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Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

In her essay, Sandra Gilbert quotes Wilfred Owen’s preface to his posthumously published collection of World War I poetry: “These elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.” It is important to recall the next sentence: “They may be to the next.”

Almost a century later, I am consoled by Owen’s poems of grief, by the knowledge that this poet of the trenches opposed the same lies that antiwar poets and activists oppose today. In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen even calls warmongering by the name “the old Lie.”

What incurs Owen’s wrath in this poem is not only the terrible fact of war, but the cynical uses of language by an elite to incite the majority to act against its own interests; the monies that could be spent on health care and education pay for bombs, bullets, and, ultimately, coffins.

Our leaders no longer use Latin to celebrate patriotism and bombardment, but they still rely on a specialized vocabulary designed to promote war. And it works. The “weapons of mass destruction” were never found in Iraq, but the words themselves were destructive enough. In the wake of 9/11, the government and the media relentlessly manipulated public grief, twisting it into support for two wars.

The poems of communal grief we write today offer alternative ways of thinking and feeling. If they are not consolatory to this generation, they may be to the next. Yet these poems must not be measured by whether they can stop a war or produce some other specific result. Their impact on the world cannot be weighed or measured. Writing a poem of communal grief today, or any poem with social or political content, is paradoxically an act of faith. The poem flies into the air and becomes part of the atmosphere.

If, as I have said elsewhere, phrases such as “weapons of mass destruction” bleed language of its meaning, then poets must restore the blood to words. Owen uses the phrase “an ecstasy of fumbling” to describe the action of fitting on his gas mask before the deadly poison reaches him, and then recalls a fellow soldier poisoned by the same gas with “white eyes writhing in his face.” Here the poet not only restores the blood to words; he provides a vocabulary of communal grief.

Such poems may console, rage, mourn, protest, or warn. “All a poet can do today is warn,” says Owen in his preface. “That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”

There are poets carrying on the tradition of Wilfred Owen in our time, such as the veteran-poets of the Vietnam War. The best of these poets, such as Yusef Komunyakaa and Doug Anderson, have tapped into a wellspring of grief from that war.

Not by coincidence, both Komunyakaa and Anderson have written moving poems about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Komunyakaa, the first and only African American man to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, calls his poem “Facing It,” a title that resonates on multiple levels, urging the reader to confront the consequences of war. Komunyakaa records his own presence at this place of grieving:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.

By poem’s end, Komunyakaa comes full circle, through images of blackness, to embrace the grieving of others, the private yet public rituals of suffering he witnesses at the Wall:

. . . In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Anderson, a medic in the Marine Corps during the war, fills his poem, “The Wall,” with the kind of graphic detail that should give pause to any patriot eager to trumpet Owen’s “old Lie”:

I move my finger down the index, find the name of the first man
I could not help, and for a moment, the tree splintering
in front of me, smell of blood and cordite, his lips turning blue,
the gasp of a lung filling with blood.

Anderson articulates communal grief in the broadest sense here, moving beyond the 58,000 names on the Wall to ask:

. . . how long a wall,
if we inscribe three million Vietnamese, four million Cambodians, how long a wall?

Significantly, the poem is dedicated to Maya Lin, the Chinese American architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Grief and consolation cross the borders of race and ethnicity.

More poems of communal grief appear in the pages of Poets against the War (Nation Books, 2003), edited by Sam Hamill, who founded the organization and the Web site of the same name. (Now called poetsagainstwar.net, the Web site has received more than 20,000 poems and statements against war in the last three years.) A number of these poems speak with a startling intimacy, such as Galway Kinnell’s “Olive Wood Fire,” Dorianne Laux’s “Cello,” and Robert Creeley’s “Ground Zero.”

Kinnell’s poem for his sleeping infant son, Fergus, illustrates this intimacy, the connection with suffering humanity made tangible:

One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,
I thought I heard a scream
—a flier crying out in horror
as he dropped fire on he didn’t know what or whom,
or else a child thus set aflame—
and sat up alert. The olive wood fire
had burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,
fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.

Herein lies an important distinction: the most powerful poems of communal grief, for me, insist upon intimate, concrete, particular details, images, and narratives. Grief must have a human face; consolation must have a human voice.

There must also be the courage to mourn publicly. Too many poets hesitate to express any strong emotion openly, much less the most difficult of emotions. Ed Hirsch, in How to Read a Poem, says: “So many modern and contemporary poets are terrified of deep feeling, of seeming undefended and ‘sentimental.’ Many write as if it were desirable to refine out the emotional registers of the lyric. . . . We live in a cool age.” These same poets will claim, in either sincere or false modesty, that they could never write poems of collective grief because they would never presume to speak for anyone but themselves.

But what of those who cannot speak? Or who speak but go unheard? And what of the dead?

Claribel Alegría, a poet and novelist born in Nicaragua and raised in El Salvador, says the war dead of Central America so haunted her that she was compelled to write poems in which their voices could rise up:

At night I listen to their phantoms
shouting in my ear
shaking me out of my lethargy
issuing me commands
I think of their tattered lives
of their feverish hands
reaching out to seize ours.

The notion of compulsion is critical here: that the poet writes the poem because the poem must be written, regardless of consequences; that the choice to write a poem of communal grief is not an aesthetic experiment or a marketing strategy.

There are poets who fiercely embrace the role of advocate, speaking on behalf of the dead, such as Pablo Neruda standing at the heights of Macchu Picchu: “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” There are other poets who express the collective sensation of a death so profound that the world is changed forever. Edna St. Vincent Millay, writing of Sacco and Vanzetti and their execution in 1927, speaks not only for the dead but for millions of the living: “We will die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.”

In response to the devastation of September 11, 2001, in an effort to make sense of the tragedy and find some part to stand for the whole, I wrote a poem called “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” for the forty-three members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100 who were working at the Windows on the World restaurant on that morning, and who were killed in the attack.

Alabanza means “praise” in Spanish, and the poem not only mourns but praises these workers: mostly immigrants, some undocumented, invisible in life and even more invisible in death, the very same people a conservative backlash would now sweep across our borders.

When I wrote the poem, in the spring of 2002, I experienced a strange sense of vulnerability. There was a prevailing notion, expressed in the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere, that poetry, fiction, theater, or art dealing with 9/11 was somehow premature, inappropriate, even exploitative. Moreover, I had no idea how my attempt at consolation would be received by those closest to the tragedy at HERE Local 100, if they ever knew about the poem at all.

Shortly after I published this poem in The Nation, I received a letter from the Executive Board of HERE Local 100. It reads:

We are writing to express our gratitude for the poem you wrote about the members of our Union who were lost at Windows on the World on September 11, 2001. The pain caused by that tragedy continues for the 43 families and hundreds of other Local 100 members who survived but lost their jobs. But the flood of caring, solidarity and donations since that day has helped all the victims as they work to put their lives together and move forward. “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” is a unique kind of assistance and we appreciate it. Please be assured that your effort together with contributions from people throughout the country has made a great difference to the Local 100 family.

Thus, the poet who set out to console was himself consoled. Poems of communal grief may also serve this purpose: to connect us with a community, either an immediate circle whose faces mirror our own, or a larger human collectivity, grounded in some essential empathy, without which none of us truly survives.

After all, Walt Whitman himself advises us, as poets and citizens, in number 48 of “Song of Myself,” that “whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to / his own funeral drest in his shroud.”

  • As a poet, essayist, translator, editor, and attorney, Martín Espada has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice, including fighting for Latino rights and reclaiming the historical record. Espada’s critically acclaimed collections of poetry celebrate—and lament—the immigrant and working class experience. Whether narrating the struggles of...


Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

  • As a poet, essayist, translator, editor, and attorney, Martín Espada has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice, including fighting for Latino rights and reclaiming the historical record. Espada’s critically acclaimed collections of poetry celebrate—and lament—the immigrant and working class experience. Whether narrating the struggles of...

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