Birkerts in the New York Observer on the Role of Poetry after the World Trade Center Disaster
This piece ran in the New York Observer on Monday, October 1, 2001.
I teach two writing courses at Mt. Holyoke College, normally an orderly drill in which I try to supply useful strategies for a series of expressive tasks.
But of course "normally" vaporized this year as soon as the semester began, and I found myself, like every teacher in the country, faced with the question of how to proceed with my course, the premises of my subject, in the face of a collective sadness and unease unlike anything I've ever experienced.
Meeting my creative-writing class last week for the first time since the disaster, I brought in copies of W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," a poem that's been everywhere in the air these last days. I thought that if my students didn't know it, they should. And as I was reading out the later lines of the opening stanzaâ€”
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.
I felt, I thought I felt, an attentiveness in the room that went beyond the usual open-eyed, if sometimes undiscriminating, receptivity. I had the sense that the words, to paraphrase a line from another Auden poem, were hurting and connecting.
We did not go on, as I'd thought we might, to talk about the poem. Instead, somehow, we got onto the question of the place of poetry and, by extension, literature in the face of the unspeakable. Why read or study it? What does it give us? Can words arranged on a page make a difference? Of course, I had to cite T.W. Adorno's famous dictum: "No poetry after Auschwitz." What could that mean?
Expressions around the room were mostly baffled. I wanted to break the question down. Did Adorno mean "no poetry" because we should not write it? Because the writing of poems celebrated the human in ways that had become unconscionable? Or because the assertion of purpose and inner coherence that poetry necessarily represents was somehow wrong, no longer viable? Or did Adorno mean "no poetry" because we could not? Because an extreme of barbarism had revealed language to be inadequate, limited in what it could represent? Because barbarism had thus undermined the core assumption of the enterprise? But why single out poetry? Everything is ultimately limited. One might as well mark the enormity of moral devastation by insisting no anything.
Which becomes, of course, a paper argument, carried on in the face of human contrariness, the biological persistence that will rebuild the world no matter how many times it's torn apart. The argument about the writing and reading of poetry is also finally academic. No poetry after Auschwitz. Except that there was and there is: Akhmatova, Milosz, Bishop, Brodsky, Heaney, Lowell, Walcott, Plath, Herbert and thousands of others. Poetry has flourished since the time of the death camps, and not because it has looked away. It hasn't.
Problem solved. Except, alas, that it continued to vex, as it must now that the world has been torn apart again. Must, for asking the question is a way of addressing the pain, the very real sense of hopelessness that floods me over and over throughout the day. What is the place, the purpose, of poetry? I was asking it again that afternoon as I blazed my way east on the Mass Pike, lost in a thought fugue rare even for me, who am given to thought fugues on these long commutes. And by the time I reached the outskirts of Boston, I had a kind of answer.
It took a while to get there. My first thought, contra Adorno, was that disaster requires poetry precisely because of the implied perspective it, all literature, assumes: the seriousness and ongoing point of all things, however fragile the web of meaning may seem at times; and because poetry springs directly from our primal need and capacity for communication. As I'd just declaimed to my class from Auden:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages
But then I had another, less expected idea. To understand the use of poetry, its particular importance in times like this, I realized, we need to understand the nature of trauma. This is a subject for deep study, of course, but a few generalizations are possible. To begin with, catastrophic trauma shatters norms; it upsets, in a way that feels permanent, the balance of things. It overwhelms our psychic system, melting down the usual response mechanisms whereby experiences are organized and stored as the stuff of memory. Further, this trauma creates for itself a kind of perpetual present. What is post-traumatic stress disorder but the psyche's inability to banish hurt to the past? In the suffererâ€”and we are now all to some degree sufferers, the pain stays alive, there to be activated at any moment. The plane keeps slicing into the building, each time fresh; it doesn't stop. We don't even need to see the loop any more.
And this, I thought, is where poetry comes in. Poetry does not, with its meanings and messages, defeat trauma; it does not argue it away with its countervailing sense of purpose. Nothing so simple: Poetry works on a deeper level. Because it mobilizes such a concentration of devices, such an intensification of language via rhythm, syntax, image and metaphor, reading it, the best of it, can create another, very different kind of perpetual present, an awareness that can be as ongoing in the soul as the stop-time of trauma.
For poetry is the reverse of the terrorist act, its antithesis just as the terrorist act is the complete negation of the spirit of poetry. We read poetry because we need something to hold against horror, something to place alongside it that is equally persistent. Not because poetry overturns or disarms horror, but because it helps restore the delicate inner balance we call sanity.
And when this balance, this instinctive sense of moral proportion, is threatened, as it is now, we need poetry in the worst way. Shakespeare asked: "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?" A rhetorical question. He knew. As did Auden, who in that most sustaining poem, with a modesty that seems to me just slightly disingenuous, wrote:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Auden would not allow that poem to be reprinted in his Collected Poems, arguing that "We must love one another or die" was misleading, a false choice. I've always wondered where this sudden literalism came from, this misplaced sense of scruple. It's his best line.