Dust in thick clouds crept up the avenues. Crowds of people in dirty suits and dresses walked north, and many of the women were barefoot, heels and pumps in their hands. Not a car or taxi in sight. On side streets men unloaded fruit and vegetables from delivery trucks while others gossiped and sipped tea. Dogs played on a corner. Further east, near the river, police officers at intersections directed people toward the bridge. Dust in thick clouds crept up the river. On the bridge people cried, joked, talked, kept to themselves, screamed. A subway worker soaked with sweat pushed a dolly loaded with sacks of subway tokens. A bus from the Tombs inched along, its prisoners heckling any woman nearby. On the other side of the bridge, a mass of people walked up Flatbush Avenue. When we reached the park, it was empty except for a few dogs and the birds. When I finally reached my block, there was something else I’d never seen before—nearly every brownstone and apartment building was flying an American flag.
An air of shock, profanation and contradiction did not evaporate in the weeks and months after the World Trade Center was destroyed by two hijacked airplanes on the morning of September 11, 2001. It also hung over the aftermath and the planning of the American military response to the attacks. Although the plot was organized and carried out by members of Al Qaeda who had been based in Afghanistan, President Bush used the attacks to justify the invasion and occupation of that country as well as Iraq. While the wreckage of the World Trade Center was still smoldering, a staff writer at the New Yorker compared the checkpoints for local residents entering neighborhoods in lower Manhattan to the velvet rope outside a nightclub. Several months later, “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem by Amiri Baraka, was published online, and it insinuated that the government of Israel—and no other government but Israel’s—knew of the attacks beforehand and had instructed Israelis who worked at the Twin Towers to stay at home that day. But Baraka’s incendiary poem never amounted to more than an afterthought, in part because many of its complaints about the United States were so commonplace on the left as to sound over-rehearsed.
“The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry,” Virginia Woolf observed of the Great War, and after September 11th something similar happened. By the time “Somebody Blew Up America” appeared, two other poems, among the countless others that people faxed, emailed and shared with each other in the days and weeks after the attacks, had already become household elegies for Americans trying to make sense of the devastation. One was “September 1, 1939,” written by W. H. Auden after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, a few short months after the poet had moved from Britain to New York City. “I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade,” the poem begins. In the days after the terrorist attacks, “September 1, 1939” was reprinted in the editorial pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and other newspapers, recited on NPR and taped to lampposts in Manhattan. With lines like “The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night” and “We must love one another or die,” the poem sounded like an omen. That it was eventually disowned by Auden, who came to think that the line about love was dishonest (“That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway,” he told his literary executor and biographer Edward Mendelson), and went so far as to exclude the poem from his Collected Poems, did not prevent it from becoming indispensable to many readers after the attacks.
No less prominent was “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” by Adam Zagajewski, which appeared on the final page of the first issue of the New Yorker published after September 11th, at the time a spot reserved for a cartoon and where now a crossword resides. Zagajewski’s poem begins, “Try to praise the mutilated world. / Remember June’s long days, / and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. / The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” There are moments when the poem sounds like it had been written on deadline between the attacks and its publication: “You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere, / you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.” Zagajewski, however, had written the poem a year and a half earlier, and its germ was his own childhood: he grew up in a bombed-out, half-destroyed city after his family was expelled from Lvov, a city turned over to Ukraine and forcibly emptied of its Polish population after World War II. During the war it was a region where Germans exterminated Jews (with some Poles and Ukrainians having collaborated in their efforts), Germans massacred Poles, Poles attacked Germans, Poles murdered Ukrainians, Ukrainians murdered Poles and the Soviets oftentimes killed or deported those suspected of having collaborated with the Germans. It is deeply mutilated ground.
