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Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

Can poetry mourn collectively? Can poetry speak the grief of multitudes powerfully and simply enough to be heard by the multitudes for which it speaks? I am interested in a more precise question, for reasons I hope will be clear. Let us suppose many people have been wantonly killed. Suppose war. Suppose genocide. Can poetry mourn in a spirit that does not lead its audience toward the thirst to punish someone?

Yes, it can. Not that it typically does. From Homer and Virgil up through the 19th century, poetry has glorified war and warriors, courage and honor and fame. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, says Horace. Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. The magnificent Bhagavad Gita ultimately focuses on telling Arjuna that he should not shrink from fighting a battle in which thousands will die, for this is not only his destiny—it is his caste duty as a kshatriya, a warrior. The deeply emotional Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” is filled with the grief of exile. Lovers of Bob Marley all over the world know these lines from his reggae version. But the psalm’s final lines in Hebrew transform suffering into a call for revenge against Babylon: “Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

The theme of military heroism is a big one in English poetry. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king preparing his troops for the battle of Agincourt calls them “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” promising that they will be remembered forever and that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” It is a terrifically moving speech, and English poetry over the centuries is filled with calls to similar glory. “I could not love thee, dear, so much, / Loved I not honour more,” declares Richard Lovelace, and Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” celebrates the pointless slaughter of British soldiers sent to battle on muddled orders: “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. . . . Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade! / Noble six hundred!” From our point of view, this could be the stupidest poem ever written, but generations of schoolchildren were once taught to memorize it.

Yet great and memorable poetry of collective suffering, with no military aim, does exist. The Hebrew Book of Lamentations, written after the conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., does not envision vengeance—only anguish: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become a widow. . . . all her gates are desolate, her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness.” Here, if there is blame for the destruction of the city, it is only self-blame: “The Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions.” Whitman’s Civil War poetry begins by celebrating the advent of war, but in poems like “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “The Wound-Dresser,” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” the poet commemorates the wounded and dead of the war, not distinguishing between Union and Confederate. In the short poem “Reconciliation,” Whitman gently laments, “My enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.”

Beginning with World War I and the work of Wilfred Owen, it became widely possible to grieve for soldiers without being patriotically inspired by them and without representing them as sacred martyrs: “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” It also became possible to question the value of war itself. For Owen, dulce et decorum est is “the old Lie,” and many poets have followed in Owen’s wake—attacking war itself, and all the ideas of heroism and patriotism attached to it. “Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill, / Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall,” writes Robert Graves. André Breton begins a poem called “War” with the line “I watch the Beast as it licks itself.” A century’s worth of antiwar poetry is included in Carolyn Forché’s magnificent anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. Marianne Moore’s World War II poem “In Distrust of Merits,” which cries, “This world’s an orphan’s home,” is not included in that anthology but should be read by every American. So should Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “Facing It.” Today, the Poets against War Web site begun by Sam Hamill is host to thousands of poems by known and unknown poets alike.

As far back as Euripides’ antiwar Trojan Women, in which the “heroic” Greeks are represented as utterly heartless, poets have even found it possible to grieve on behalf of those their countrymen hate. Yevgeny Yevtushenko laments the long history of Russian anti-Semitism in “Babi Yar,” in which he identifies himself with Israelite slaves in Egypt and with Dreyfus—“It seems to me that I am Anna Frank / Transparent as the thinnest tree in April”—and at the site of the massacre of the Jews of Kiev, “I’m every old man executed here, / As I am every child murdered here. // No fiber of my body will forget this.” Such poems are extremely rare, of course, but they exist. And they may “make nothing happen,” as Auden claims—or they may, here and there, change minds, change history, however slowly.

If I were to imagine a verbal monument to the dead of the World Trade Center, I think I would want it to be in multiple languages. I would ask scholars to find, in Hindu and Buddhist and Islamic texts, the equivalents of “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others. . . .” I would have Virgil’s lacrimae rerum, the tears in things, in Latin and English. I would have Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to love the mutilated world” in Polish and English. I would have Akhmatova’s “We aged a hundred years, and this happened in a single hour,” written in memory of July 19, 1914. Perhaps Mahmoud Darwish’s “We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel,” in Arabic and English. Perhaps some Neruda, some Brecht, some Amichai, some Szymborska, some Soyinka, some Bei Dao.

My candidate for a poem by an American would be Lucille Clifton’s “Tuesday 9/11/01,” from Mercy (Boa, 2004):

thunder and lightning and our world
is another place no day
will ever be the same no blood

they know this storm in otherwheres
israel ireland palestine
but God has blessed America
we sing

and God has blessed America
to learn that no one is exempt
the world is one all fear

is one all life all death
is one

  • Poet, critic, and activist Alicia Ostriker was born in 1937 in New York City. She earned degrees from Brandeis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Twice a finalist for the National Book Award, Ostriker has published numerous volumes of poetry, including The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014), The...


Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

  • Poet, critic, and activist Alicia Ostriker was born in 1937 in New York City. She earned degrees from Brandeis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Twice a finalist for the National Book Award, Ostriker has published numerous volumes of poetry, including The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014), The...

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