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Today

By Joel Brouwer

I was deep in the heart of the heart of the country on September 11, 2001, and spent much of the day trying and failing to fight off abstraction, to somehow worm my way into the reality.

Poems can sometimes help with that.

The Poetry Foundation has these poems available for your perusal today. No offense, fine poems, but kind of a weird list, isn’t it?

I hope no one will mind if I offer Robert Pinsky’s poem “9/11″ here. There’s a lot I like about this poem. Its unapologetically direct title. Its swerves from incisive analysis to granular reportage. Its inclusion of Marianne Moore, Ray Charles, Frederick Douglass, Donald Duck, and Emily Dickinson as American icons. I like the line “The donated blood not needed, except as meaning.” And many other things, but perhaps most of all the poem’s willingness to make large claims, and inclusive claims, at a time in our literary history when such gestures are generally scorned as de trop or naive. I think that takes some nerve, and I applaud it.

9/11

We adore images, we like the spectacle
Of speed and size, the working of prodigious
Systems. So on television we watched

The terrible spectacle, repetitiously gazing
Until we were sick not only of the sight
Of our prodigious systems turned against us

But of the very systems of our watching.
The date became a word, an anniversary
That we inscribed with meanings–who keep so few,

More likely to name an airport for an actor
Or athlete than “First of May” or “Fourth of July.”
In the movies we dream up, our captured heroes

Tell the interrogator their commanding officer’s name
Is Colonel Donald Duck–he writes it down, code
Of a lowbrow memory so assured it’s nearly

Aristocratic. Some say the doomed firefighters
Before they hurried into the doomed towers wrote
Their Social Security numbers on their forearms.

Easy to imagine them kidding about it a little,
As if they were filling out some workday form.
Will Rogers was a Cherokee, a survivor

Of expropriation. A roper, a card. For some,
A hero. He had turned sixteen the year
That Frederick Douglass died. Douglass was twelve

When Emily Dickinson was born. Is even Donald
Half-forgotten?–Who are the Americans, not
A people by blood or religion? As it turned out,

The donated blood not needed, except as meaning.
And on the other side that morning the guy
Who shaved off all his body hair and screamed

The name of God with his boxcutter in his hand.
O Americans–as Marianne Moore would say,
Whence is our courage? Is what holds us together

A gluttonous dreamy thriving? Whence our being?
In the dark roots of our music, impudent and profound?–
Or in the Eighteenth Century clarities

And mystic Masonic totems of the Founders:
The Eye of the Pyramid watching over us,
Hexagram of Stars protecting the Eagle’s head

From terror of pox, from plague and radiation.
And if they blow up the Statue of Liberty–
Then the survivors might likely in grief, terror

And excess build a dozen more, or produce
A catchy song about it, its meaning as beyond
Meaning as those symbols, or Ray Charles singing “America

The Beautiful.” Alabaster cities, amber waves,
Purple majesty. The back-up singers in sequins
And high heels for a performance–or in the studio

In sneakers and headphones, engineers at soundboards,
Musicians, all concentrating, faces as grave
With purpose as the harbor Statue herself.

(Robert Pinsky wrote this poem for the September 8, 2002 edition of The Washington Post Magazine; I cut and pasted it from here. You can hear Pinsky read the poem here.)

Comments (13)

  • On September 11, 2009 at 10:58 am Don Share wrote:

    A poem that resonates for me today is Anne Sexton’s 1975 “Riding the Elevator to the Sky” – click here to read it.

    I know that some folks have linked to “Photograph from September 11″ by Wislawa Szymborska – click here.

  • On September 11, 2009 at 11:54 am Colin Ward wrote:

    This reminds me of the D.P. Kristalo acrostic curgina, “Beans”, about an earlier 9/11 man-made disaster–one that resulted in even greater loss of lives and democratic freedoms.

    Lest we forget.

    -o-

  • On September 11, 2009 at 12:26 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    To be specific, el once de septiembre, 1973, is the date of the Pinochet coup in Chile, which overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende (spelled out in the Kristalo acrostic) and ended up disappearing thousands of people.

    What’s a curgina?

  • On September 11, 2009 at 12:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    Here (click) are some curgina (curginas? curginae??) for you!

  • On September 11, 2009 at 1:29 pm Kevin Cutrer wrote:

    I agree that this poem took some nerve, and it’s effective because of that. The title itself probably sends many readers in the other direction, thinking, “not another one.”

