Poetry After 9/11

Ed. by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians

“O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometimes sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” – Hart Crane

Despite its distinguished pedigree – commemorating the achievements of athletes, the deaths of schoolmates, the triumphs of heads of state – occasional verse doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation today. We tend to roll our eyes at the odes composed by poets laureate to celebrate inaugurations and royal birthdays. For writers fighting to distinguish their trade from the black arts of advertising and propaganda, sincerity has become the chief virtue of what it means to be literary. And sincerity is divorced from public speech.

At first glance, Poetry After 9/11 may seem similarly tainted. But this would be a mistake. The events of September 11, 2001, and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, only provide a context for the poetry. The poems show the influence of 9/11, but often indirectly. Though similar in form to most contemporary poetry – the short, free verse lyric is still the dominant form – it is their occasional quality and their relationship to public events that open them from the inside.

There are two reasons, aside from the quality of the writing itself, why such an anthology works. In the first place there is the very public nature of the events the poetry responds to. Much of today’s poetry is characterized either by the banality of its anecdotal thought and observations or the obscurity of its personal references. That self-oriented, confessional impulse is still going strong here (Alicia Ostriker is moved to ask “do they hate me”?), but the events of 9/11 also give these poems a public, tangible frame of reference. That these events were experienced, in large part, through the lens of television is the second reason they are so effective. Poetry is made out of images, and it has often seemed to me that poetry is better suited to the modern mind because of this. Exploding planes and falling towers, all to the fragmented rhythms of MTV, are more a part of the vernacular than prose narrative.

Of course the reason they are more a part of the vernacular is because of the dominance of the image in our culture. That a number of these poems make references to CNN or Hollywood only confirms this. In David Trinidad’s “Adam and Eve on the Hollywood Treadmill” the images are drawn directly from film culture: “Think Faye Dunaway . . . Think Kate Winslet . . . Think inexplicable pop phenomenon Celine Dion” (some idea of just how free the verse is can be measured by reading that last line aloud). Another poem, “Mortal Remains” by Kimiko Hahn, begins with the connection between one of the victims and John Travolta “hustling his ass off” in Saturday Night Fever. “Freedom is the capacity to remember that it’s a movie,” Geoffrey O’Brien writes in his sonnet “Techniques of Mass Persuasion.” But this kind of freedom is a drug, Eliot’s world of might-have-beens. We can always change the channel.

While broadly similar in form, the poems vary quite a bit in rhythm and tone, from breathless rattling pieces by Eliot Katz and Norman Stock, to playful chains by Anna Rabinowitz and Paul Violi, to broken elegies by Jean Valentine and Rachel Hadas. What they share is a need for something, in Kimiko Hahn’s phrase, “More immortal than the movies.” Hart Crane found in the Brooklyn Bridge a form of architecture that stood for what he labeled a “Myth of America.” For these New York poets the great architectural symbol of the World Trade Center is another postmodern present absence. Instead of a bridge or a tower there’s a hole in the sky. Instead of religion (those “bygones of bearded beliefs”) there is a skepticism called freedom. As Katz’s movers put it, “The world has changed, bro.”

Review first published online September 11, 2002.


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