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]] and other 9/11 Works (Part 1: Choosing Sympathy Poems and Words of Comfort))

September 9, 2011

Whether the poetry was recent, raw, and personal or classical and ‘‘recycled’’—whatever poetry was chosen—the only criterion for mass consumption was effect. If the poems were judged to reflect an appropriate mood or to provide comfort in the immediate situation, they were included. No criticisms were made of the quality of any work—anymore than the flower arrangements on graves would be judged for their artistic value or epitaphs on gravestones assessed for their poetic significance at the time of their inscription. Even the two anthologies that emerged within the year, both introduced and edited by well-known poets, focused upon the theme of grief and tragedy, clearly seeing an aesthetic response as inappropriate.

— Karen Alkalay-Gut, “The Poetry of September 11: The Testimonial Imperative”



Choosing Sympathy Poems and Words of Comfort1

Under high slabs of glass, white light-emitting diodes are threaded on 14-foot-tall metal ribbons. This laminated, structurally fortified work is a security amenity, screening the reader from the private precincts of the poem, and acting as a blast shield in case of terrorist attack:

Yahoo! Reviewed These Sites and Found Them Related to September 11th Attacks > Firsthand Photos,2

Why jump from the 90th floor of a burning building to certain death,

One, two, skip a few,

Higher speed, lower energy,

We live with our heads held high and face the world happily,

The rest of the world might see if they could fly this high up,

We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed,

The richer nations should secure everybody equally, even if

Tamils face particular problems that Sinhalese don’t face,

For example, Well-Hidden Soldiers Of Satan Black Pope (pt. 3),

There’s never enough time to,

Make loose ringlets like Lauren had,

Keys, coins, purse, (Water Serpents),

“A bunch of flowers in your pocket, Achoo! Achoo!, everyone fall down”,

If they’re alive, they’re in the chamber,

Secure within the bounds of our social media policy,

We’re just one day away from the widest opening we’ve ever had,

Two things that will never go out of style with white people,

Describing how Flight of the Conchords is so funny,

And adding a comma at the end of every line,


Prepare for remarkable insights into one author’s behavior from a unique position at the intersection of autism and science! The poet here aims to revolutionize our ideas about what readers want and need—on their terms, not ours. And at the last moment, as this amateur video-poem reveals, it’s structure seems to buckle, twisting itself in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. Like a crystal growing from rock, a dramatic new structure emerges from the ground like a new dialogue between contemporary living and a completely new experience of space: bodies shooting out of windows on the morning of September 11, 2001; the plastic-wrapped corpse of a prisoner beaten to death; the shrouded figure of a man wired for electrocution—all images are simultaneously unacceptable and already accepted.

What if we were a little less shocked and even less awed by events? Apathy took a big hit after 9/11, but one must wonder what it packed into that clear glass sherlock pipe. A retrospective piece by John Lundberg in the Huffington Post describes the unexpected (but long awaited by some) resurrection of popular verse after the attack:

In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, poems began popping up around New York City, some propped up in windows or taped to lamp posts. It seemed that in the turmoil of all that tragedy, poetry helped people cope with emotions that they otherwise struggled to grasp.3

Poetry anthologies and journals seemed dizzy with this sudden explosion in the exercise of verse after the attack, and took full advantage of the seeming break from their normal cultural and economic irrelevance. Amazon reviewer The Sanity Inspector, was not so happy with their efforts, though, commenting on the anthology Poetry After 9/11, that “Unfortunately, all the poems collected here are by professional poets.”4 And while I’d certainly agree that even one bad poem in response to terrorism is too many, the various messages of these publications was regardless drowned out by the dominant institutions of the mass media, whose 24/7 barrage of messages can be easily reduced to, “There are like totally all these bearded Islamic fundamentalists, evil mustachioed dictators and Frenchy intellectual dickheads in the way of our global economic prosperity!” These institutions are not concerned with humanity or human rights, but are in reality Satanic manifestation spawned from their owners’ cultured and self-satisfied lifestyles.

So what is to be done about poets and editors who without any thought assimilated, who added their somber strains to the TV and radio soundtracks of collectivized tragedy, comfortable in the company of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on NPR and the freshly re-contextualized “September Song?” Whose writing exhibits a calculated lyric grace that is doubtless rooted in relative economic comfort and a leisurely attitude towards politics and the masses, and can only be read honestly as an ironic form of arrogant insincerity? Should they be summarily harassed and alienated from the mainstream, fractured in body, psyche and spirit? Why, these people are so timid that when they finally arrive at the inevitable childbirth scene, they bail out after just two pushes! The expulsion of such writers and publishers might conceivably be a righteous and joyous thing, highly beneficial to the citizenry as well as an act of enlightened mercy.

But before your righteous (and pompous) indignation carries you away, you should ask yourself what the unthinkable really looks like, what it would look like if it goes really, really bad for American writing. The force of a novel, poem or story’s response to disaster comes from how it presents the reader with signs of a previously unknown or even unimaginable consciousness. Just two recent examples: from a short story, “Running into the street to pick up the lifeless body of something dear, the young child commented that the blood smelled ‘like chocolate pop tarts’”; and this poetic excerpt:

To generate adequate

gesture trajectories

in the humanoid torso

nothing is more effective

than suggesting the potential

for another coordinated terrorist attack

or, alternately, a series

of randomized nanodrone attacks

With the first example, the obvious is trained to swell and clog the heart imagistically with its strangeness and raw emotional power, as in “you cannot reply to this topic | you cannot start a new topic.” With the second, programmable nanodrones have literally been released by the poet to swarm our reading hearts and in short order reduce us to a fine grey dust. This is more clearly evidence of a developing terrorist aesthetic: it is the literature of End Times!

And so, in the soon-to-be post-apocalyptic environment, the job of the poet will become more to shape the reader’s remains into something that can survive, something like a marble statue of a nude man eating human legs, children begging at his feet for scraps. One of the smarter children knows how to win a meal. In a 3D marble cartoon dialogue bubble coming out of her mouth, she stupifies the man long enough to nab some flesh, asking “Can you describe your innermost self in one word?” If the poet has done everything well, screens across the globe will flicker on and off, and settle, frozen, on the message, “The instruction at ‘0x034944db’ referenced memory at ‘0x00000000.’ The | memory could not | be ‘written.’”


1 The following work is partially a rewriting of a section of Mark Doty’s fine essay “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public” published on the Poetry Foundation website.

2The poem quoted here is a Google-mediated rewriting of each line of Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Photograph from September 11,” which was quoted and analyzed in Doty’s article.

3John Lundberg. “Remembering 9/11 Through Poetry,” The Huffington Post, September 11, 2010.

4The Sanity Inspector. “The world outside their navels comes a’knocking….” Review of Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets at November 2, 2002.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 10:09 pm

    These posts are awesome, in the truest sense of the word. I’ll have to re-read them a couple more times before saying more.

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