Archive for September 9th, 2011

by lizard

It’s difficult to write a good poem about a historical event. When that historical event represents a paradigm shift in our collective national psyche, the difficulty is tremendous.

Thanks to a tweet from @Lgpguin, I read a very interesting article today from Huffington Post, titled The Poetry Of 9/11 And It’s Aftermath. Its author, Philip Metres, opens with his account of slowly realizing “the full extent” of what happened that Tuesday morning ten years ago this Sunday. And, in a sick little twist of fate, the class he had to teach that day, after realizing what had happened, included reading the powerful poem by Carolyn Forche, The Colonel, about her experience in El Salvador, and her encounter with the human embodiment of violence that “governing” in Latin America often entailed, back when the poem was written, in 1978.

With that framing in mind, Metres describes how the responses of grief and anger manifested poetically in the days and weeks after attack, and the pitfalls of such poetry:

The events of 9/11 occasioned a tremendous outpouring of poetry; people in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand. In Curtis Fox’s words, “poetry was suddenly everywhere in the city.” Outside the immediate radius of what became known as “ground zero,” aided by email, listserves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written. By February, 2002, over 25,000 poems written in response to 9/11 had been published on alone. Three years later, the number of poems there had more than doubled.

Often invisible in American culture, poetry suddenly became relevant, even-and perhaps dangerously-useful. People turned to poems when other forms failed to give shape to their feelings. Some of these poems, certainly, employed the language of faith, a faith that has often been mobilized as a weapon of grievance. Some were desperately angry, in the way Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” promises to put a “boot in the ass” of those that “messed” with the U.S. of A. In Cleveland, I recall hearing some rather salty Osama limericks involving his mama.

Of course, poems that take on subjects as public and iconic as the attacks of September 11th risk not only devolving into cliché and hysterical jingoism, but also, even when most well-meaning, perpetuating the violence of terror, and the violence of grievance and revenge, as mass media did by endlessly replaying images of the planes exploding into the World Trade Center towers. Likewise, when we read enough 9/11 poems, we become awash in falling people, planes described as birds, flaming towers of Babel, ash and angels, angels and ash. The mythic nature of this attack, this disaster-echoing everything from the tower of Babel to the fall of Icarus-is undeniable, and the acts of heroism and the brute loss of so many makes it difficult to find adequate words, even for our most accomplished poets

The whole article is a wealth of poetic reactions to 9/11, and worth a full read. At one point, the now infamous poem by Amiri Baraka, Somebody Blew Up America, is mentioned, to which Metres has this to say:

Not all worthwhile 9/11 poetry reflected such ambiguity, though. It would be strange to talk about poetry and 9/11 and not mention Amiri Baraka’s scandal-making and splenetic “Somebody Blew Up America,” published in 2002. At the time, Baraka held the post of New Jersey’s poet laureate, and his poem caused an outcry principally for perpetuating an Internet myth that 4000 Israelis were told to stay home from work at the Twin Towers on September 11, and secondarily for its anti-imperialist rant against the United States and figures of the Bush Administration. His subsequent defense of the poem, an essay called “I Will Not ‘Apologize,’ I Will Not ‘Resign,'” did not do the work any favors; rather than arguing that the poem is the dramatized utterance of a suppressed but necessary point of view – that of the anti-imperialist scourge – Baraka asserts his absolute identification with the poem’s rhetoric.

The poem may be smarter than the poet’s argument on its behalf. Emerging from an event which has ignited as many conspiracy theories as JFK’s assassination, “Somebody Blew Up America” enacts the intoxification of conspiracy-theorizing itself. Conspiracy theory, spastic groping after fact and reason, comes out of the fantasy of absolute governmental power. While the poem’s catalogue of imperial atrocity is mostly documentable (with the glaring exception being Israeli and American administration complicity in the attacks), the desire to place all the blame on a singular “Somebody” dramatizes the weakness of a totalizing critique of empire.

The ending of the poem clinches this reading: “Who and Who and WHO (+) who who/Whoooo and WhoooooOOOOOOooooOooo!” This comic-gothic, loony-bird ending actually suggests the dangers of the slippery thinking of conspiracy theories, even as it revels in it.

A decade having gone by hasn’t tempered the battle for the meaning of 9/11. This uniquely American rorschach test has some seeing the inherent evil of Islam, and some the length to which a secretive cabal will go to enact their PNAC plan of global dominance, with everything else in between, including hologram planes with simultaneously timed explosions.

Fire away in the comment thread if you want about all that. Below the fold I give my take. Continue Reading »

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