  • On September 11, 2009 at 2:44 pm Oscar wrote:

    Strange that Martín Espada’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100″ or “Not Here” aren’t included.

    “Alabanza”‘s focus on the dead whose names we may never really is in the finest tradition of political poetry. It’s also a poem that works both in a studio reading and in the open air.

    “Not Here” makes reference to how Chilean poets were affected by their 9/11, see John Oliver Simon’s comment.

    I’m wondering why these two poems wouldn’t be on the Poetry Foundation’s radar.

  • On September 11, 2009 at 2:50 pm Joe wrote:

    Even if not mentioned by this particular blogger (or in the “weird list” he points to), at least one of the poems you mention is certainly on the Poetry Foundation’s radar:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177383

  • On September 12, 2009 at 2:30 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    I like the Pinsky poem, Joel, though, each to her favorite way to ponder…mine will have no date ascribed to it, but will fill my thought for even longer, with a large (and small) claim. It’s Lisel Mueller’s “The Blind Leading the Blind,” available here:

    http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2007/02/10

    It says so much of what I feel when I think of (that) or any such a day. It was never about only “us.” There were/are two of us in this cave. And more.

    margo

  • On September 12, 2009 at 9:57 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Thank you, Margo. I didn’t know that Mueller poem and I’m glad to. Your comment makes manifest an intractable problem. Sometimes, perhaps particularly in times of great sorrow, we (humans) have a natural wish to feel ourselves part of a “we” (nation, family, tribe, etc.) But as you suggest, every “we” purchases its sense of belonging at the dangerously high price of creating a “them.”

  • On September 13, 2009 at 3:45 pm Terreson wrote:

    Within hours of the events eight years ago NPR’s Terry Gross was interviewing Billy Collins who, as I recall, was Poet Laureate that year. From memory, she asked Collins how poetry can make sense of such a thing. Again from memory, he replied that poetry cannot. By extension I took him to mean poetry will never be able to approach the disaster. At the time, as stunned as practically everyone else in the world was, I thought he was right. Sometime later I remembered a thing Camus said about artists and the present Age. I decided Collins was wrong, or, rather, that he missed the point. Here is Camus:

    “In order to dominate collective passions they must, in fact, be lived through and experienced, at least relatively. At the same time he experiences them, the artist is devoured by them. The result is that our period is rather the period of journalism than that of the work of art. The exercise of these passions, finally, entails far greater chances of death than in a period of love and ambition, in that the only way of living collective passions is to be willing to die for them and by their hand.”

    Since then I view a certain class of poetry differently. That, say, of an Akhmatova, Melville’s Civil War poetry, The War poets of WW1, poetry coming out of present day Palestine or Iraq or Iran or Afhganistan or Columbia or an American inner-city, and all the way up to and including Pinsky’s poem and any other poem addressing 9/11. I’ve also decided that Camus was not entirely right either, only partially so. It is probably right that ours is more an Age of journalism than of art. It is certainly true that artists must live at the hands of collective passions, “at least relatitively,” in order to dominate, or maybe instead get inside them. But on an instinctive level the act of such poetry itself is an attempt to make sense of something, however incomprehensible, to give it a name and a recognizable face and a body. Thank you Camus.

    Terreson

  • On September 17, 2009 at 1:23 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems,/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.”(WCW)
    Had been trying for a few days to think of what I might add to your well-considered thought above, Terreson. Camus, dark eye, though he cast, was essentially devoured by his time. I read others, and write, ever with the hope not to be devoured by this, “our” time. And so, back to Williams for his above–pithy words. Because, in the beginning, and the end, what we have are the words. As swords, as memorials, or, as hands, to reach out with–

    margo

  • On September 19, 2009 at 4:00 pm Terreson wrote:

    The blog has skipped off the main page and so I hope you see this, Margo B. When you speak up in that succinct way of yours I stop and the back straightens.

    That is how I see the case of poetry too, the reaching out with hands part especially. Always have. Permit me to compliment your lines from Williams with lines of Goethe’s:

    “Though most men suffer dumbly, yet a god
    Gave me a tongue to utter all my pain.”

    Terreson

  • On September 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    Seen, and appreciated,Terreson. And thank you for Goethe. To which I only (might) whisper Corinthians. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels…”

    margo


Posted in Poetry News on Friday, September 11th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.