Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Poetry of 9/11

Aaron Belz


September 13, 2013

By Aaron Belz

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I disembarked a city bus at Saint Louis University. It was a cool day under a brilliant blue sky; I remember well the hiss of the bus door as I exited and walked toward Pius XII Memorial Library. When I arrived at the reference desk, in search of a map to serve as a visual aid for the 19th-century poetry class I was teaching, the librarian looked shocked. She didn’t respond to my request but turned around her desktop computer monitor so I could see the news headline. It was after one tower had been struck but before the second. “How can you ask for a map at a time like this?!” she asked, then handed me off to a student worker, who walked me to the map room.

I didn’t divine the import of that morning’s events while they were happening. I didn’t dismiss my classes, nor did I watch the news at all, even after I’d heard the initial reports. I didn’t want to hunger for sensational imagery and breaking news that way (and I was later criticized for that.) To this day, I haven’t watched a full-length report on the attacks, although I did read David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay in Rolling Stone, “9/11: The View From the Midwest.”

The following days and weeks, I received announcements (reading series event “POSTPONED: No words can express our grief. I hope you are able to huddle together, comfort and support those who need us most”), discussion group posts (frantic or oblivious), and phone calls from friends in New York (one of whom stood watching the attacks and aftermath from a parking garage roof in Queens). As a 29-year-old poet trying to make my own mark, in a much smaller way than Al-Qaeda, my radar was calibrated to the poetry world. So I discovered, felt, and mourned 9/11 as a poet among poets. There was some opprobrium of poets and artists who were opportunistically creating and circulating new terrorist-attack-related work. 

The sharpest jolt to me, personally, was poet Charles Bernstein’s instant account—written in the afternoon of 9/11 and posted immediately to a discussion group—titled “It’s 8:23 in New York.”  Here’s an excerpt:

I can’t imagine Manhattan without those two towers looming over the south end. As I was walking across the 59th Street bridge I couldn’t stop thinking of that Simon and Garfunkel song named after the bridge, “Feelin’ Groovy” (“Life, I love you . . . all is . . .”).

At about 6, Felix, Susan and I walked down to the Hudson. I wanted to see New Jersey, to see the George Washington Bridge. The sun gleamed on the water. The bridge was calm. Folks were bicycling and rollerblading. The scene was almost serene; just five miles from the Trade Center.

Uncanny is the word.

I emailed him after reading it, “I have Paul Simon’s voice in my head now.” He replied, “Me too.”

Bernstein describes the fact of trauma, the eerie way that life goes on. Not that it goes on after taking a break, but it goes on during the same day, at 6pm, in the vicinity even of a tragedy of historic proportions, much as it had gone on the day before and will go on the day after. Jorie Graham’s poem, “Fission,” recounts hearing about JFK’s assassination while watching Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962). The two narratives, each shocking in its own right, overlap and inform one another: text and context, or maybe context and context; private and public, real and fictional.

Poetry’s power to announce, commemorate, eulogize is well known. We use poetry to mark occasions so often that we underestimate its capacity to help humans regain their balance during and after extreme trauma. Thomas Hardy is one of the poets most skilled at dealing with cataclysm, and his “Convergence of the Twain” and “Channel Firing” narrate the two most dehumanizing catastrophes of the early 20th century: the sinking of the Titanic and the Great War. Each occurs in an ironic context of nature looking on (big-eyed fish, a drooling cow), bored as ever, utterly indifferent to human suffering. Poetry also sometimes presents trauma in a documentary style, as in Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust or Wing Tek Lum's new book, The Nanjing Massacre, thus mediating in a different, often more difficult, way.

As we look back at 9/11 and forward to Syria and other potentially explosive national and international situations, we can do so with wisdom drawn from other people’s experience. We can look to their narratives and understand that this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, and while all is not necessarily well, history marches forward—and so do we.

- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010). 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”