Thursday, August 21, 2008

an old poem embedded in thoughts on disaster

For better or for worse, call this one of my 9/11 poems, published in my (out of print) British collection, name , an errant (2006). The anthologies were sick with them for a while, everyone writing a poem on what the world predominantly witnessed as a television event, eventually moving from the immediacy of television out into other media. How does one make a particular kind of distant pain universal, unique and even artful? Unless you actually lived in New York at the time, or were in the vicinity, which a surprising number of writers were, American and otherwise, how can one write anything at all? How is it possible to write any kind of political poem, so called, announcing a pain experienced second or fourth hand?
the sand that is everywhere

you would be so very nice
to question

& be ready w/ a believable

seeking out the cause, so much
left here has been broken

a rattling of chains

this is a noise you hear
on a bus

a context that supplies its own

chest pulld tight, as watching
worlds collapse

announcing the death of irony, even
before the fires are out

ash covers all in his apartment

the space of weeks, & a few
short blocks
The title of the piece was borrowed from Toronto writer and filmmaker R.M. Vaughan, who said in the acknowledgements of his first poetry collection, A Selection of Dazzling Scarves (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1996), that this was his original title. I preferred the abandoned title to what he went with, and lifted it back for myself. But how does one write anything after such an event? Even Paul Celan knew, you could still write poems after Auschwitz, but they would have to be different.

Over the years I'd steered deliberately clear of poems on current events and politics, mainly because most poems on such simply don’t work, and there are enough badly-written, well-intentioned political poems out there in the world without me adding to the problem. Still, it became part of a list of events that connection whole populations; where were you on the day this or even this happened? The world saw John F. Kennedy assassinated that afternoon in Dallas on live black-and-white or captured on radio; the Vietnam war was one lost through media reports witnessed on television. The Challenger disaster I watched live in 1984, just home from a high school morning of my grade nine history exam. The western world was connected through our three or four days unable to do anything but watch the reports of the World Trade Center attacks and response on the major news networks.

Following the attacks, the media was reporting the death of irony. How can they report such a thing, said New York resident Jon Stewart, one evening on The Daily Show, when I still have ash covering everything in my apartment? Some of the fires weren’t even out. Such things aren’t possible. It's too early. Everything will eventually go back to normal, whatever it is that might mean. But what does normal become?

Did anyone else notice how it was CTV Newsnet, well before CNN or CBC, showing new footage first, well before the other stations repeated such, well down the line? Do you remember the empty skies and the government workers sent home?

Do you remember that start you had a few days later, noticing that first airplane back in the sky just above?

1 comment:

Bryan Sentes said...

rob, the question you pose is as vexed as perennial. Poets have always taken up "current affairs": the Greek dramatists (e.g. The Lysistrata), Pindar, Catullus, Horace, Juvenal, and Milton ("On the Late Massacher in Piemont"), among many others. Whether or not we take Adorno's dictum concerning Auschwitz and lyric poetry dogmatically or not (I am loathe to do so), W C Williams makes a deservedly famous, germane observation in his "Asphodel: that greeny flower": "My heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something / that concerns you / and concerns many men. Look at / what passes for the new. / You will not find it there but in / despised poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." To my mind the problem is not so much to make something "universal" but more "concrete", i.e., more complex, rounded, full, complete, as opposed to the facile, rapid-fire interpretations stuck onto events by the mainstream televisual media, which must always move on to the next ephemeral story: a creative if not artistic response is necessary! A variety of possible responses to the kind of events you note are found in, for example, The Capilano Review war/grief/poetics issue Winter 2002, Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra" in The Fall of America, which tackles precisely the news media's handling of current affairs, and Peter Dale Scott's Saeculum trilogy. Man, better to be inspired by (such) successes than (the all-too-many) failures, wot?