9/11: Using poetry to cope with tragedy
In Patt Morrison’s interview with W.S. Merwin, who just ended his term as the nation's poet laureate, she asked him why he thinks people cope with tragedy by writing poetry. Here's a snippet from Saturday's column followed by an audio treat.
The U.S. sometimes seems proud of being anti-intellectual, and yet even people who've never read a poem by choice will, under emotional stress -- a family death, or 9/11 -- sit down and try to write a poem. What is happening there?
We begin to say something that cannot be said. When you see on the front page a woman in Iraq who's just seen her husband blown up, you see her there, her mouth wide open, you know the sound coming out of her, a howl of grief and pain -- that's the beginning of language.
Trying to express that, it's inexpressible, and poetry is really [there] to say what can't be said. And that's why people turn to it in these moments. They don't know how to say this, [but] part of them feels that maybe a poem will say it. It won't say it, but it'll come closer to saying it than anything else will.
[Interviewers asked, after 9/11,] what poems I was reading. I said I remembered that Dylan Thomas poem, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." Oh, it's a great poem. Shall I recite it to you? [He does, and lingers on the last line:] "After the first death, there is no other." He was 25 when he wrote that.
Here's Merwin reciting Thomas' poem to Morrison:
Photo: An explosion rips through the south tower of New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, as smoke billows from the north tower. Robert Clark / Associated Press