Auden’s and Zagajewski’s poems address the violence, homelessness and terror of World War II, but they have little else in common. The language of “September 1, 1939” is grand, emphatic, telegraphic, certain of itself and its sweeping judgments of history: “Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad, / Find what occurred at Linz, / What huge imago made / A psychopathic god.” Even the poem’s most memorable line, “We must love one another or die,” sounds like an ultimatum rather than a careful weighing of alternatives like Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Later that September Auden issued another decree in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, who had died in January: “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
Whereas Auden confronts readers with a mixture of certainty (“Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”) and apprehension (“Defenceless under the night / Our world in stupor lies”), Zagajewski challenges them, and himself. Although he begins the poem with an imperative, its opening lines are spare, hesitant, unassuming, less a stern command than the sound of someone reluctant to praise a world that includes both wild strawberries and executioners who sing joyfully. There follow three additional exhortations to praise, each one in a different key—“You must praise,” “You should praise,” “Praise the mutilated world”—and their repetition stresses the difficulty of acknowledging beauty in a precarious world where consolations are ephemeral. Instead of offering timeless assurances, Zagajewski poignantly confronts the fact that we exist in time: “the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered” are past, and can only be remembered.
Most of “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” takes place far from the white room with its fluttering curtains, and Zagajewski addresses the historical tragedy outside that room without making programmatic statements about historical tragedy. He also gives us work to do, which is necessary but in no way easy: try to praise the mutilated world, and thereby, in the span of that moment, see the ordinary as extraordinary in the face of mortality. Part of the poem’s beauty is its strangeness, its avoidance of the grandiose and the ideal as it attempts with plain elegance to find a scrap of hope in the face of violence, suffering and death on an epic scale.
Not long after the terrorist attacks, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and owner of City Lights Bookstore, declared at a reading in San Francisco that henceforth, poetry would be known as BS and AS—“Before September 11th” and “After September 11th.” By mimicking BC and AD, the abbreviations once used to define the Christian era, Ferlinghetti presented the attacks as an apocalyptic awakening, and his Audenesque characterization of their impact on contemporary literary history continues to reverberate among American poets. In his introduction to Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, an anthology published in reaction to the election of Donald Trump, the poet Amit Majmudar writes, “I must confess to having disliked political poetry and ‘protest’ poetry for much of my reading life.” (Majmudar was born in 1979.) He admits to having “perpetrated a political poem here or there,” although he “always felt a little dirty afterward.” But then, Majmudar says, “As it did to so many of my generation, 9/11 broke a stupor that should have broken well before.” In December 2018, Tracy K. Smith, at the time the poet laureate of the United States, told a similar story. Writing in the New York Times, Smith recalled that when she was a college student in the mid-1990s there was a “firm admonition” against writing political poetry, its creeping dangers being didacticism and “slackened craft.” (Smith didn’t say which poets had earned her teachers’ disapproval.) Only the “few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov,” she said, had the outsized conscience that “justified such risky behavior.” But Smith went on to explain that after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, “something shifted in the nation’s psyche” and there was a resurgence of political poetry. Both Majmudar and Smith’s claims were endorsed last year by the critic Jeffrey Gray in an essay about the “poetry of engagement” published in the American Poetry Review. And earlier this year, in a review in the New York Times of new posthumous poetry collections by Muriel Rukeyser and June Jordan, the essayist and poet Elisa Gabbert repeated Smith’s characterization of the Nineties, adding that admonitions against poems that engage with politics were still common when Gabbert was in college at the end of that decade.
Although she doesn’t point it out, Smith had been peddled bad literary history. More than a few volumes of poetry published in the early 1990s contradicted her teachers’ conventional wisdom about poetry and politics, and two books among the many are Nathaniel Mackey’s School of Udhra (1993) and Michael Palmer’s At Passages (1995). Mackey has said that in writing we inherit the voices of the dead, and in School of Udhra he tells another installment of his ongoing fictitious history of the Andoumboulou, a failed, earlier form of human being in the cosmogony of the Dogon people of Mali, in West Africa. The tale of a tribe that faced religious and ethnic persecution, School of Udhra seeks to imagine new paths through the settled facts of its past. Mackey’s poems speak with a torn voice, a rasp punctuated by both gasps of anguish about the Dogon’s history of dispossession and the rumblings of a desire for rejuvenation. Their cadences are vigorous and varied, especially in their rich lyrical passages—“spiked earth at the / soles / of our feet, heels and the / balls of our feet / pestling / light).”
