Theodor Adorno after the atrocities of World War II were made know to the world, said “"To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric." Many scholars and artists have taken up this idea and rephrased it as a question, or a collection of questions. What is the responsibility of poets in light of such barbarity?
Certainly poets were writing poems at the time. It is what poets do and if you are a writer, for many writers, it’s all they can do in the face of horror. There were all kinds of poems and paintings recovered from people who died in the concentration camps. Many of the images were horrifying, but the artists who painted and poets who wrote could not cease to tell us what they saw. They were compelled to write, to leave something behind.
For the survivors, certainly, poetry provides a kind of succor for the soul when we find ourselves among such uncivilized cruelty. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Maybe that’s what Adorno meant. Maybe we have no right to give ourselves comfort at a time like that. Perhaps we have to just face the facts, as horrible as they are, with no window dressing, no images – horrible or beautiful – to ease the blow. All we deserve is journalism: a straightforward telling of the facts.
In fact, there are usually any number of heartfelt but terrible, sentimental, moralizing poems and stories written after a horrible event. We are too grief struck to be able to process it all. Our emotions come out too easily. And while people associate poetry and art with emotion, it is not true that we can write poetry and do it well when our hearts are on our sleeves. Poets, like everyone else, often need just a little distance to make sense of what they have just lived through. All they can really do is to record images of what they have seen, a kind of poetic journalism. Not a straightforward telling of the facts, but a mishmash of those images, all churned up and mixed up, ready to be sorted out by critics and academics down the line.
I would not even begin to compare the events of 9/11 with Auschwitz, although the aftermath of 9/11 may very well be comparable. But to compare the deaths of 3,000 people in one day with the systematic extermination of millions over a period of 10 years is an absurd proposition. But there is no doubt that it was a tragic day that still lingers for many.
I started out writing this not because I want to write about 9/11. I’m actually tired of writing about 9/11. It has permeated my very consciousness and it seems that I am unable to write about anything else, overtly or inadvertently. Many of my theatrical concerns, including the inevitability of death, which I dealt with in Antigone, and the horrors of confinement and uncertainty, which I dealt with in my Guantanamo demonstration, have come directly from thinking about 9/11. Recently, when I tried to write a manifesto about myself as an unruly being, it turned into a meditation on 9/11.
And in fact, I had already written about September 11th years before it ever happened. In my poem, The City, written in 1998, I believe, I had written:
hang heavy like fenders bent beneath truck
tires, sidewalk shattered. I could be
It didn’t take, for me, a whole lot of imagination to make the link between the abandoned American city and the images that I saw on the news. It didn’t take a huge stretch to imagine that our cities could one day be like other war-torn areas. My inclusion of Oklahoma City was one way to make that connection.
I wrote as much as I could for five days. I wrote again, six months or nine months later or something like that, when I noticed a guy in my neighborhood and developed a fascination with him. I did not write in the interim. And I did not write poetry for some time after – maybe a year, maybe 2 or 3. I don’t know if I didn’t write, or if I just didn’t write anything that I considered good. Maybe I never really stopped writing. But I perceived that I had stopped.
Years later, when confronted with Adorno’s edict in graduate school, “to write poetry after Auschwitz in barbaric,” even though I had rejected the notion, that was exactly what I had done. Faced with horrors that my emotions that the core of my being could not and might never process adequately, I had stopped writing poetry.
One of the standards of poetry is that you write in images. In metaphors and similes. This is like that thing over there. But there was no point to writing in metaphor. The entire experience was real and metaphoric at the same time. It was a strange otherworld. It was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t. I would wake up several mornings over the next six months in a panic, thinking I had just woken from a dream, that none of it was real, that I had made it all up.
For myself, without even being aware of it, without saying it consciously, it felt like at once it was such an overwhelming experience while at the same time, these were images that were all too familiar. They had become stock photographs. The broadcasters on the radio in New York that day kept saying this is like a movie, this is like a movie. And I thought, and said out loud to no one, no this is like television, this is like the news. This is like what happens every day in the rest of the world.
And it was true. We had already seen those images in our own country and around the world: the fireman carrying the dead baby from the child care center, the bomb in Beirut that was so strong it burned the patterns of the sheets onto the bodies of sleeping marines.
What use is there for metaphor when those images are so powerful on their own? Does poetry serve any purpose that journalism doesn’t in such a case? Does it help us to understand it any better to say this thing is like that thing? Or is it still incomprehensible, not to our conscious, rational, intelligent minds, but somewhere deeper, in that place where poetry touches us, where it works on our irrational, non-rational, subconscious mind?
I’m teaching poetry and in the process, I am slowly starting to write poetry again. I am revisiting my old poems which I haven’t really pulled out and looked at seriously in 7 or 8 years. Every once in a while I pull one out to submit somewhere to get published. But to seriously look at the poems, to even perform them in public, hasn’t really happened in a long time. I found myself, on this, the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, despite all of my attempts to ignore that day, thinking about the legacy it had had on me, as a writer and as a person. I wanted to revisit Adorno, to see I could make any sense out of my experience through that quote. I wanted to think about how a poet comes back from terror to poetry.