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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 533-559



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"September 1, 1939" Revisited:
Or, Poetry, Politics, and the Idea of the Public

Stephen Burt

1

Over the past 15 years, American writing on twentieth-century poetry has moved increasingly from formal and theoretical analyses of individual poems toward social, cultural, or economic contexts and consequences. Rather than simply asking what poems mean, or how they work, critics now want to know who reads modern poetry, how, and why; where readers find it; how they use it; and how it speaks to prominent social issues. Such questions often grow from another question with its own distinguished history: How many people read poetry now at all? Dana Gioia's 1992 polemic Can Poetry Matter? complained that "American poetry has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group" (1); in contrast, "Edwin Markham's 'The Man with the Hoe'... was made famous by being reprinted in hundreds of newspapers—an unthinkable occurrence today" (9). Vernon Shetley mused in 1993 that "poetry today has lost the attention not merely of common readers but of intellectuals, even [those] whose chief interests are literary" (2-3).

Partly in reaction to these losses, studies of modern American poetry now often show, to quote one recent book, how poems "helped form, shape, speak to, and speak on behalf of political collectives" (Van Wienen 3) or, to quote another, how poets can "keep alive the concept of high public communication in poetry" (Brunner 159). 1 Writing in 1989, Walter Kaladjian blamed American poetry's lessened status directly on earlier critics' "swerve from social change" (4). More recent works on American poetry frequently figure public, social, or community as the key term in their titles and arguments. 2 These studies often suggest either that poetry mattered more at some time (the 1930s, say) when it more often assumed a public role or that poetry still matters because it [End Page 533] can still do so. Terrell Scott Herring claims in PMLA that Frank O'Hara (a poet not normally thought of as engaged in social advocacy) "strategically manufactures an alternative public sphere," thus "addressing... postwar America's (literary) public spheres" (416). Kevin Stein explains that his late-century favorites, from Robert Lowell to Carolyn Forché, have been "accentuating poets' personal conversation with public culture" (18). Juliana Spahr shows how Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen, and other poets "use reading to contribute to, contest, and expand how we think of public (and thus cultural) spheres" (5). Though their approaches (and implicit tastes) differ widely, each of these critics implies that American poetry matters, or deserves critical attention, inasmuch as it speaks to public concerns.

In 2001 certain poems seemed to do just that. "In the weeks since the terrorist attacks," wrote a New York Times reporter in October, "people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way" (Smith E1). "I probably faxed more copies of poems—and received more faxes from other devoted readers—in the following weeks than I had in years," the poet and memoirist Mary Karr declared (B1). The National Public Radio program Talk of the Nation featured the poet Ed Hirsch, who identified a new American "compulsion to poetry and interest in poetry" with "a new hunger for seriousness in the culture" (n. pag.).

What were these newly hungry readers reading? Above all, they turned to W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939." "As New York explains the bombing to itself," wrote Daniel Swift in the Times Literary Supplement, "Auden's words are everywhere"; at least four newspapers used their editorial pages to reprint all of Auden's poem (17). "Copies of Auden's 'September 1, 1939'... were everywhere," agreed the New York Times reporter (Smith E1). Public reactions—and later analyses of those reactions—featured "September 1, 1939" far more often than they did any other poem. 3 "September 1, 1939" even appeared as the back page of a newsletter from Minneapolis's leading food co-op, with this caption: "Written at the outset of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 533-559
Launched on MUSE
2003-07-11
Open Access
No
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