward what sense it can make, and that meaning wrested out of struggle—with the stubborn refusal of death to mean—is the only kind worth making.

For Syzmborska’s speaker the news is mediated, as it is for most of us; what she confronts is a mechanically reproduced image of atrocity. She imagines her way into the image; that is, she participates in a mental process of making the photograph real to herself, entering into it on such an intimate scale that she even thinks of the coins and keys inside the pockets of the falling. Such an imaginative act is a way to build a human relation to the image. We find ways to numb ourselves to the depictions of suffering; they’re often exotic, remote, or repetitious, and sometimes they’re aestheticized (like the New York Times’ remarkable photographs of earthquake victims in Pakistan last year) until human suffering is located within a beautiful pattern of shape and color, the eye arrested by the elegance of the photographer’s vision. But we have not seen, until just a few years ago, photographs of ordinary New Yorkers plunging to their deaths in the wake of a terrorist attack. This is disaster in the urban, postindustrial West, in the very heart of global capitalism. Downtown Manhattan is very far from where we think such deaths take place, so the photographs in question have the peculiar power to individualize these disappearances—to make the person falling, in other words, be a person, somebody in particular, and not one of 3,000. (A number already unimaginable, though it’s tiny beside the last century’s ranks of the fallen.)

Szymborska’s and Neruda’s poems both consider not just the shock of the disaster at hand, but the problem of the poet in attempting to represent it. The genius of Szymborska’s poem lies in its admission that the poet has very little power—and its acknowledgment that she will herein exercise every bit of the power she does have. Further, the poem is on a sly fence between the public and the private. There’s just one person holding this picture, on this newspaper page; she happens to be a poet, and she will make what she can of her perception—and, in the process, perhaps articulate the shell shock of thousands upon thousands of viewers of that same image, and thus give voice to a particular, collective pain. Respect for the pain of others informs this text, makes it bearable.

* * *

All poems of public grief are private poems first. If, that is, they are any good, and not merely occasional pieces that serve to mark a moment and reinforce what people already think. (Not that occasional poems actually do any harm; the outpouring of poems against the war in Iraq has probably not, so far, produced a lot of strong work, but that didn’t quite seem to be the point. It seemed crucial for those who felt voiceless in American political life to stand together, and to signal to one another their presence, and Poets Against the War provided a vehicle for such solidarity.)

The act of making a poem is a movement from private feeling and perception, the inchoate stuff of experience, into the shared realm of language. At some point along the way, the poet usually becomes less interested in understanding or naming experience, and more intrigued by the words themselves, by the patterned arrangement of sound and silence on the page and in the ear, the pleasures of giving form. And it is a pleasure, poetic making, even when what is being shaped is dreadful. There must have been, for Szymborska, a satisfaction in finding the right details—the hair and keys and coins—and then fastening those lines to the page, getting it right.

That experience of pleasure is, I think, the “translation point”—the place where the writer’s individual experience begins to fall away to allow for the experiences of readers, creating the imaginative meeting ground that is the poem. Love poems, elegies, poems of lamentation or praise—in each case, some kind of alchemical process goes on that allows the writer to get out of the way and thus admit the reader into the poem. In this way the poet may become something of a representative citizen, so that the reader experiences the poem as speaking for us, to us, about us.

Readers sought something commensurate after 9/11, when wordlessness was experienced as a burden in need of relief. The staff at Barnes and Noble in Union Square told me that the store was entirely empty in the days immediately following the fall of the towers, save for the poetry section. There were poems that quickly became touchstones, e-mailed from person to person, like Auden’s “September 1, 1939” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Ruined World.” There were countless experiences of readers finding something that felt to them grave and passionate enough—language deeply charged by feeling, pressurized by consciousness—to stand up to the difficulties of the day. (The Barnes and Noble people also told me that the bottom fell out of the Rumi market, at least for a while, but that’s another story.)

This brings back for me the intense responses of readers during the crisis days of the AIDS epidemic. (I refer to the period before new medications made it possible, for those in developed countries with access to treatment, to live much longer lives.)

In those years of little hope I began writing poems that reflected the experiences of my friends, and then of my partner and me, because I had never had so clear a sense of what Stevens called “the pressure of reality”—there was just so much to be named and given some kind of shape. I couldn’t stand it if I didn’t make something out of it, even if what I made couldn’t possibly be commensurate with the increasing fear, uncertainty, and loss. People around me were falling, like the characters in Szymborska’s poem, only very slowly; others were looking at them helplessly, waiting for their own turn; there seemed no choice but to chronicle the progression of the flames.

I felt, too, that the stories of my community were inadequately told. Mainstream media homogenizes social life into simple narratives, and the national image of the “AIDS victim” seemed to me unacceptably diminished. The nerve, affection, and astonishing dignity that I saw revealed everywhere around me—they weren’t showing up in the papers or on the news. But in truth, that was a secondary motivation; I was setting things down for myself because I needed to, and then experiencing—as I have described above—that progress toward impersonality which comes with the making of poetry. That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art. Your life is not diminished—nor changed—by having been the basis for a poem. But poetry does ask the writer to be inside a life and outside it at once, standing in the center and also looking in, through the shaping (and distorting) aperture of a lens.

What startles me then, and continues to now, is how much those representations mattered to readers. I didn’t set out to be a representative citizen, by any means. It’s true that there were cultural or religious assumptions I wanted to argue with, conversations about desire and identity in which I wanted to participate—but I simply didn’t dream that some readers would find the poems important to their inner lives, that the poems would become useful. I grew up, as I think most Americans did, in a culture in which poetry wasn’t seen as useful; it was one of the forms of cultural “enrichment,” an arcane form of embroidery to decorate the plainer necessities, the essential activities, such as buying insurance. With the exception of the Bible, there was no poetry in our house until one Christmas my mother gave me an anthology of poems about animals, which I loved.

Later, taking poetry workshops at the University of Arizona as an undergraduate, I thought of myself as joining a community of artists who were acolytes in a sort of higher calling—or at least people I thought were cool. I don’t think any of us thought our poems would matter to people; hard as this may seem now to imagine, it simply didn’t occur to us. Our idea was to enter into the depths of life, or the heights of spiritual experience; to use art—it seems to me now—as one of the agents of self reinvention that would take us further from our parents’ world. Perhaps poetry was more a way to get away from people than to connect with them.

The world, it goes without saying, didn’t do much to correct my notion that poetry was the mandarin practice of a loosely ordered tribe, and that our productions would be appreciated by other poets, if at all. Nothing seriously called these assumptions (which I didn’t even know I held) into question for me until I had published two books of poems and become a teacher. In the early ’80s my new partner, Wally, and I were aware of AIDS, whatever it was, on the edges of our Boston community, a lengthening shadow. Our friend Peter was the first person we knew to die of AIDS, in 1984, and then we were pitched into a crisis that continued until Wally’s own death in 1994, and the shift in the character of the epidemic a year or two later.

What I learned, over the course of those dozen years, was that the words one hammers out in private, in order to attempt some kind of sense, may end up being used by people in ways you could have never anticipated. As texts for memorials, of course, but also as mirrors for the feelings of the living, as something for readers to test their own senses of reality against—as company, and therefore as a form of solace. Art may not make anything better, but there is some power in recognizing that someone else has felt as you do, that your interiority, which seems especially in grief so unreachable, may in fact share a space with the inner life of another. I have grave doubts about how well we can know one another, but again and again I was brought up short by how intensely a reader had inhabited something I had made. I knew this because of conversations, sometimes, but mostly through letters. Again and again, someone would write, “You said how I felt when I couldn’t say it myself. And this is my story. . . .”

I had every reason to think that art didn’t do that. But somehow or other it did, or people felt it did—which is probably the same thing. What are the uses of elegy? To confirm that loss is real, that individual disappearance matters; that the rupture in the known world is pointed to, held up for attention, shared. Death is, simply, not to be understood. But to assume that therefore no accommodations with it may be made is to give up on language’s project of discovering and articulating meaning in experience. Through negotiation with the fact of mortality arises our education as human beings.

But does one will oneself to be a representative person? Or does that position simply devolve onto the ones who are willing to speak? I am eager for poems of this terrifying moment, but I am leery of setting out to write them. I think what the poet must do is pay attention to the nature of subjectivity, to the experienced, lived hour, and trust the paradox that if we succeed in representing that, we may approach speaking to our fellow citizens. I hope so.

* * *

It’s probably not too much of a loss that Syzmborska’s masterly poem will not stream though an office building lobby in Holzer’s striking runs of electronic text. Of course it would be fine if it were there, but I can’t imagine coming to that last line without wanting to go back and reread the poem, to understand how she got to that juncture. That’s the pleasure of being alone with a book of poetry; the reader has the time to linger, dwell, meditate, and return—and isn’t that why one would want to read a poem anyway, to invest it with one’s own interiority? I’m all for poetry’s being visible and public—if for no other reason than to help people find it—but I fear that public grief is so easily manipulated, and so readily turns to cant; witness the awful sentimental celebrations of firefighters and police losses in 2001, the flag-waving pop-music faux ceremonials that seemed designed to replace feeling with some simulacrum of emotion. (Is the ongoing battle over the design of the memorial at Ground Zero really about preventing something disruptive from being built, striving instead for the bland assurances of groupthink and false consolation?)

It makes me think of a remarkable moment in Union Square one evening right after the attacks. It must have been September 13 or 14, and people had begun to gather spontaneously in the square, as if they needed to stand together, needed a public forum. There was no organized activity—no speakers, no music. Some people brought candles and flowers, and other people just stood there. There was a sense of collective mourning, of a deep regret for the impact of American actions abroad in the past, and already a sense of alarm about the use to which American outrage would be put. We attempted to sing. But either because the crowd was so big that we couldn’t hear each other, or because we could not agree on a song, there was never any totalized, communal singing. One group would pick up “Give Peace a Chance,” but on the edges of that would be “Amazing Grace,” and some other people would try “America the Beautiful,” but this crowd was not about to all sing—or think—the same way. We stood together in our polyphonic, mild chaos. We didn’t know what to do. It was the most genuine experience of public grief I’ve ever known.


  • Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Turtle, Swan, in 1987, Mark Doty has been recognized as one of the most accomplished poets in America. Hailed for his elegant, intelligent verse, Doty has often been compared to James Merrill, Walt Whitman and C.P. Cavafy. His syntactically complex and...


Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?


  • Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Turtle, Swan, in 1987, Mark Doty has been recognized as one of the most accomplished poets in America. Hailed for his elegant, intelligent verse, Doty has often been compared to James Merrill, Walt Whitman and C.P. Cavafy. His syntactically complex and...

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