Elizabeth Frost


Poetry Post-9-11: Witnessing Dissent

Elisabeth Frost

This special section of “In-Conference” emerges from a panel at the Modernist Studies Association meeting, held in Houston just one month after September 11.  In the wake of the attacks, it wasn’t clear that anybody would be in Houston for the MSA—we didn’t even know if the conference would be held.  Nor was it apparent that our own commitments to the panel (“Modernist Influence on Contemporary Poetry”) could be maintained even if the conference did go on as scheduled.  As coordinators, Michael Bibby, Cynthia Hogue, and I were extremely grateful to Kathleen Fraser, Carla Harryman, and Lorenzo Thomas for gathering to discuss questions of unmistakable urgency in the light of a changing political and cultural landscape.  What emerged was a set of innovative and, in my view, extremely important reflections on poetry post-9-11.

The original purpose of the panel was to explore diverse experiments fostered by modernist poetic radicalism—those somewhat outside of commonly recognized “avant-gardes,” such as Language writing/theorizing.  We were interested in “other” innovations, often taking place within recognizable lyric and narrative forms.  Our three poets were to read their work; then the panel would open to a roundtable discussion about how modernism has influenced (perhaps frustrated, complicated) their writing.

Following 9-11, we began to discuss the need for a broader perspective.  There was (and is) a new self-consciousness about doing what we do.  We asked ourselves: Are priorities the same, for ourselves as poets, critics, teachers?  What is the “relevance” of poetry in a time of war, of terrorism, of heated nationalism?  What are the issues that newly confront us as writers, teachers, readers of contemporary and modern poetry?

The papers that follow all engage variously with these questions.  Michael Bibby recounts our e-mail discussions preceding the conference to consider new meanings of “innovation” that might move beyond the avant-gardist rhetoric of rupture toward a poetry of “suture.”  Kathleen Fraser documents acts of witnessing, culled from journal entries in the days immediately following 9-11.  To contextualize the current political climate, Lorenzo Thomas returns to the literary scene during and after World War I, with a detailed chronology of censorship, racial politics, and artistic repression.  Finally, Frances Presley provides a view from London, considering architecture, the spectacle of grief, and the “building” of a new avant-garde poetics.

In the weeks immediately following 9-11, the limits of language came up again and again, whether in informal e-mail exchanges or in mass media representations.  In the “Postcards” section of How2, many wrote in to recount the painful sense of being speechless — as writers, as critics — in a condition of trauma.  In one of the more mainstream articulations of this sense of being robbed of words, Eric McHenry noted Auden’s critique and ultimate rejection of “September 1, 1939” (which emerged as the ur-poem of 9-11).  McHenry argues that by expressing a sense of his own failure in the poem, “Auden kept in play the possibility—by no means a certainty—that there are sorrows even the most well-chosen words can’t reach.” [1]   But is it perhaps that the expected forms of words can’t reach us?  In other words, that the “new word,” the “news that stays news,” is yet to be invented for this moment?  Perhaps, then, an innovative poetics in the modernist or avant-garde tradition is precisely what is needed?  Or, is the failure of language a response to trauma that any historical or personal disaster evokes?  What sorts of poetry can be responsive to such inadequacies? 

And, further, how can poetry respond in a cultural atmosphere that has wrought measures to revoke civil liberties?  Things over the last six months have hardly changed since the days following 9-11, when TV journalists were asked to sign statements of allegiance, and others were chastised or dismissed for “inappropriate” critiques of U.S. actions.  It is a time when an academic forum (in October) was denounced by the chancellor of his own university (CUNY) because faculty present “blamed United States foreign policy and capitalist cultural messages” as an underlying cause of the attacks. [2]   There are new surveillance and detention policies, such as the sweeping USA Patriot Act.  In the words of Nat Hentoff, “never in the history of the First Amendment has any suppression of speech been so sweeping and difficult to contest as this one,” which allows the FBI to “demand from bookstores and libraries the names of books bought or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement in ‘international terrorism’ or ‘clandestine activities.’” [3]   What becomes of writing and publishing in such a climate?  As one example, consider that Barnes and Noble refused to carry Jonathan Tel’s Arafat’s Elephant, a collection of short stories, unless the title was changed.  (Since Tel refused, of the big chains, only Borders is carrying the book.) 

At the same time, in the midst of all this—from September 12 on—has come a widespread circulation of poems by e-mail, appearances in newspapers and in memorials (both “official” and impromptu), with favorites including its own modernist canon of Moore, Yeats, Heaney, Auden.  Whose “modernism” is this?  Whose poetics provides such epigrammatic comforts?

There has been a clarion call for a new “accessibility” in our poetry.  Among others, this item from the CLMP Newswire concerning New York City editors’ responses to “9-11”: Martha Rhodes of Four Way Books describes “looking more for the essential in language and accessibility.  For the leaner and meaner.” [4]

My own response to shock and speechlessness in New York City was the opposite—to need, desperately, for language to be pushed outward or inward—to change and be changed, to be charged, remade.  What might that new poetry look like?  What sources might it look back to?  And who will be its readers?

[1] Eric McHenry, “Auden on Bin Laden,” Slate (September 20, 2001).

[2] “CUNY Chief Repudiates Forum Remarks,” New York Times (October 4, 2001) D3.

[3] Nat Hentoff, “Big John Wants Your Reading List,” The Village Voice (February 22, 2002).

[4] “New York in Crisis,” CLMP Newswire 1.14 (October 1, 2001).

Bio: Elisabeth A. Frost is an Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University, where she teaches contemporary American poetry, creative writing, and women’s studies.  She has published articles on modern and contemporary poets in Genders, Postmodern Culture, Women’s Studies, and elsewhere.  Her book, The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (University of Iowa Press), will appear in Spring 2003.

poetry post 9-11: witnessing dissent index

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