Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Not Writing Disaster Poems

[Earthquake / Tsunami (Japan 11/3/11)]

I was walking down the corridor yesterday when one of my colleagues stopped me to ask, "Written any poems lately?"

Rather a surprising question, I thought. Practically unprecedented, in fact.

"No, not really," I replied.

"I'd have thought there'd be quite a lot to write about at the moment," she continued.

"Yeah, I suppose so."

It was only then that I understood what she was getting at. "Disaster" = "disaster poem" / "Multiple disasters" = "suite of disaster poems".

"Where," she was asking (in effect), "is your Christchurch poem? Your Japanese earthquake poem? Maybe even your Libyan insurrection poem?"

There aren't any, I'm afraid.

I certainly don't want to legislate for other people, since a brief sampling of the blogosphere would reveal a number of Canterbury & Japanese earthquake poems already out there, and who am I to say if they're good or bad individually? "It's all just a matter of your opinion," as my Creative Writing students keep on reminding me. I do think it's an interesting matter to discuss, though.

I remember on the morning of 9/11, waking up to the news of the fall of the Twin Towers with the somewhat shamefaced realisation that I'd actually been at a poetry reading the evening before. Counting back through the time difference, I was glad to work out that I hadn't actually been intoning stanzas at the moment of the calamity - not that that would matter at all to anyone else - but had been asleep instead.

Who cares what I was doing? But somehow it mattered to me. I felt almost physically nauseated at the thought of standing there smugly self-promoting while other people were dying in flames. Irrational, really, but there you are ...

The only 9/11 poem that sticks in my mind is Amiri Baraka's ("Someone Blew Up America"), and not entirely for good reasons. It was those lines "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion" which caused most of the problems, as I recall - though my memory had transformed the last bit into "laughing they asses off" ... Never mind. The point of his poem is clear enough.

For weeks and months afterwards, though, you couldn't go anywhere without a shower of 9/11 poems dropping around you like confetti. Somewhat perversely (or so it must have seemed), I determined not to write any. I know such decisions are generally futile - one is immediately struck with an idea for a verse epic on the subject. In this case, though, they've mostly faded on the page.

It seems obvious in retrospect that there was something spurious, second-hand, video-linked about the whole idea of writing verses about 9/11. I felt even at the time that one would need some exceptionally cogent personal link or angle to attempt it at all. Amiri Baraka's certainly fulfilled that criterion - with a vengeance. It was undeniably heartfelt, whatever else it was.

How can I explain what probably sounds like a rather pointless set of prescriptions about when (I think) one should and shouldn't write poetry (or, rather, publish it - an important distinction)? There's a fine section in Huckleberry Finn where Huck (or, rather, Mark Twain: the authorial mask wears pretty thin at this point) is describing the poetic efforts of one Emmeline Grangerford:

She warn't particular, she could write about anything you choose to give to write about, just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker - the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person's name, which was Whistler. She warn't ever the same, after that; she never complained, but she kind of pined away and did not live long. [ch. xvii]

[Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn (1884)]

And what were Emmeline's poems like? The one Huck quotes, "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd", is certainly a stirring piece:

... Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

All I can say is that you would have to go a lot broader nowadays for this to stand out as conspicuously bad poetry. Emmeline understands metre and rhyme better than most. She has a certain tendency towards the bathetic, but then that's hard to gauge at the best of times.

If you want to see a lot more of this sort of stuff - far less accomplished technically, far clumsier and more naive in subject-matter - go to the obituary page of the NZ Herald (or most other daily newspapers). The funny thing is: I adore the poems I read on the back page of the Herald. I love the way that the people who write them often stop looking for rhymes after a while and just stop any old where. I admire the way in which they always go for the half-remembered scriptural / hymn-tune phrase rather than any concrete or living expression.

There's a sort of blunt-force trauma behind the words they seem to have literally wrenched out of themselves to express the sheer depth of their passionate feelings of loss. Very few of them resort to quotation from more accomplished bards. Most appear to feel they have to go it alone, through the shaky quagmire of five or ten lines of rhymed (or vaguely rhythmic) verse.

What Twain deplores in Emmeline, I feel, is her slick facility with words. She may not be entirely in control of her medium yet, but you can see that she had a great future ahead of her compiling the nineteenth-century equivalent of greeting-cards.

So what's all this got to do with 9/11?

