David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Poetry and the Newtown Massacre


Last week I had intended to take a quick Christmastime breather from writing Poetry Wire until the beginning of next year. Then on Friday came the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. (Then, too, on Sunday, the sudden death of an admired poet.) So poetry never sleeps.

But can poetry do anything right now in the face of these abhorrent, disturbing, horrendous, repulsive and shocking Newtown killings? Can poetry say anything right now in the light of such frightful, gruesome wickedness? Yes, wickedness. These little children. Shot multiple times. No, not shot. Slaughtered. Such utter heartbreak and affliction. Such mortification and woe. Well, I suppose poetry can. At some point. Ultimately. It can. Poetry has long dwelled in the realm of unconsolability.

But can poetry—or to be more precise, a poem—encapsulate, transform, or heal so soon following such perplexing violence and such perplexing suffering? Shouldn’t some time pass between national pain and a singular poeticized lamentation?

I know. Who is to say?

There have been over 70 school shootings since 1994. Seven-O. 70. We require anti-massacre laws, do we not?

And that requires of us as a nation, as citizens, to have what amounts to simple decency in interpreting the Second Amendment, decency in service of the idea that citizens in this country do not have the absolute right without serious restriction to make products that have a history — no, the purpose — of killing people. Like making and selling cigarettes. Like driving without a seatbelt. Like enforcing safety standards for toys and food and water. Like guns. Like semi-automatic weapons. And the bullets that go with them. I heard that David Letterman said something similar the other night on television. Call your office, National Rifle Association. If you’ve lost David Letterman, you’ve lost Middle America.

I got to tell you, from where I sit, right now — in Portland, Oregon, where just a week back there was a mass shooting a few miles from my house where two people were killed in a shopping mall — I’m not ready for poetry to provide comfort. It’s not a super art.

And yet: I’m thinking of a moment in a poem by Yehuda Amichai, “When I Banged My Head on the Door” that goes (in Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell’s translation): “When I banged my head on the door, I screamed, / My head, my head,” and I screamed, “Door, door,” / And I didn’t scream “Mama,” and I didn’t scream “God.” / And I didn’t prophesy a world at the End of Days / where there will be no more heads and doors.”

Before poetry, there needs to be a time to scream, doesn’t there, first? Where language is not meaning exactly but utterance only, like ouch or oooh or yikes or yum?

Or even door? Door as pure sound, pure birdsong, pure noise, pure music, pure, ok, poetry?

What’s needed right now is the poetry of no poetry. Or maybe it’s pre-poetry. First to feel cold. And then later to strike the match. And then later to have the fire catch.

Give us a chance to feel now. Feel deeply now. We can write, compose, shape, make artifice later.

To imagine in the face of the unimaginable, to compose verse in the shadow of such hideousness, so immediately, right now, so close to the cradling pain…? That’s tough. Say something. Say anything. Say the names of the slain. Over and over. But, poetry? My fellow Texan, the writer Molly Ivins, used to joke, “Why write fiction when you can cover the Texas legislature?” Why write a poem when you can say the names of the slain right now. Isn’t that the poem? Right now? And let’s be honest utterly: These are not the first children to be murdered in America by guns. We’ve become quite good at murdering our children with guns. What poem can prevent that?

So I am reminded that poetry is not only language. It is also the silences that surround language, symbolized by the whiteness of the page, between title and first line, and between lines, between punctuation, between the patterns of stanzas, between the last line and the haunting resonance of silent space that follows a poem. And: Silence before the writing of the poem.

Silence is essential to poetry. In some poems, silence dominates the language of the poem. “You stay. / I go. / Two autumns.”

I heard a recording of a poem Yusef Komunyakaa read on the NPR website the other day. The article indicated his poem, “Rock Me, Mercy,” was composed in response. The poem, and especially the music accompanying it (was that Coltrane?), offered some comfort. It did. It was a generous poem.

But knowing about losses that YK has endured, similar enough, yes, similar enough to the parents of the children in Newtown, made me sure (in the fair sense, I mean, sure-without-knowing kind of sure, sure as a hunch, sure as faith, faith as a reader) that it was a poem in him already, in his body, in his blood, in his fingers, long before Friday’s devastating murders. That feeling of mine made me trust the poet. And listen to him. That it came after great pain, as Emily Dickinson calls it, when the “formal feeling comes.” And then the poem comes. Or perhaps Komunyakaa’s poem was something already published, I really don’t know.

You’ll forgive me if this column fails to cohere.

For days now I’ve avoided driving by my son’s elementary school here in Portland. Buckman Elementary is 2,952 miles away from Sandy Hook Elementary. My boy is twenty now. Goes to college in Boston. He’ll be coming home later this week. He called yesterday, elated, because he had finished his last exam of the semester and only had to write four short pieces about travel literature. And I was elated to hear him say that he thinks Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie is not the same caliber as Cannery Row. My son. Age 20. Calling home from college. Talking about books. You understand the emphasis, do you not? He’s declared his major. The good fortune. The utter contrast. My gratitude. His life in full flower.

But I have not been willing to drive by his elementary school. For years and years I have not given much thought, except on the occasion of nostalgic story-telling, to think about his first grade classroom, or his teacher, Pat. But right now, after thinking of those children and those teachers in Newtown…(and, please, the next time you hear someone attack public school teachers, tell them how essential they are to the fabric of our culture, our country, our republic, and if the complainers persist, say to them, “you’re down on teachers? Tell that to the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary who ran toward the gunfire not away from it”)…well now I can’t get my own son’s Buckman Elementary classroom in the northeast corner of the building by the side door that leads to the playground out of my mind’s eye.

And the little carpool of kids too we took to school in those days. Well, actually, there were two sets of kids, older and younger. And when the older ones, by then in 4th and 5th grade rode in the carpool with the younger siblings who were in kindergarten and first grade (all of them squeezed into the backseat like six hotdogs crammed into a single bun) were old enough no longer to need or certainly to want the carpool parent to walk them into the school (they were the big kids, I mean), they agreed, with no encouragement, not to do that. Not to run off ahead of the little ones. They agreed, or actually as I write this, I remember it was their idea, not to. Because, as they said, “we got to have a parent walk us into the school and say goodbye when we were little,” and so they (meaning the little ones) should get that too. And so they stayed together with the little ones. They shared what they had experienced. They wanted the little ones to have that too.

I don’t have a segue. Here is the Amichai poem:

When I Banged My Head on the Door

When I banged my head on the door, I screamed,
“My head, my head,” and I screamed, “Door, door,”
and I didn’t scream “Mama” and I didn’t scream “God.”
And I didn’t prophesy a world at the End of Days
where there will be no more heads and doors.

When you stroked my head, I whispered,
“My head, my head,” and I whispered, “Your hand, your hand,”
and I didn’t whisper “Mama” or “God.”
And I didn’t have miraculous visions
of hands stroking heads in the heavens
as they split wide open.

Whatever I scream or say or whisper is only
to console myself: My head, my head.
Door, door. Your hand, your hand.

That’s all I have to write today. That’s the Poetry Wire for Wednesday, December 19, 2012. Day in and day out, we in the poetry community hash out our, um, poetry community-ness. But it’s transcendence we’re in need of. Poems of transcendence. And transcendence can’t be ordered up like a no fat latte at the corner coffee shop.

I’ve been wondering what poem or poems might be offered for comfort here. Poems as metaphors, as placeholders, for those poems not yet written that will mythologize the losses, the griefs, the nation’s and the victim’s, mournfulness. The laments to come, I mean. I’ve thought of some. No doubt you have too. But, I don’t know.

Lament. Its 15th century root, lamenter, means to moan, to bewail. What a paradox: the poem as formalizing a scream.

Door, door.

I love that Amichai poem. I appreciate its tenderness. And: Isn’t tenderness the blood source — the cells and platelets, the plasma and oxygen — that gives poetry its life? First tenderness. Then poetry.

Merry Christmas, friends. Happy new year.

Be safe.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →