David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Fading of September 11

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We live in a world where whenever the discussion turns to humanitarian assistance or military intervention what is meant by that is American assistance and American intervention.

There are good reasons for this fact. It was the United States that pushed for the creation of the United Nations in 1945 and then insisted on becoming the organization’s host. It was the great liberal Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote and championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which is now, in its fashion, the law of the world. For all its flaws, the UN remains the primary entity in the world to support peace and economic development based on justice and human dignity. It is in many ways a peculiarly American institution, despite this country’s flaws internationally over the last 68 years. And despite this country’s obvious promotion and interest in the ideals, if not always the execution, of free thinking, free enterprise, and free liberty.

There’s a case to be made that all of American poetry since the end of the Second World War is an affirmation of the values of American idealism as it has been formed at home, abroad, and in institutions such as the UN.

From Robert Penn Warren to Adrienne Rich, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Terrance Hayes, from Robert Bly to Li-Young Lee, from confessionalists to flarfists, the thrust of American poetry is the thrust of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is, in every way, the thrust of American power.

All the same, American poets tend to favor the ideal of limited American power.

Adrienne Rich:

Must I argue the love of multitude in the blur or defend
a solitude of barbed-wire and searchlights, the survivalist’s final solution, have I a choice?

John Ashbery:

The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.

Yusef Komunuyakka:

The President of the United States of America
thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie to reverie,
learning why one envies the octopus
for its ink, how a man’s skin becomes the final page.

It’s worth noting that all those oft-quoted statements by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers about the United States not getting entangled in foreign affairs came at a time when the country was in no position to do so. American inability to militarily intervene or to humanitarianly assist lasted into the 20th century.

On the other hand, from the Revolutionary era to the age of Reconstruction, it was European nations which attempted to exert their influence on political events here. Then came the Marshall Plan and a generation of economic growth in the U.S. after World War II that created our massive middle class with its tremendous ability to save capital for retirement. That, plus suffrage for women and the civil rights movement.

Therefore, it’s all well and good then that September 11 should arrive today with not much attention paid to it. As not much is made now of April 19, 1775, April 12, 1861, April 25, 1898, December 7, 1941, August 7, 1964, March 20, 2003.

As American poets begin to sift through the ashes of the last decade of war and its impact on American life, as American poets continue to assert our predisposition for peaceful unification, as American poets write in favor of amity and cessation and pacifism over war and extreme violence and tribalism, it is well too that we not underestimate the vile of tyranny in order simply to be peace-loving.

It is well too that we not diminish the historical or become so absolutist or insist in promoting without irony W. H. Auden’s complicated phrase that we must “love one another or die.”

It is well too that we accept that not each war is morally equivalent to every other war.

What I mean is, in the form of a question, will American poetry avoid the condensed and simplistic? Will American poets wrestle with the question, say, for example, of whether a principled limited war today is preferable to a very massive world war later? There are many acceptable answers to the question, no?

Believe I don’t have the answer nor the interest in having an answer for every poet. Poets — I say now and I say always — should write about whatever they want to write about.

But today I’m trying to forget September 11 and the narrow, incendiary glorification, even fetishization it has assumed for a dozen years in spite of the real suffering many have lived through, from 9/11 survivors to wounded military and their families.

Instead, I’m going to spend some time thinking, in some way, as best I can, about what a poem can say about the hideous and the atrocious and the wrathful as well as the vanquishing and the triumphal.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →