Poetry in the Wake of Tragedy -Sam O’Dell

Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, a day when most Americans take at least a few moments out of their hectic lives to reflect on the horrific events of that day. More than anything, I think 9/11 reminds people that you cannot predict what will happen tomorrow. Cherishing every moment we have with the people who are important in our lives and seizing every opportunity we are presented with is one of the best ways to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. I believe that another component of a meaningful life is the literature we read. This literature has a way of making us feel so deeply about things we might not have experienced directly. It can also help those who directly experienced such events come to terms with what they have lived through. Finding literature that speaks directly to such a situation can be incredibly tricky, however.

One of my favorite authors, John Green, posted a poem by Czeslaw Milosz to his Tumblr blog yesterday.  Although the poem, “Were I Not Frail and Half Broken Inside,” was written before 9/11, it does an excellent job of conveying the randomness of death on such a large scale and the sometimes overwhelming despair that comes with the knowledge that we are all “frail and half broken,” all one swift blow away from death. Not all poems about tragedies are as elegantly done, whether written for a specific event or not. It makes me wonder what makes a poem about such a difficult subject good.

It helps, I think, to start with a poet that is already a good writer. I think many people are often inspired to write in the wake of such tragedies because they are trying to come to terms with what has happened. Writing poetry definitely forces you to work through your emotions about whatever you’re writing about. However, amateur poets with little or no prior work often end up producing poetry that is, at its best, badly written, and that at its worst, exacerbates the negative feelings surrounding the situation. Philip Metres wrote an article for the Huffington Post about exactly this situation in the wake of 9/11. He also wrote about the popularity of another poem that was written prior to 9/11 and passed around on and after that date: W. H. Auden’s “September 1st, 1939.”

It is interesting to think that the best works to consider in response to a particular tragedy may in fact have been written years before. Which poems written today will be shared in the wake of some future disaster? What is it about responding directly to such polarizing events that can make even the best poets stumble? These questions are not the kind with easy answers, of course.

Metres goes on to challenge the negative assumption that the contemporary poetic response to 9/11 was lackluster. To demonstrate his point, he shares several moving 9/11 pieces, my favorite of which was Wisława Szymborska’s “Photograph from September 11.” I love the repetition and the poet’s choice to leave her work unfinished, allowing the victims to have the last word in some small way.

Although it can be difficult to find works that meaningfully address such tragedies, many poets have succeeded in doing so. Whether or not you find yourself drawn to works specifically about 9/11, or to works that were written for another occasion entirely, there are several poems that are well worth pondering on a day like yesterday. I hope you will spend some time with the poems mentioned above and walk away better for it. Do you have any poems that come to mind in response to 9/11? Feel free to link to them in the comments section below.

– Sam O’Dell

_911_in memoriam


About Ann Persons

Annie Persons is currently the managing editor for Shenandoah. She is a junior English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee University. Her favorite pastimes are reading and writing, and she hopes to continue engaging with literature for the rest of her life.

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4 Responses to Poetry in the Wake of Tragedy -Sam O’Dell

  1. Ann Persons says:

    When I reflect on 9/11, I remember the sense of communal strength that spread throughout the country, and how we ultimately grew stronger from within. This notion of strength amidst tragedy brings to mind H.D.’s Trilogy, and her reflections on World War II. Here’s a link to one of my favorite sections from that collection: http://www.legacy-project.org/index.php?page=lit_detail&litID=97

  2. ktoomb says:

    Your idea of poetry helping people to heal is insightful. Writing poetry regarding traumatic events such as 9/11 also ensures that we as a nation never forget or allow ourselves to become desensitized to our history by reminding us of how we felt in a time of collective mourning.

  3. Sam, I love this essay by Mark Doty about poetry responding to tragedy:

  4. Jessie Edward says:

    I was give this poem after I lost my job. It totally got me back on track.

    It’s called a magic poem because of the way the words affect people, I just think is Super Inspiring.


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