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Essay

Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

From the First World War to the Holocaust and on through Vietnam and the Rwandan genocide to the invasion of Iraq, the last century has been marked by what the religious studies scholar Edith Wyschogrod has chillingly defined as “death events”—massacres “in which scale is reckoned in terms of the compression of time” (that is, the efficiency) with which “destruction is delivered,” making the last hundred years, as another scholar notes, “the bloodiest in human history.” In an era and a culture with few agreed-upon customs for mourning, still fewer common spiritual belief systems, and almost no conventions for the articulation of public sorrow, with what strategies can poets respond to so many overwhelming occasions of collective loss?

From this question, a number of others arise. Is poetry in fact consoling as a performance of grief—that is, is poetry a genre that helps mourners confront loss and overcome sorrow? In other words, is poetry in some sense therapeutic, or does it perhaps exacerbate pain? In contemplating a poetics of public grief, ought we to disentangle mourning from commemoration, or are the two impulses really aspects of one sorrowful imperative? And is such a poetics of public grief necessarily also political? If so, in what ways might the articulation of communal grief accommodate a poetry of protest, or, conversely, how might the communal need to mourn be co-opted by establishment propagandists? Finally, and more specifically, if we do have a contemporary tradition of communal elegy (as distinct from private, personal elegy), how has it evolved, what are its modes, and who are some of its foremost practitioners?

Although I don’t wish to emphasize the catastrophe of 9/11 over all too many other modern “death events,” the questions I raise here were triggered by a planned mode of public elegizing associated with the completion of 7 World Trade Center. As part of the building’s inauguration, the artist Jenny Holzer has been working with the developer Larry Silverstein and his wife on a textual (and mostly poetic) “installation” that will be projected on its changeable, mirrorlike glass surface. According to the New York Times, “thousands of moving, ghostly-white words . . . will scroll across a glowing, 65-foot-wide, 14-foot-high wall in the lobby” of what Karrie Jacobs, writing in MetropolisMag.com, calls “a knife-edged” 52-story office tower. Adds Jacobs, 7 WTC “suggests that if we are trapped in a world where truck bombs are an eventuality, the awfulness of our current circumstances can be eased a bit by embedding our blast screens with poetry.”

But can our circumstances be eased by poetry—by luminous words weaving their electronic way across glassy skins or, for that matter, by plain old black squiggles on real paper pages? Certainly, just after the crisis of 9/11, several poets argued as much. The event, confided Mary Karr in the New York Times, “nailed home many of my basic convictions, including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief—if not actual salvation—during catastrophic times than perhaps any art form.” And Samuel Hazo noted that the “only language” commensurate with such a cataclysm “was poetry or silence.”

Yet poetry has not always seemed comforting to 20th- and 21st-century authors coping with the bleak lineaments of mass death. Commenting on the powerfully influential works he wrote at and about the Front before he was killed in the First World War, Wilfred Owen famously insisted that “these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory” because the “Poetry is in the pity.” Elegiac poetry, he implied, might heighten the consciousness of loss, but could provide no “relief” from pain. Nor do our contemporaries always offer poems that are “consolatory.” The New York Times reported that “Photograph from September 11,” a text by the Nobel Prize–winning poet Wislawa Szymborska, was excluded from Holzer’s installation because the Silversteins were distressed by its focus on the plummeting bodies of those who “jumped from the burning floors— / one, two, a few more, / higher, lower.”

Arguably, Owen wrote in 1917—and Szymborska in 2005—in a philosophical context that was defined by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, in his magisterial Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Declared Paz, “Modern death does not have any significance that transcends it or that refers to other values. . . . In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact. But since it is such a disagreeable fact [the philosophy of progress] pretends to make it disappear, like a magician palming a coin. Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exist [even though] death enters into everything we undertake” because our high-tech century of “miracle drugs and synthetic foods is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story.” And nearly 60 years later ours is still such a paradoxical century, or so Paz might have added if he’d lived on into the labyrinth of this maddened millennium, marked as it has been, on the one hand, by continuing technological advances and, on the other hand, by 9/11, the war in Iraq, and countless other global atrocities.

If, as Paz also put it, the “word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips,” how can we mourn in a culture when valedictions forbidding mourning suffocate our grief at every turn? More than 2,970 American soldiers have died in Iraq, along with an estimated 40,000 Iraqi civilians, but the president of the United States has yet to greet a single flag-draped coffin, nor have we as a nation joined in any communal ceremonies of mourning. Joan Didion’s recent memoir The Year of Magical Thinking soared to the top of the best-seller list accompanied by glowing reviews—and by an angry letter in the New York Times Book Review that urged “O, St. Joan of Didion, stop ye whining and complaining. . . . Want to mourn? Have the dignity of doing it in private. Enough!”

Our cultural ambivalence about death and grief gets played out on the political scene and on the literary scene. On the one hand, we need and yearn to mourn; on the other hand, we’re “uncomfortable”—to put it mildly—with dying and mourning. As I have argued elsewhere, most notably in my recent Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, poets have long insisted on asserting sorrow in the face of cultural injunctions to repress grief. From Allen Ginsberg’s powerful Kaddish for his mother, Naomi, and Robert Lowell’s distinctively articulated elegies in the perhaps misleadingly named Life Studies, to more recent elegiac collections by such writers as Ruth Stone, Douglas Dunn, Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds, Paul Monette, Tess Gallagher, Donald Hall—and on and on—writers of verse have shaped private, personal lamentation with extraordinary passion and intelligence. Yet how do poets—aware that to mourn is to speak or perform grief—formulate public grief in a society that enjoins silence?

What, in other words, of the grief that wishes to assert itself on the walls of 7 WTC? This intense communal grief demands literary memorials equivalent to such architecturally memorable elegiac monuments as the Lutyens Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, the Maya Lin Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Moshe Safdie Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel. But given our uncertainties about procedures for mourning, our theological skepticism, and even our embarrassment with experiences and expressions of grief, we have few (if any) conventions for the articulation of public sorrow comparable to those that were available to poets from Moschus to Milton, from Shelley to Arnold. How, then—to return to the central question here—can our poets formulate public sorrow? Will Jenny Holzer’s ghostly texts, projected on that glassy skin of 7 WTC, suffice, or do we need more complex renderings of communal grief? And if so, what would those be, and how would they satisfy our need to mourn on a large, cultural scale? These are the central issues we’ve asked a group of keenly interested contemporary poets and critics to address in this forum.

  • 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...

Essay

Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

  • 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...

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