Many of us look to our artists for help. In Commentary D. G. Myers recently catalogued some thirty novels that have grappled with the task of incorporating the day’s events into a work of art. He ended with qualified recommendations for any of them and concluded that “the best novels about terrorism remain Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.” Newsweek wrote this week that “not one novel can yet claim to capture the moment and the ensuing years. . . . It is nonfiction, including such now classics as The Looming Tower, Ghost Wars, and The Forever War that speaks to our unceasing attempts to understand the messy realities of the world that engulfed us. Our Zolas and Dickenses are our war correspondents and journalists.”
Assessing the poems that address 9/11 proves even more difficult. As Philip Metres notes in his splendid essay “Beyond Grief and Grievance: The poetry of 9/11 and its aftermath”:
The events of 9/11 occasioned a tremendous outpouring of poetry; people in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand. In Curtis Fox’s words, “poetry was suddenly everywhere in the city.” Outside the immediate radius of what became known as “ground zero,” aided by email, listserves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written. By February, 2002, over 25,000 poems written in response to 9/11 had been published on poems.com alone. Three years later, the number of poems there had more than doubled.In “Remember 9/11 Through Poetry,” John Lundberg last year offered a selection of poems from Deborah Garrison, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and Wisława Szymborska. Etruscan Press and Melville House have risen to the task with two impressive collections: September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets. But it is Metres who performs an invaluable service by heeding Theodor Adorno’s warning about the difficulty of turning traumatic events into art:
by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them.Metres cites poems that he believes “avoid doing injustice to the victims” and that makes his essay enriching reading.
Listening to Alec Baldwin read Colson Whitehead's essay “Lost and Found” on the Special 9/11 edition of Selected Shorts last weekend shows how a finely crafted essay can deliver as much impact as a poem or a novel. Writing two months after the attacks, Whitehead reminds us:
We can never make proper goodbyes. . . . You didn't know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.Related LOA works: Philip Roth: The American Trilogy 1997-2000 (includes American Pastoral); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Colson Whitehead's essay, which was slightly revised for inclusion in his book The Colossus of New York)
I never got a chance to say goodbye to the twin towers. And they never got a chance to say goodbye to me. I think they would have liked to; I refuse to believe in their indifference. You say you know these streets pretty well? The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone.