By Olivia Kemp
In the wake of 9/11, there were poems everywhere. New York was consumed by poetry — on lamp posts, walls, shelters, and stations. Although there appear to be no words to explain, and certainly no words to ease the pain of this grievous day, poetry rapidly became the most important outlet of expression used to deal with the tragedy, and a means of redefining it. Photographs, videos, paintings, and testimonies were certainly prominent depictions, yet many are unaware of the profound presence of poetry in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It is largely unknown to the average person that poetry was the medium that appeared in abundance. Poetry ensured that a spirit of unity radiated, as the simplest of words honoured those that were lost.
Indeed, it is necessary to stress that not all 9/11 poets strived to comfort their readers; a surge of artistic expression certainly allowed for gruesome and disturbing accounts of the day. Published in The New Yorker in September 2002, Galway Kinnell’s ‘When the Towers Fell’ responds to the attacks with a distinct note of terror and gore.
As he details ‘some with torn clothing, some bloodied, some limping at top/ speed like children in a three-legged race’, Kinnell graphically transcribes the devastation of 9/11. This emotional reportage concentrates on the immediate horror of the attacks, and is consequently studded with harrowing images. The lines are lengthy and almost prosaic; this allows space for mourning, and ensures that the unmediated presence of the dead radiates. These humans are immortalised in history; the written word ensures that their memory will live forever.
Certain artistic representations of 9/11 have attracted widespread criticism, with many questioning the appropriateness of transforming such brutality into art. A prime example of such criticism centres on the ‘The Falling Man’ — a photograph taken by Richard Drew — which exposes a man falling from the World Trade Centre at 9:41am on the day of the attacks. This photograph left an indelible mark; it did not comfort a nation in mourning. Yet, Wislawa Szymborska’s poem ‘Photograph from September 11’ projects an entirely opposing message. She approaches this same man with respect and empathy, and strives to refigure the disturbing nature of Drew’s original photograph.
The absence of a final line is irrefutable in its perfection. The individuals concerned are halted in life; the denial of ‘a last line’ allows their everlasting existence. In a distinct gesture away from death, Szymborska suspends the falling humans in mid-air; this ensures that they may only be remembered in living and breathing motion. It is perhaps an attempt to refigure the controversy of Drew’s photograph. Her representation does not burn the imagery of horror and catastrophe into the minds of her readers; rather than sparking disturbance, her poem is tempered by notions of timelessness and longing. Whilst most find Drew’s photographic falling man disturbing, Szymborska’s work is a quietly respectful depiction.
Poetry in the aftermath of 9/11 inscribes an unfathomable tragedy; a tragedy that may only nearly be comprehended through the written word. In the words of an unknown editor from Publishers Weekly:
“There was something more to be said that only poetry could say.”
I believe that this incomparably encapsulates the argument rooted at the core of this article. Poetry was the most essential medium of expression in the aftermath of 9/11; this belief has not waned. Twenty years forward, 9/11 poetry still makes us pause. It remains a powerful vehicle for engaging with today’s world. Each year, I, along with thousands of others across the globe, will return to the 9/11 anthologies to reflect. From this, we achieve an amplified understanding of this hellish wave of terror; through the lens of a student in 2021, this poetry is a personal investment in the moment. Our conception of this tragedy is sharpened through the written word; this fails to be achieved by any alternative form of art. Bearing the unmistakable stamp of grief, poetry distils emotions and eloquently describes images with a vigour that only words may ever achieve. Poetry dominated. It was, and still is, a healing lotion; this is a testament to its ability to express the inexpressible.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao