On the afternoon of September 10th, 2011, seven poets participated in a reading, held for the 10th commemoration of 9/11 and sponsored by Poets House, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Trinity Wall Street. The reading, convened in the cavernous sanctuary of Trinity Church at Wall and Broadway, two blocks south of Ground Zero, attracted approximately 300 persons. Poems of grief, remembrance and reconciliation were presented by the poets.
During their readings that day, both Cornelius Eady and Mark Doty referred to difficulties they each had faced in writing about the 9/11 experience. I believe the obstacles they confronted in writing about the event spoke for many poets, who had dealt with similar demons in the aftermath of 9/11.
The impediments are patent. Instinctively, we know words cannot and do not supplant reality; words, even if crafted well, can only make damnable reality more understandable. Subtlety is, as a matter of course, the mother’s milk of a poet’s craft; and those immediate and uncorrectable 9/11 experiences of inescapability, unconditioned desperation, palpable incomprehension, and uncompromising exposure, whether one were actually present that day in downtown New York City or not, simply countervail and explode a poet’s natural field of responsive behavior. The veins and nerves are torn. One cannot be subtle in the face of impossible violence and destruction, which immediately rip away at words attempting to make meaning out of meaninglessness. The events were too much with and part of us – words could not compete with the visions and imaginings we all had of both Ground Zero and those whose partial remains created the indescribable personality of the Pit, the Pile.
The most notable verse to surface on the subject of 9/11 came from the marvelous poet, Galway Kinnell, whose poem, “When The Towers Fell,” was published in September, 2002 by THE NEW YORKER. The verse put the events elegantly, evocatively and soberly in a context of something larger than the moment and its specific characteristics; rather, the poem put 9/11 seriatim in a long line of indiscriminate horror and violence that have too often proven to be humanity’s bedfellows over millennia. We seven poets ended the program with a reciting of the poem – each of us taking a part of “When The Towers Fell.” Reading this work alone or together with other poets, I could not help but recall Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” and Whitman’s Civil War poetry.
My own poetic attempts fell principally to a piece, albeit an important piece, of the 9/11 story. St. Paul’s Chapel, located within yards of the North Tower site, served as the 24/7 relief center – a respite of peace and refuge – for the recovery workers, who toiled in the savage Pit during the nine-month, clean-up phase. I volunteered part-time there, sometimes during a day, but mostly overnight on a weekend. This experience translated into a poem I wrote, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” which has been, for the last ten years, the memento card for the approximately 30,000 visitors who come weekly to the Chapel. Though a mere few yards away from the unspeakable, there was in the Chapel at least air to breathe, a place to think, and enough people to hug – not an unfair amount of essence for verse.