Undoing the folded lie: Poetry after 9/11

Rachael Allen

All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie.
‘September 1, 1939’ by W.H. Auden

These lines, from Auden’s response to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, are part of one of the most talked about poems after 9/11, still able to capture a prevailing atmosphere, over sixty years after its original appearance. It’s chillingly prophetic; an unhappy demonstration of history repeating itself, not only the echo in the dates but in the lines themselves:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers used
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective man

It is almost an article of faith at this point that the aftermath of 9/11 has not brought forth a novel worthy of its vast complexity. The literary giants of the pre-9/11 world, such as John Updike and Don DeLillo, have been said to be strangely exposed by those events, their intricate and magisterial fictional realms lacking the elements necessary to penetrate those tragic days and their consequences. But what about poetry? In the foreword for the Poetry After 9/11 anthology, we are told that, in the almost immediate aftermath, there were poems everywhere: ‘On the brick walls of police stations and firehouses, behind the mountains of flowers and between photos of the dead, poetry dominated.’ There was so much poetry written that a fire chief had to issue a statement: ‘Thank you for the food and blankets but please – no more poetry.’

The need to make sense of disaster is innate and whether we like it or not, writing can be a form of therapy. In the wake of a tragedy – public or private – people write to build a sense of reality when they find they’ve lost theirs. Alicia Ostriker, in her introduction to the anthology, tell us this. She buried herself ‘in a cloud of emailed poems’ claiming them to be ‘survival tools’. In reading stories recounted by victims’ families, New Yorkers, witnesses – there are so many – underlying all that grief is a sense of trying to control a nonsensical situation, to carry on with life. People lost their grip and did not know what was going on, people watching assumed it to be the end of the world. The story of one woman at the time of the attack, stuck at home, writing notes to the daughter she knows is working in one of the towers, state simply that ‘this can NOT have happened to you’. It is this same need for normalcy and all its trappings, which Auden touches on in his poem, ‘Faces along the bar / Cling to their average day: / the lights must never go out, / the music must always play.’

Poetry provided many people with an immediate release. Yet therein lies poetry’s blessing and curse; while for some, these poems of immediate therapeutic release were touching and relatable, for others, they were quite the opposite. Eric D. Snyder, working at the Daily Herald at the time of the attacks told how he was ‘bombarded’ with poems written by locals. And he got angry, publishing the poems on his blog as a feature called ‘The best of bad 9/11 poetry’, insisting that it was not ‘the sentiments that are fodder for mockery, but rather the inept and sentimental way they are expressed’. Bad taste or not, Snyder was right; these poems exude sentiment and trauma; the truth and consequences of the day are undermined, reduced to chorus-songs of grief that bring over-cooked sentiment to a raw, unexplainable feeling. And he wasn’t the only one to get angry that the real feeling of a day that changed everything forever is boiled down so incessantly, and so often, to cliché.

Nikki Moustaki’s poem, ‘How to Write a Poem after September 11th’, which appears in the Poetry After 9/11 anthology, elevates itself from sentimental rhetoric by being a sharp, irritated telling off to all the bad clichés that attempt to communicate feeling. Moustaki writes through gritted teeth, without metaphorical flourish, angry at the uselessness of poetry, but more angry that all she can do as a poet, to make sense, is write.

Don’t make a metaphor about the smell, because it wasn’t
a smell at all, but the air washed with working souls
piling bricks, one by one, spreading mortar.
don’t compare the birds to planes. Please.
don’t call the windows eyes. We know they saw it coming.

Moustaki controls grief through the understanding of the poetic tools at her disposal, yet does not allow herself to indulge in them, and this, coupled with the knowledge that what she writes will not help, but she does it anyway, echoes Auden and his futile insistence that all he has is his voice to attempt truth.

With the passing of ten years comes the chance to take scope; there’s been a more refined, more knowledgeable attempt at making sense. For some, the knowledge of 9/11 was a sorry premonition of things to come. Lorraine Mariner’s hard-hitting poem ‘Thursday’ is a recounting of the morning of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. Having seen this terror before, she’s able to use a present-tense dramatic irony to embed the most mundane actions with a subtle sense of foreboding; a terror about to be learned. On hearing that Tower Hill tube may be closed for ten minutes she thinks ‘typical’, taking the opportunity to post a birthday card to her sister’s boyfriend. What is powerful in this poem is what isn’t said: and what is so sad is that we know the ending without having to be told, yet we again live through that dawning realization that the unthinkable has happened:

. . . my mum rings and says
it’s bad but all my family members are safe
in their offices and I’m not to get on any more
buses so I start walking through the sirens
aiming for the building where my desk is waiting
exactly the way I left it yesterday evening.

Whilst it may be true that 9/11 has failed to produce a war poet on a par of that of Owen or Sassoon, the war poet that instantly comes to mind in this vein is Brian Turner. His graphic, first-hand accounts of being a soldier in Iraq are part of a chain reaction directly leading from 11 September. His first collection, Here, Bullet weaves through Iraq’s borders and rivers, and throughout Turner attempts to come to terms with just why he is there. In ‘Gilgamesh, in Fossil Relief’, he muses that:

History is a cloudy mirror made of dirt
and bone and ruin. And Love? Loss?
These are the questions we must answer
by war and famine and pestilence, and again
By touch and kiss, because each age must learn
This is the path of the sun’s journey by night.

But still, there is the overwhelming question of why he is there. And, a common theme running through so many of these poems, is that of answering a question. But none, truly, ever will. A poem attempting to deal with an overwhelming, furious and deep wealth of emotion will never do that emotion justice – it is an impossibility. The point of the best of the poems written about 11 September is to create a universal meeting point; they’re a way of reaching out, of saying, ‘We all felt this in one way or another: here is my way.’ True sense of a situation may never come through in a poem, but, be it the craft to hone, or the therapy, vital perspective does. It was, in fact, Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ that was circulated most after the attacks; how a poem about the uncertainty and difficulty of poetic expression managed to unite so many is a testament to the human relationship to poems.

You Want Gunfire With That?
Airports: Frontier Nations