Poetry Among the Ruins

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

Larkin, a reclusive and fiercely unfashionable British poet whose work resonates deeply with readers, was referred to only a few times. The most frequently cited poets were W.B. Yeats and Auden. Two of Yeats’ poems were ubiquitous: ”The Second Coming“ (1921) a vision of horror that summed up much of the 20th century and already has a grip on this one, and ”Easter 1916“ (”All changed, changed utterly:A terrible beauty is born“). In the meantime, Auden‘s ”September 1, 1939,“ which was written in New York on the eve of World War II, popped up all over the Internet like an electronic letter in a bottle. Despite being more than 60 years old, the poem almost seemed to have been composed for the occasion, and its most famous line, ”We must love one another or die,“ became famous all over again.

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odor of death

Offends the September night.

Other Auden poems made the rounds too. Most pertinent, perhaps, was a sinister little lyric from 1938, ”Gare du Midi,“ about a man who gets off a train ”clutching a little case“ and ”walks out briskly to infect a cityWhose terrible future may have just arrived.“ In retrospect, the poem reads like a prophecy of germ warfare, and may have been intended as such. Significantly, the person quoting it (in the Washington Post), was former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

It was inevitable that poetry would be bandied about after a tragedy of this size, if only because journalists and politicians need something solemn and pithy to cite. Expressing something important about life in a small number of extremely memorable words is, after all, the poet’s art. But by the time I heard a sentence written by Stephen Spender emerge (uncredited) from the mouth of Governor George Pataki of New York, I knew something noteworthy was going on. Why Spender, a now largely forgotten British writer whose heyday was in the 1930s? Why poets from England and Ireland rather than America? After all, Americans wrote some of the greatest poetry of the last century.

One possible answer lies in the extreme aestheticism of much modern American verse. As Auden‘s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, once told me, ”No one was ever made uncomfortable about their moral life after reading Wallace Stevens, but you can feel very uncomfortable after reading Auden.“ Then there’s the fact that 20th-century Americans, poets included, had the luxury of viewing history from a distance, or of entering it as saviors. National tragedy hasn‘t been our daily bread. Vietnam and the social upheavals of the 1960s temporarily dragged history into our living rooms, but since the 1980s its absence has been close to total. We fight a war, and one soldier breaks a leg: That’s about the extent of our casualty list. Before long, we start forgetting where or why the war was fought. It‘s no wonder most of our poets haven’t been preoccupied with history: There‘s been so little to go around. As a result, they’ve been free to cultivate the gardens inside their own heads. Many strange and beautiful plants have resulted, but grand statements about the world have been scarce.

Yet grand statements are what you want in a poem when terrorists have just eviscerated the World Trade Center along with thousands of its occupants. You don‘t want impressionistic daubs and creative-writing prettiness; you need a point of view. As Edward Rothstein wrote in The New York Times, ”This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective.“ The literati would normally be uncomfortable with such an uncompromising sentiment, but for a moment they weren’t so sure. What will survive of us is love. We must love one another or die -- what are those if not transcendent ethical perspectives?

Admittedly, they are also somewhat vague. But what‘s striking about many of the lines people have been quoting is their precision, their attempt to nail down a specific universal truth. ”I and the public knowWhat all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is doneDo evil in return,“ Auden wrote. You don’t come across lines like that anymore in poems. For one thing, we don‘t believe in evil -- unless it’s our own, in which case we believe in it in spades -- and we‘ve abandoned the idea of ”the public“ in favor of multiple communities with special needs. Even the word ”schoolchildren,“ used as a blanket term, is enough to get the professionally sensitive tut-tutting. ”Are we talking about underprivileged schoolchildren? Disabled schoolchildren? From single-parent households?“ Etc. If few contemporary poets now bother to say something that feels universally true, this is one reason why: They’re afraid of being slowly tortured to death by a nationwide cadre of nitpickers.

Most of the time, poets don‘t even try to address society as a whole. (They abandoned all that to protest singers and rock stars years ago.) Our brand-new literary problem -- how do I write about we when I’m always thinking about me? -- is strangely analogous to the difficulty faced by people who normally think in terms of specific groups when they are suddenly forced to consider the entire country. Committed to the idea that all cultures are equal, they‘ve avoided passing judgment on anything except the various sins of the West. So when a rabid minority -- a murderous sect wrapped in the flag of Islam -- starts blowing bits of the West up, a lot of people don’t know how to react. You could sense the confusion in an impromptu poem written by Russell Leong shortly after the attack, and later quoted approvingly in the L.A. Times:

It‘s another city today

They say.

HE, or SHE, or THEY

may be praying or plotting

In a mosque. In a temple. In a church.

In a truck, car or plane.

I sincerely doubt whether the poet really believes that the terrorists are as likely to be women as men or that Osama bin Laden supporters could be hiding out at the local rectory, but in the interest of ”fairness“ he feels obliged to make the case anyway. If it wasn’t so sad, it would almost be funny. Perhaps the Times should have quoted from the new Dylan instead:

George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew,

You can‘t open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view.

The least we can ask of writers is that they be honest. It’s well known that Auden eventually disowned ”September 1, 1939“ on the grounds that it was ”infected with an incurable dishonesty,“ but the poet‘s tortured attempt to tell the truth about his moment in history is what speaks to us in ours. Perhaps the real reason we’ve turned to poets like Auden, Yeats and Larkin is that their work epitomizes what‘s best in our society, and despite its flaws, we feel it’s a society worth defending.

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