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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.
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.