Dislocation, although in a different time and place, and the precise use of highly figurative yet concrete language are also central to Palmer’s At Passages, particularly “Seven Poems within a Matrix for War,” a series about the 1991 Gulf War. In the second poem, “Construction of the Museum,” Palmer writes: “In the hole caused by bombs / which are smart we might find a hand // It is the writing hand / hand which dreams a hole // to the left and the right of each hand.” The poem’s language is at once haunting (a hole dreamt by a disembodied hand) and of its historical moment (smart bombs), so much so that however much the poet tries to avoid using the overpowering language of war, he knows that he cannot write a poem about war without it: “We never say the word desert / nor does the sand pass through the fingers // of this hand we forget / is ours.” There may be a lesson here about ambiguity and the slipperiness of figurative language—is the dreamt hole Palmer’s poem?—but it is neither didactic nor slack. Ambiguity is an aspect of the poem as well as of the language of daily life.
What do poets who want poetry to be political want poetry to be? It’s important to remember that poets have been on the defensive for a very long time, at least since Plato wanted them banished from the state, and since the nineteenth century their place in culture has been tested by the rise of the novel as well as the creation of technologies that prize the rational, practical and profitable. At the same time, as the poet and critic James Longenbach writes in his indispensable book The Resistance to Poetry (2004), poets of all eras have been treated with suspicion. The reason is that “poems do not necessarily ask to be trusted. Their language revels in duplicity and disjunction, making it difficult for us to assume that any particular poetic gesture is inevitably responsible or irresponsible to the culture that gives the language meaning.” The story that Smith and Gabbert were told about a political awakening after 9/11 had holes of its own, yet it offered poets something rare and misleading: an exemption from suspicion. Its assertion that in the wake of the attacks, poetry rediscovered a clear political purpose and sense of importance serves as an escape hatch from the perennial task of justification. Creative and social health is achieved by embracing poetry that addresses political problems openly and directly, if not pedantically, thereby proving the art’s trustworthiness and broader social relevance. The story’s ground note is more didactic—“Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”—than idiosyncratic: “Try to praise the mutilated world.”
The narrative does something else, too: it streamlines a story about literary change by minimizing or neglecting the doubts and complications that can be at the heart of a poet’s own understanding of the relationship between poetry and politics. In his introduction to Resistance, Rebellion, Life, Majmudar mentions W. B. Yeats as an obvious “go-to” poet for “political engagement” but never makes clear exactly what it is he means. Yeats was a complicated guy, and so too were his views on poetry and politics. In 1915, in response to a request to contribute to an anthology of war literature, he wrote “A Reason for Keeping Silent” (later retitled “On Being Asked for a War Poem”), which begins, “I think it better that in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right.” The implication is that public events can happen on such a massive scale that for a time we are left powerless to comprehend them, and should recognize that. In “Easter, 1916,” written in the months after the failed rebellion of Irish nationalists seeking independence from Great Britain, and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” in which the drunken soldiery of an imperialist England abandons an Irish mother “murdered at her door, / To crawl in her own blood” while they “go scot-free,” Yeats shows political violence to be something both calculated and unpredictable. In 1925, he wrote in A Vision that “I do not want to concern myself, except where I must, with political events,” yet since 1922 he had been serving in the newly formed Irish Senate (which he would leave in 1928). He had also told his friend Ezra Pound that he should never get elected to the Senate of his country. Near the end of his life, during a brief enchantment with Benito Mussolini’s fascist politics, Yeats thought political violence could be a cure for modern anarchy. In “Politics,” the poem that concluded his last book and closed out his career, he added a final twist. How is it possible, he asks himself with a young woman standing before him, to be concerned with Roman or Russian or Spanish politics? He continues,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
In the end, Yeats longed not for the epic encounters of politics and war but for the intimate entanglements of young lovers. Behind that choice were the fifty years Yeats devoted to writing poems, many of which explored with curiosity, torment and beauty the struggle between affairs of the state and those of the heart.
