This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

September 3, 2002 — It's usually the second question — the host will start to speak, stop, look pensive, searching, then start again, leaning forward to finally grasp the words: "Dennis, why poetry — why now?"

As the book industry moves on from questions about commerce — how many of those 179, er, 226, er, 352 9/11 titles will actually sell? — it is, for me, the meaningful question about writing about 9/11 that lingers.

Of course, one reason that it lingers is that people keep asking it of me. I've been doing a lot of TV and radio interviews lately, promoting a book I co–edited, "Poetry After 9/11," and it's been pretty much the same everywhere I go. First they'll ask me how the book came about. Then, while the camera jumps to me, I'll see their off–camera eyes shift in anticipation of the next question. They'll wait for me to finish, then out it comes.

Not to denigrate the people who ask the question — I'm grateful, not to mentioned stunned, to be on television talking about poetry. And it's a fair question, after all, on an interesting idea. It is, in fact, the question that prompted me and my co–editor Valerie Merians to create the book.

We'd seen a growing amount of street poetry around New York City in the days after the September 11 attacks. People seemed to be tacking up poems to every available surface. The walls of firehouses were covered with them, as most people know, but also just about every telephone pole, phone stall, news kiosk and bus shelter. It was all stuff clearly written by people who'd never written a poem before, and as literary people, we'd wondered, well, why poetry, why now?

Still, when the talk show hosts ask me the question, the first responses that leap to mind unbidden all sound like wise cracks. I want to say, "Why not?" or "Why ever?" They're not wisecracks, though — I suspect I'm in some sense nearly offended.

I find myself thinking a lot, lately, as I attempt an answer, about the fact that our daily newspapers used to feature poetry, up until the twentieth century or so. It was a part of the mix — poems that were related to the events of the day were part of what was considered news. "News" wasn't all just straight narrative description, nor — as is way too often the case nowadays — a picture. It was those things, plus poetry.

Why poetry, why then? I think because it was given more respect, in general, as a form in those days. People didn't run away screaming, ironically enough in those days of lesser literacy, when confronted with a poem. Perhaps people realized, even if it was difficult to understand, that poetry was a valuable and insightful way to consider issues — a way that dealt with emotions and the murkier aspects of a story that defied categoric identification.

After all, poetry doesn't necessarily lend itself to dead–on description — it thrives on indirection, on searching for deeper and more widespread connections with a subject.

All of which is why, I think, so many people returned to poetry in the days since September 11, 2001. Reading the descriptions, seeing the pictures — all it did was breed questions and spiritual angst, and add to the grief. Not that reading those descriptions and knowing what happened fully isn't important, but clearly, the sudden surfeit of poetry meant people felt there was something lacking in all that prose, something going uncovered.

So it seemed as if collecting what poets had to say was an important contribution to make to the dialogue in the days since the attacks.

But the aspect that really inspired us to make the book was the observation that all the street poetry we were seeing was spontaneous. There seemed something almost hopeful about that. It was as if people were responding to a vestigial impulse, like a bunch of atheists suddenly searching for a prayer — there was something encouraging about witnessing the search for a deeper form of common expression and understanding, a more well–rounded intelligence.

Well, you try saying all that in twenty seconds or less. Usually, what happens is I stumble through some answer and find myself not really answering the question until they get to the inevitable final question: "Would you read one of the poems from the book?" Then I read one of the poems from our book, such as Stephen Dunn's "Grudges":

Easy for almost anything to occur.
Even if we've scraped the sky, we can be rubble.
For years those men felt one way, acted another.

Ground Zero, is it possible to get lower?
Now we had a new definition of the personal,
knew almost anything could occur.

It just akes a little training, to blur
A motive, lie low while planning the terrible,
Get good at acting one way, feeling another.

Yet who among us doesn't harbor
A grudge or secret? So much isn't erasable;
It follows that almost anything can occur,

Like men ascending into the democracy of air
Without intending to land, the useful veil
Of having said one thing, meaning another.

Before you know it something's over.
Suddenly someone's missing at the table.
It's easy (I know it) for anything to occur
When men feel one way, act another.

That's why.

Last Week’s Column: From the Archives: 9–11 What happens when a literary reporter has to file a column when his city is under attack?


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.