restricted access "Not Needed, Except as Meaning": Belatedness in Post-9/11 American Poetry
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"Not Needed, Except as Meaning":
Belatedness in Post-9/11 American Poetry

What was American poetry of the first decade of the 2000s like? The focus of this special issue implies that the poetry of the past decade is distinct from that of the decade that preceded it and the decade (and decades) to follow. Although it is especially difficult to generalize about the poetry of a decade that has been accurately depicted as splintered, heterodox, and hybrid, I will attempt, nonetheless, to do so: my contention is that political and public events beginning with the al Qaeda-sponsored attacks of September 11, 2001, have profoundly affected the poetry of the last decade.1 These events have been so central to recent poetry partly because they coincide with a series of preexisting preoccupations and problems: writing "public" poems has allowed poets of the 2000s directly to consider larger questions about the cultural position and role of poetry. These are broad claims, which I will not elaborate through an overview or taxonomy of the poetry of the last decade. Instead, my focus is on several of what I feel are the strongest poems dealing with the attacks and, in one case, the Iraqi war, poems that are at times stylistically [End Page 658] similar.2 I wish to suggest that this narrow group of poems is worth examining partly because these poems illuminate recurrent concerns in poetry of the last decade with devising an often highly skeptical mode of public or quasi-public utterance.

It can be fairly claimed that for Americans, the 9/11 attacks were the inaugural event of the new millennium, and that these attacks and the wars that followed from them have deeply informed our experience of the last decade. Moreover, the attacks drew attention to the obfuscatory power of rhetoric, as George W. Bush's White House quickly derived from them a series of politically potent claims about fear, revenge, solidarity, and the enemy. Perhaps partly as a reaction to such rhetoric, poetry seemed suddenly crucial to the national experience of processing the attacks, in whose aftermath people everywhere were reading older poems that seemed appropriate to the occasion (W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" topped the list). Poets also began prolifically to write poems responding to the attacks. Many web-sites were set up where amateur poets could post their poems; Sam Hamill's website Poets Against the War, originally conceived as a protest against Laura Bush's 2003 invitation to poets to a White House symposium, had received nearly thirty thousand poems when it was closed to submissions in 2010 (Hamill, "Turning"); and nearly a fifth of the poems in The Best American Poetry 2003, edited by Yusef Komunyakaa, related to the attacks, New York City, or other public or historic events. Poetry, including the kind of occasional and politically motivated poetry that may earlier have seemed aesthetically suspect, offered a crucial intervention in a national dialogue widely perceived as lacking reflection and temperance. [End Page 659]

Much of the early writing about the attacks and the war was direct: these poems were accessible, strongly felt, and politically contrarian and favored plain speech over embellishment.3 Other, often later poems responded in quite different ways, favoring indirection and fragmentation.4 It could thus be argued that post-9/11 poetry was split, like much late-twentieth-century poetry, between postconfessional and post-Language aesthetics, between transparency and indirection. But my point is different: the attacks were, among other things, a gauntlet thrown down before poets of all kinds, impelling them to clarify what and whom their poetry was for. Such concerns go back past the opposing dicta of Auden ("poetry makes nothing happen" [Collected 248]) and William Carlos Williams ("It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there" [318]) at least to the Romantics. But they were especially urgent during a decade when it was often claimed both in the popular press and by scholars that poetry was in crisis.5 By interacting directly and often self-consciously [End Page 660] with the larger world, poems of...