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Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

Continuing a long tradition that began with Mrs. Trollope and Charles Dickens, some English writers at mid-20th century thought they had aptly portrayed American absurdities, and nowhere did we seem more unworthy than in the way we buried ourselves. Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, an exposé of the American funeral industry, suggested that Americans did not confront death and its realities as forthrightly as they thought they did. Americans, these authors argued, would go to some lengths to see that funeral rites would take place at a tempo devised by survivors, politicians, and especially funeral home directors. As Abraham Lincoln, that great expert in organizing American public grief, once observed at Gettysburg, it was altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Whether Lincoln or the contentious architects of 9/11 memorials were working within a poetics of public grief is another matter.

Our contemporary practice of memorialization has become far more complicated than Waugh’s and Mitford’s satirical genius once portrayed. When it comes to expressing public grief for a few selected events in history, no other nation can surpass the amount of time, money, and argument Americans today are willing to spend on the public commemoration of their dead. We are everywhere engaged in a constant process of revising recent and not so recent history, through memorials and monuments that strive to grab the attention of any stranger who passes by, just as Simonides did in his famous epitaph for the Spartans fallen at Thermopylae: “O Stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here obedient to their command.” Public memorials and their invitations to mourn and grieve have always been as much an argument for their dead as a commemoration of them. Whatever the artistic achievement of their designers may be—for every Maya Lin there are legions of not only the less gifted but, as the new World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall shows, the banal and the incompetent—in the end, the designer faces the problem of selling these tributes to the public. Either they buy it or they don’t.

The obsessions of contemporary monument makers are perhaps sincere, as public obsessions often are, but to the extent that their works accomplish anything—reminding passersby of the dead, preserving selected memories, suppressing others—these public shows of grief are not poetry, nor should their making or their reception be a matter of “poetics.” Such memorials are in truth a sophisticated species of rhetoric: Aristotle’s technê, or art of persuasion. For rhetoric is as ancient as poetics, and is dedicated to discovering in every situation whatever argument it takes to persuade others of your point of view.

If a “poetics of public grief” exists, it works in counterpoint to an equally strong disposition of public grief’s organizers and commentators to corral passersby. P.T. Barnum, that grand master of grabbing the American public’s attention, coined the right word for this kind of approach to public exhibitions in his precocious memoir, Life of P.T. Barnum Written by Himself (1855): “In attending to what might be termed my ‘side shows,’ or temporary enterprises, I have never neglected the American Museum.” The difference is that Barnum’s temporary enterprises were for an American Museum that wasn’t meant to last, and he knew it. Contemporary America’s constant struggle over the memorialization of 9/11 and other tragic events suggests that we don’t know it. Yet in our unending replacement of one memorial with another, we have as much in common with a showman like P.T. Barnum as we do with Simonides.

A “poetics of public grief” is an arresting phrase, but it does not explain what these Barnumesque monuments actually create. They have little to do with poetry, because they are the one place where muses will never be found. As Gilbert reports, Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Photograph from September 11” was rejected for the Holzer installation at the 9/11 memorial site “because the Silversteins were distressed by its focus on the plummeting bodies of those who ‘jumped from the burning floors, down / —one, two, a few more, / higher, lower.’” Szymborska’s poem is distressing, for sure. Poets must be free to be distressing when they have to.

And next he went for Thestor the son of Enops
cowering, crouched in his fine polished chariot,
crazed with fear, and the reins flew from his grip—
Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone,
ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard
he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail,
hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched
on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea,
some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.

This moment in The Iliad has the same terror that Szymborska’s poem captures, and it is out of such horror as this that the sublime moments of the poem grow—more frequently quoted moments, too.

Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

By excluding “Photograph from September 11,” the distressed Silversteins were not acting like critics of poetry, nor thinking about poetics; they were being rhetoricians. And why not? They realized that Szymborska’s poem would never sell in Holzer’s installation—any more than would a quotation of Stockhausen’s notoriously ill-timed admiration of the aesthetic marvels of the explosion and implosion of the Twin Towers, or Susan Sontag’s forthright rejection of the American administration’s characterization of the hijackers of the airliners as dastardly cowards. What seems to have bothered the Silversteins is that Szymborska’s poem does not look away from what it describes. On the contrary, what it says is that one must see what it describes. That is the poet’s point:

They jumped from the burning stories, down
—one, two, a few more
higher, lower.
A photograph captured them while they were alive and now preserves them
above ground, toward the ground.
Each still whole
with their own face
and blood well hidden.
There is still time,
for their hair to be tossed,
and for keys and small change
to fall from their pockets. They are still in the realm of the air,
within the places
which have just opened.
There are only two things I can do for them
—to describe this flight
and not to add a final word.

“Photograph from September 11” shows a wisdom in poetry that no public memorial anywhere can ever hope to equal, because every memorial and monument that is built aims to be a final word about what it commemorates. This is why “closure” and words like it have such a hollow ring to them. Poetry like “Photograph from September 11” is where a poetics of griefs public or private can be found, if they are to be found anywhere. The rest, as Huck Finn would say, is all tears and flapdoodle.


  • James Tatum is the Aaron Lawrence Professor of Classics and Chair of the Department of Classics at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the ‘Iliad’ to Vietnam.


Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?


  • James Tatum is the Aaron Lawrence Professor of Classics and Chair of the Department of Classics at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the ‘Iliad’ to Vietnam.

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