I remember a few weeks afterwards seeing a TV interview with one of the survivors, who'd actually managed to get out of (I think) the second building just before it collapsed. The most striking thing about the whole event, for this woman, was the fact that she'd been personally rung up by Bruce Springsteen, who'd spoken to her for almost twenty minutes on the subject of her sensations and impressions during her journey down those smoke-filled stairs.

Twenty minutes talking to the Boss! What a thrill! And, sure enough, a few months later a Springsteen album was duly churned out, replete with husky, breathy phrases about "stairways filled with smoke / can hardly breathe / how'm I gonna get out?" Nice to see how the Master is able to achieve these striking effects ...

Now, I'm sure all the proceeds were donated to charity, and I don't doubt Mr. Springsteen's honest good intentions, but I just can't bring myself to take his "9/11" album very seriously. Why? Because he's just a bigger, slightly more professional version of Emmeline Grangerford, so far as I'm concerned. Shutting up would be the best thing he could do about 9/11, and that goes for most of the rest of us too. If you were trapped in there and got out, or know someone who was, or lost a friend, those might (to me) constitute legitimate prompts (or excuses) for penning some verses on the subject. If not, don't waste my time. I can watch the TV as well as you can.

One of the first pieces of writing preserved by the youthful Eric Blair (later to become famous as George Orwell) was an Ode on the Death of General Kitchener, drowned when his warship was sunk by a mine in 1916. He was not alone. Just about everyone in Britain seems to have found this watery death sufficiently striking to deluge the newspapers with similar poems (mostly along the lines of "we will fight on to avenge you ...")

I don't think Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen bothered, though - they had more important things to write about. Or perhaps one should say that they had more to think about. Facile verses full of patriotic cliches were, in that year of the Somme and Verdun, the last thing that anyone needed to hear. Similarly, a few less "Yahda yahda yahda 9/11 yahda yahda yahda I'm so angry yahda yahda yahda & kinda blue at the same time" poems might have provided a bit more room for thinking about whether it would be such a great idea to ... start a new war in the Middle East. Don't you think?

Perhaps it's foolish of me to think of poems as having any particular importance for anyone anytime when it comes to "serious" issues of politics and history (or natural disaster, for that matter). But, foolish or not, that's what I believe. It's for that reason that I'm not particularly into people churning out the equivalent of "Lord Kitchener is dead / the mighty warrior lies cold / with the coiling fishes / every hair of his moustache we shall avenge / on the dastardly foe" poems every time some new sensation comes up on the evening news.

It's not in the least that I have no sympathy for the tragic events in Japan and Christchurch (or NY in 2001, for that matter). It's just that I have nothing to say about them beyond what's being pumped out nineteen yards to the minute by every news medium known to man - until the next disaster sends all the reporters jetting off somewhere else. It's perhaps a little exigent of me, but I'm afraid I really do judge people as much by what they don't write as by what they do.

Second-hand emotions are, by and large, easy to access and not particularly difficult to express. Getting across something of how you actually feel about your life in this world is on a completely different order of complexity.

[Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (2002)]


Giovanni Tiso said...

It's perhaps a little exigent of me, but I'm afraid I really do judge people as much by what they don't write as by what they do.

I feel the same way. All the same, there has been some wonderful and I think incredibly helpful writing coming out of Christchurch - most notably from Cheryl Bernstein and Philip Matthews. Yet the latter just yesterday wrote that it was still almost impossible for him to process the event. I think it speaks to the complexity that you describe.

On writing (and not writing) about the Japan earthquake, I very much enjoyed this post by Dougal McNeill.

Dougal said...

There's a very beautiful Thom Gunn poem - "The Reassurance" - 'about' (ugly term) the sort of self-deceit and dodgy rhetorical moves which go on when Speaking to Events.

A recently dead friend returns in a dream and offers comfort all round. So far, so familiar. Then the last stanza:

How like you to be kind, / Seeking to reassure. / And, yes, how like my mind / To make itself secure.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, nicely put, Dougal.

& Giovanni, of course I couldn't agree more that people should write about their experiences of Christchurch - soon enough, when the cameras leave, that'll be all we have left to go on to try and understand something of the event. But (as I think we both agree) only some people: not necessarily just residents, but non-residents do have to question their qualifications a bit, I feel.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, I agree, in fact I made the exact same point myself. It's just that in the space created by not writing you can more easily gesture towards the things that are worth reading.

Unknown said...

Once you have written a poem to be proud of why not enter it into our competition for the chance to win a large cash prize?

Dr Jack Ross said...

Well said, "Thomas".

Nice to see how closely you're following the debate ...