Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Poetry & 9/11, pt. 2

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.


I’m currently in the process of finishing up a year-long project called “Z”. I started the now book-length poem last October, just after my second son was born, and thankfully I feel the end of the cycle is finally coming together, right on time.

The end, as I’m working on it, appears to be integrating elements of the movie Donnie Darko with 9/11. For those who don’t know this arcane fact, Donnie Darko had its limited release in October of 2001. Something about an airplane engine becoming a vehicle of death must have been too disturbing to warrant a wider release. But when it came out in the UK a year later, its cultish status began developing. I first saw the film about a year later, in 2003, when the second war stemming from 9/11 was launched, based on lies.

Here is a peek:

it was a Tuesday to remember
in September—

it was a glorious day in Montana—
in New York City, blue-skied gaps between skyscrapers…

a combination of box-cutters and war-games
confusion and human error
a break down in communication
the state as fallible
despite its tremendously convincing PR spewing
from Hollywood

(a notion some paranoids can’t accept;
is perhaps scarier
than the all-encompassing conspiracy
they can’t recognize as chapel perilous
like I did, and left)

the form of plane became building became flame

the finger of god, as manifested in Donnie’s decision
to use the rip to carry himself back
in the path of the falling plane

(the month and year the film had its limited release on just 58 screens
was October, 2001)

we are dealing with torn up worlds put back together poorly
by our limited understanding of the spiritual dimension
trapped in our material existence


Back to the article.

It shouldn’t be surprising so many poems have been generated by 9/11. Poetry is not an inconsequential blip on the blight of our mainstream consumer culture commodifying the seconds of its precious televised transmissions.

To conclude this week’s LWPS, Philip Metres one last time:

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 compelled me to rethink everything I thought I knew, and made me want to learn more, to read outside whatever borders I had created for myself. Not to be more American, but to be a better citizen, a better denizen of the planet. To go global and be local, to go ancient and be modern, to question all certainties and embrace what I did not know, to read Rumi and Isaiah, Rushdie and Roy and even Al-Qaeda, to listen to Springsteen and Kulthum, to refuse the elixir of fundamentalisms, to translate and be translated again by what I could not yet understand. To tattoo “Oye” on my body. To listen.

  1. lizard19

    to put the events of that day in a compelling context, i highly recommend the Adam Curtis documentary The Power of Nightmares. here is the first ten minutes:

  2. lizard19

    damn, i haven’t watched this series since it came out in 2006. it’s an absolute must see. here are the other 5 parts to volume 1 (there are two other installments, about six parts each, which i’ll try to post later tonight if i have time):

  3. lizard19

    here is volume 2.

    seriously, without the insanity of the neocons, and their need for evil adversaries to justify their power grab, i doubt 9/11 would ever have happened.

  4. lizard19

    …and volume 3

  5. Ingemar Johansson

    Blame it on the neocons. Yeah that’s the simplistic answer.

    I chose to delve even deeper. Like maybe Clinton getting a “Lewinski” while his security advisors rang his phone saying, “we got OBL in our sights”.

    Or even better, the disarmament society that libs seem to enjoy, or better yet relish in.

    No one puts it more eloquently as Vanderboegh.

    “Yeah, I remember 9/11.

    I remember the blood, the carnage and the sacrifice. I remember the New York cops and firefighters charging into the twin towers. I remember Americans on Flight 93 rising to the occasion, even though disarmed by the government, to sell their lives as dearly as possible. I remember that armed citizens, passengers or pilots, randomly positioned on four mundane aircraft, could have prevented the whole thing, even had the Jihadis had firearms themselves.

    Yeah, I remember 9/11.

    I remember it as an abject failure of government for which the people — then, now and in the future — have paid, are paying and will continue to pay, the price of that failure.”

    • Ingemar Johansson

      I haven’t had time to skim these “nightmare” vids that you’ve provided but I’m betting they don’t include the biggest nightmare of all.

      Truly free law abiding people arming themselves against all enemies foreign or domestic.

      • lizard19

        so you make an assumption that the simplistic answer is blame it on the neocons without even watching the material provided? classic.

        watch ’em, then get back to me about the neocons who have been conning this country for decades.

        • Ingemar Johansson

          Really don’t have to, read Davis’s review instead.

          • lizard19

            are you not capable of watching this yourself and coming to your own conclusion? do you need this Davis to do that work for you? because that’s kind of pathetic.

            • Steve W

              Ingemar can’t handle the truth. So he filters it through people he trusts to tone it down a bit.

            • Ingemar Johansson

              Pot calling kettle black?

              You seem to be putting a lot of faith into what the screenwriters are feeding you.

              • lizard19

                you make an interesting point. i include total fiction in the stories that impact and inform my understanding of the world. the myths i’ve incorporated make me no saner than the neocons who see the USSR/radical Islam as pure evil, and America as the noble and good counter force.

                the difference, of course, is my delusions have yet to result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of people displaced and trillions of dollars wasted.

            • Ingemar Johansson

              ……and Liz are you getting some marching orders from Soros?

              Cause Krugman just came out with gem in his latest column.

              ” And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight”

  6. mr benson

    I remember the Anointed Genital, in charge of an FBI that ignored the warnings, worrying about pot and assisted suicide in Oregon and covering tits on statues while our country was infiltrated and attacked.

    It was deliberate stupidity, but not some international conspiracy.

  7. Ingemar Johansson

    If it was indeed the neocons they had a lot of help.

    Timeless Malkin piece written in ’03.

  8. Steve W

    Lizard, thanks for posting “Power of Nightmares.” I had heard of it and now after seeing it i’d say it’s well worth seeing.

  9. Ingemar Johansson

    Here’s the only video you’ll need to see.

  10. Turner

    Liz, What, in your opinion, makes Krugman a “hack”?

    • lizard19

      well, let’s hear from the glorious progressive himself about how to spot a hack:

      How can you tell the hacks from the serious analysts? One answer is to do a little homework. Hack jobs often involve surprisingly raw, transparent misrepresentations of fact: in these days of search engines and online databases you don’t need a staff of research assistants to catch ’em with their hands in the cookie jar. But there is another telltale clue: if a person, or especially an organization, always sings the same tune, watch out.

      Real experts, you see, tend to have views that are not entirely one-sided. For example, Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati, a staunch free-trader, is also very critical of unrestricted flows of short-term capital. Right or not, this mixed stance reflects an honest mind at work. You might think that hacks would at least try to simulate an open mind — that simply for the sake of appearances the Heritage Foundation would try to find some tax it supports, or the Economic Policy Institute find some trade liberalization it favors. But it almost never happens.

      so is Krugman a real expert, or just another partisan hack? I agree with the statement from this article:

      Krugman is a press agent, a busker, for Clintonomics. For him as for so many others on the liberal side, the world only went bad in January, 2001.

      when it comes to economists, i like Michael Hudson. check this article from November, 2010 about Krugman.

      Bill Clinton’s neoliberal economic team did real damage to our economy, and Krugman has been a dedicated defender of that administration and its economic polices.

      and for that, i’m calling him a hack.

      • Turner

        I confess that I’m pretty mystified by the field of economics, so I’m not going to pretend that I know much about it. I’ve seen Krugman (on TV, in short snippets) consistently calling for larger stimulus programs. Is it the consistency (one-sidedness) of his argument that makes him a “hack”? Hack or not, compared to supply-siders like Friedman, he seems to be on the side of the angels.

        • lizard19

          mystification happens by design. complicated financial instruments, with all the garbled jargon that goes along with them, were intended to obscure what’s actually happened in the finance sector, which is the most massive transfer of wealth in US history. there are so many people who should be prosecuted and never will be precisely because gatekeepers like Krugman only criticize certain aspects of the high finance industry, from certain perspectives.

          expecting Krugman, or the New York Times, to bring any clarity to the nebulous financial sector is, IMHO, naive.

          Bill Clinton’s economic team embraced deregulation and repealed Glass-Steagall, laying the groundwork for “too big to fail.”

          this is just my opinion, but i consider any economist unwilling to put the glorious 90’s into the context of the deregulated bubble economic shenanigans being run back then to be a hack, angling for something.

          Krugman is allowed his NYT space not because he challenges the primacy of wall street, but because his selectivity makes him useful.

          Lindorff (again from Counterpunch, those bastards) speculates on Krugman’s blindspot in a column he wrote in 2008:

          In a New York Times column on Monday (“Behind the Bush Bust”), economics columnist Paul Krugman mused on whether President George Bush could be blamed for the nation’s economic crisis. His conclusion was that, yes, to some extent the crisis was Bush’s fault, but he largely lets the current administration off the hook, instead blaming Republican policies dating back 10-15 years.

          Oddly, Krugman does say that a key cause of economic problems has been rising energy prices, but he then attributes these to “growing demand from China and other emerging economies,” and suggests that prices might have been at least a bit lower had the US, after 9/11, adopted “higher gas taxes and fuel efficiency standards,” a failing he attributes to Bush.

          The gaping hole in Krugman’s logic is the Iraq War, which the columnist, incredibly, doesn’t even mention. Yet clearly, the invasion and subsequent war and occupation of Iraq which was purely the result of Bush/Cheney machinations, has been a major, if not the major cause of oil price increases

          I’m not sure what to make of this oversight on Krugman’s part. Is he trying to downplay the war, figuring it’s soon to become a Democratic venture? Is he unfamiliar with the argument that war is bad for economies?

          One thing is clear: You cannot look at a nation at war and analyze its economy without considering the impact of the war, which is what the usually astute Krugman has done here.

          so Krugman, while very intelligent, compelling, and probably mostly right (especially about the size of the needed stimulus) has a soft, malleable core, angling for whatever gets his rocks off, maybe prestige, maybe position, or maybe just creating a little job security.

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Poetry and 9/11, pt. 2 […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Poetry and 9/11, pt. 2 […]

  3. 3 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

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