11 September 2011
September 9, 2011
This post is taken from SPL Newsletter 38, January 2002, edited and designed by Duncan Glen. It is reproduced here on the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11 2001.
Robyn Marsack, Director, writes:
There was immediate poetry-writing, of course, in September 2001 and afterwards. Andrew Motion commented on a selection from the hundreds the Guardian had received, calling them ‘signs of compassionate life’, in which literary skills were ‘subordinate to other values’. We needed to give and accept such signs. People quoted Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ for its location, its ‘odour of death’, its apparently uncanny parallels; others argued its inappropriateness to the occasion, its particularity of context.
What we feel during such crises may be quite straightforward: horror, anger, grief. Journalists describe the landscapes of desolation, the burning. The poets that we return to, I suggest, create uncertainties that complicate our responses. They draw on our emotional intelligence rather than appealing to our instincts. Wait a minute, try seeing it this way … and that way … thirteen ways. In a culture that is always simplifying, and in which language itself is reductive, this is invaluable.
Looking through Walt Whitman’s poems as we tried to find something to put on the board outside the Scottish Poetry Library on 12 September 2001, I came across these lines:
I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.
It was a shock, that first line. ‘I hear it was charged against me…’ – what could be plainer than those suicidal flights? It may be that Whitman was thinking of the institution of heterosexual marriage, for example, while I thought of the protests at the G8 summits, of the great global institutions and the interests of trade, and the way that many people feel disconnected from the forces that they perceive to drive the world. Whitman, using the Native American name for the island which stands for unsleeping commerce, for success, recalls the disinherited, the marginalised, those whose ancestral relationships with the land have been destroyed. The spectres of the dispossessed cluster down the centuries to disturbing effect.
Yet there is one institution that Whitman will allow: comradeship, the brotherhood of man. You might say with the Beatles, ‘All you need is love’, or with Auden, ‘We must love one another or die’ – and this is at once too simple and too difficult a solution. Whitman’s is closer to Burns’s democracy of spirit. ‘That man to man the world o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that’: recognising our common humanity beyond the differences that divide us, reminding us that the family of humankind is just that, the clan to which we all belong. Whitman complicates feeling by calling it an ‘institution’; he knows it’s not enough to leave it to chance: it must be constructed without being rigidified, with all that implies of care and thought and reinvention. ‘Comrade’, not irredeemably stained by political misuse, still suggests working together for the common good, pooling talents, and above all, trusting one another.
From our perspective on the twentieth century, it is easy to dismiss Whitman’s vision as naïve. But its passionate articulation should not obscure its resonances nor its necessity. I found in his poems sorrow, realism, generosity, a large vision: belief in the capacity of men and women to renew creation and themselves despite their terrible propensity to destruction. I don’t think this vision was immediately possible in 2001 but I, for one, needed to hold on to it. In such testing times, true poetry speaks the language we can steer by.