Writing Poetry after 9/11

Marjorie Perloff

Published in American Letters & Commentary (2002): 18-23.


–Good writers are those that keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. . . .

The fogged language of swindling classes serves only a temporary purpose. . . .

A people that grows accustomed to sloppy writing is a people in process of losing grip on its empire and on itself. And this looseness and blowsiness is not anything as simple and scandalous as abrupt and disordered syntax.

It concerns the relation of expression to meaning.

–Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, Chapter 3

How to write poetry after 9/11? I think Pound has it about right. As the “antennae of the race,” poets must strenuously resist the “language of [the] swindling classes,” as expressed in the daily press and on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News—and even, as I shall suggest here, in the discourse of some of our so-called Public Intellectuals. Poets are the language users best prepared to resist this “sloppy writing”—writing that undercuts the relation of expression to meaning.

Take a seemingly straightforward little sentence, Cornell West’s declaration in April 2002 that Harvard’s President “Larry Summers is the Sharon of Harvard.” Earlier, West had made numerous comparisons between Sharon and Hitler so that, in essence, he was here saying that Larry Summers is like Hitler. So inured are we to this sort of double talk that few people object, and the trustees of Princeton promptly and unanimously voted to give Professor West a Chair. But the remark is not only inaccurate and slanderous; it is meaningless. The notion that a university president who actually dares to challenge the work of one of his chaired professors can be compared to a prime minister, deploying what many take to be extremist, excessively violent tactics in his war against the Palestinians, makes no sense. In a democratic society like ours, university presidents actually do have freedom of speech. Summers had not done anything to West except, possibly, to humiliate him by suggesting that he produce more hard scholarship and less popular writing. What it has to do with Sharon is anybody’s guess, except that what West is saying is that they’re both, you know, bad guys! Bullies!

` But now let’s take the comparison the next step. One may hate Sharon but just how is Sharon like Hitler? I suppose West links them as twin oppressors and murderers of innocent people. But Sharon is fighting what is in essence a civil war: before 1948, there was neither an Israel nor a state called Palestine and the complex question is how these two ethnic groups can conceivably live together. Sharon was voted into office in a democratic election, and, no more than his Labor predecessor Ehud Barak is he likely to remain Prime Minister for long. Hitler, by contrast, seized power by criminal means, could do whatever he liked (which is hardly true for Sharon!), and set in motion a calculated plan to kill off anyone who could be shown to have so much as a drop of Jewish blood. He also exterminated other ethnic and social groups and nations. If Sharon were a Hitler, he would already have taken over Jordan, with Egypt next on his list. To call Sharon a Hitler is thus simply irresponsible, as it is irresponsible to call Milosevic a Hitler. Indeed, all three of these cases are quite different.

It was Wittgenstein who taught us that the limits of language are the limits of our world and that each word or sentence had to be understood in a particular context. When Christopher Hitchens recently dared to criticize Islamic Fundamentalism, the cry of “Fascist” immediately went up! Never mind that Hitchens has been a Socialist all his life; if he says X, then it must be Y. But Fascists were real people who practiced real things like stamping out all dissent in the Italy of entre deux guerres, like killing their enemies in cold blood, and running a hideous dictatorship. What did Hitchens do? He dared to say in The Nation that perhaps the U.S. needed to defend itself against the attacks of 9/11. When the adjective “Fascist” (or its close relative “McCarthyite”) is applied to such an opinion, the language cannot help but be debased.

Marcel Duchamp coined the word infrathin for the smallest possible difference between two items or two words and argued that the infrathin is crucial to an understanding of the world as we know it. “Eat,” he insisted is not the same as “ate”; “tables” is not the same as “table.” The smallest tense and person shifts matter. Cream feels different on one’s hands than does water. A name for anything—Nine Malic Moulds, Why not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy?”, or Fountain is useless unless it designates something very particular. Precision, as poets have always known, is what matters. And so you can imagine how Duchamp would have felt about the double talk we endlessly meet in the media. What happened in Jenin was immediately called a “massacre.” Then when it turned out that only about 50 people had been killed, 17 of whom were civilians (over against 23 Israeli soldiers who were killed), the word massacre suddenly disappeared from the radar screen, to be replaced by human rights abuses, although how and why these abuses were different from others was never stated. Those anchor persons who had for days used the word massacre never apologized for the mistake. And, in any case, whatever that thing was in Jenin, reporters could confidently and piously refer to the cycle of violence. This term is especially inane, sounding, for all the world, like the spin cycle on the washing-machine, and of course spin is what’s involved. What is the “cycle of violence”? Yes, the Israelis attack the Palestinians and then vice-versa and then the cycle is renewed. But is violence then always cyclical? And if not, why? Are there any straight lines in question or only circles? And what would violence be if it weren’t a cycle but a sudden disruption of what is otherwise the calm world of peace?

Or take the current discussion of the word “evil.” Commentators have had a field day making fun of Bush for talking about terrorists as “evil” and of “evil” nations like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. How absurd, we sophisticated people like to say: how can one call a nation or a large phenomenon or indeed anything “evil”? How quaint and stupid, how characteristic of Cowboy Bush! But wait a minute. Suppose we do a survey and see whether anyone reading this journal thinks colonialism is not evil. Is any thinking person making a practical case for a revival of colonialism? Does anyone seem eager to debate the subject? Or do we take this particular evil as beyond discussion? And if so, why is it inconceivable that a specific government might be “evil”?

So clichéd and vapid has our public discourse become that many of my friends actually admitted surprise that those who worked at the World Trade Center weren’t all rich stockbrokers on the one hand or janitors on the other. The very acronym WTC pointed to the evils of capitalism as we know it. But then the moving daily obituaries in the New York Times revealed that the victims were actually people more or less like the rest of us, working at all sorts of jobs. There was the classicist who was giving a seminar to a travel group. There were mathematicians trained at MIT. There were many computer scientists and technicians. And the WTC workers were so multiethnic and racially diverse that the usual clichés seemed oddly irrelevant. An African-American mother who was an avid and successful trader. A Latino chef who was about to open his own restaurant. And so on. What those obituaries helped us see is difference—the very real distinctions between hitherto nameless and faceless “ordinary” citizens.

But it doesn’t happen this way very often in the newspaper and this is where poetry comes in. It is too soon to talk about the poetry of 9/11 –the events are still too painful—and whatever that poetry will look like, it is not likely to have the pure moral outrage of, say, Milton’s great sonnet on the Massacre at Piedmont which begins, “Avenge, Oh Lord, thy slaughtered saints.” But I like to think that it might be as nuanced and complex and differential as Frank O’Hara’s “The Arrow that Flieth by Day,” with its conflation of Cold War and personal references, or like his brilliantly witty political poem that begins:

Khrushchev is coming on the right day!

the cool graced light

is pushed off the enormous glass piers by hard wind

and everything is tossing, hurrying on up

this country

has everything but politesse a Puerto Rican cab driver says

and five different girls I see

look like Piedie Gimbel

with her blonde hair tossing too,

as she looked when I pushed

her little daughter on the swing on the lawn it was also windy

last night we went to a movie and came out.

Ionesco is greater

than Beckett, Vincent said, that’s what I think, blueberry blintzes

and Khrushchev was probably being carped at

in Washington, no politesse

What makes it the “right” day for Khrushchev or for the poet? It takes the whole poem to answer that question. O’Hara wrote it on 17 September 1959; it was the height of the U.S. / Soviet stand-off vis-à-vis Cuba and Khrushchev’s visit to Washington was made much of in the papers as a key event that might change the course of the Cold War. The poet had undoubtedly seen headlines and articles about the impending “crisis,” the preparations for the Soviet’s leader’s visit, and so on. But although politics and war are never far from O’Hara’s consciousness —how can they be in ’59?—for him, Khrushchev is coming to New York on the right day for no better reason than that this is a Red Letter day for Frank. Why? Because he and Vincent Warren are in love and because the strong wind blowing somehow prolongs last night’s ecstasy. So, in the absurd logic of the poem, it must somehow be the “right day” even for something as ominous and unpleasant as Khrushchev’s arrival in Manhattan No day, of course, is the “right” day for Khrushchev’s visit, but the poet, momentarily transported by his memories and feelings, by the wind that makes everything comes alive, is feeling so good that, in a droll, campy gesture, he can pay homage even to the dour old Soviet Premier, whose visit hardly promises anything but trouble. And his is also an homage to the politesse whose absence the Puerto Rican cab driver mourns and to the “graced light” of his own world, so different from that public world “in Washington [where there really is] no politesse.”

In line 24 of the poem, O’Hara asks:

Where does the evil of the year go

when September takes New York

and turns it into ozone stalagmites

deposits of light

The “evil of the year” refers both to Frank’s troubled love life (evidently real bad this past summer) as well as to the general political situation which makes the immediate past “the evil of the year.” Love compensates for that past but only momentarily: in the next passage, the poet recalls: “so I get back up / make coffee, and read Francois Villon, his life, so dark.” Darkness is never far away and it is only the poet’s momentary wind-borne ecstasy that can dissipate it.

And so the poem moves to its conclusion:

as the train bears Khrushchev on to Pennsylvania Station

and the light seems to be eternal

and joy seems to be inexorable

I am foolish enough always to find it in wind

The image of the permanently scowling Khrushchev –an icon at this time–borne inexorably into Penn Station gives way, miraculously enough, to the poem’s inexorable joy. This, O’Hara tells us, is what the texture of life is actually like: we do feel joy even when the times are bad. The personal is not always the political though the two are inextricable. So Khrushchev is coming on the right day!

Could O’Hara have substituted someone else for Khrushchev? Could he have written “Castro is coming on the right day?” Or Mao Tse-Tung? Hardly. First, the reference would be inaccurate (they didn’t come on state visits!), and facts matter in poetry. Second, these names conjure up very different images and so there would be no joke. Khrushchev is just unpleasant and unappealing enough to be perfect for O’Hara’s purposes. No one, it seems, is likely to be looking forward to conversing with Nikita!

Each situation, in other words, is unique, at least for the poet. Comparisons of Bin Laden to Hitler, or of Apartheid-South Africa to Israel, or of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor–these are always dubious. Perhaps politicians, in order to rally the troops, have no choice but to call up such comparisons, such one-liners about Fascism or terrorism or Evil Empires or American vigilance. But the poet’s first obligation is to “keep the language efficient” by refusing easy answers and invidious comparisons. What I finally find so appalling about Cornell West’s assertion that “Summers is the Sharon of Harvard” is not whether the statement is, in fact, right or wrong but that it shows such a failure of imagination.