There’s more to Yeats’s views on poetry and politics than Majmudar lets on, but then in the United States controversies about poetry and politics can often be narrow or confusing. John Ashbery was inadvertently drawn into an especially nasty one after he published a commemorative essay in September 1966 about the poetry of his friend Frank O’Hara, who had died that July in an accident. O’Hara’s work “has no program and therefore cannot be joined,” Ashbery explained in Book Week. “It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age; in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe.” Ashbery wasn’t erecting a wall between poetry and politics with his praise of O’Hara; instead, he was challenging the belief that poetry must in some way serve politics. Unlike “the ‘message’ of committed poetry,” he stressed, O’Hara’s work “incites one to all the programs of commitment as well as to every other form of self-realization—interpersonal, Dionysian, occult, or abstract.”
For his composure and subtlety, Ashbery was attacked seven months later by the poet Louis Simpson, who had organized in the pages of the Nation a symposium on poetry. In his introduction Simpson praised W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg for their opposition to the Vietnam War; then, alluding to Ashbery’s tribute to O’Hara, he accused Ashbery of “sneering at the conscience of other poets. Some people seem to be able to protest only against an act of protest by others.” But Ashbery had done no such thing, and in his reply to the magazine he did not answer Simpson’s censorious bombast with more of the same. Instead Ashbery stressed that he was
praising Frank O’Hara for giving a unique voice to his own conscience, far more effective than most of the protest “poetry” being written today. All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn’t poetry, and it stops being poetry when it is forced into the mold of a particular program. Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest. I believe in both forms of action.
Ashbery was not indifferent to politics; in his reply he noted that he had signed petitions against the Vietnam War, donated money to protest efforts and participated in anti-war marches. Yet like contemporaries as different as Elizabeth Bishop and George Oppen, Ashbery declined to take for granted the political significance of his or anyone else’s poetry; nor did he confuse poetry with political action. To do otherwise would have been to risk diminishing poetry’s creative power, what he thought to be its capacity for perfectly useless concentration.
Although it is not a work of art, Ashbery’s response to Simpson is the work of an artist, a poet who never sought to be oppositional. Ashbery preached no conversion narrative. He didn’t even preach. For him, a poem is its own justification; it is not the emissary of a poet’s sense of his or her political importance. Ashbery’s perspective was as uncommon in the 1960s, when what he called “the loyalty-oath mentality” in America had “pervaded outer Bohemia,” as it is in our time, with its zero-sum arguments over representations of identity and its Twitter storms about the proper ways for poets to write about politics. Ashbery understood what is so often evident in discussions about poetry and politics, especially since 9/11: once the work of political justification is taken up, it becomes endless. What is lost in the meantime is the freedom to write as you choose.
In his defense of the power and value of poetry in the face of calls for its politicization, Ashbery reminds me of the writer Kenneth Burke, who fought similar battles in the 1920s over the connection between aesthetics and social relevance raised by the work of Marx and Freud. As a critic Burke praised “a questioning art” that instead of doubling down on certainty “is often turning against itself and its own best discoveries”—an art that’s not content with what it has accomplished, that’s always trying to become something else. Burke, however, was also careful not to suggest that such writing, as much as he delighted in it because it delighted in itself, could solve social problems even as it addressed them in its own particular, impractical way. “One cannot advocate art as a cure for toothache without disclosing the superiority of dentistry,” he emphasized in Counter-Statement. Although art may not be ineffective, it’s careless to think that its effects are practical. Protest is protest. Dentistry is dentistry. Poetry is poetry.
Photo credit: World Trade Center in the 1970s (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)