I was surprised to feel an unexpected emotional consonance between November 9, 2016 (2:30AM) and September 11, 2001. A realist stun gun. Gaping mouth, chills, fear. An imagined film reel of spectacular violence. Ballooning. A wholesale readjustment of the world one thought to have known and understood. A creeping in of an unreal “reality.” And for some more than others, the unavoidable sensation that one’s physical body was anew a liability—will these borders be respected?
My imagination ill-fitted to this news and thus was slow to accept it. It began to throw a fit. I will not be coopted by bullies, it said. That’s what they do, bullies, they force you to think about them when you fall asleep, they haunt your dreams, they greet you upon waking with a knowing snigger. They capture your imagination. That’s their power. They pick on competent and successful people who follow the rules and prefer to avoid conflict. If you’ve ever been bullied, you know this to be true. And then there’s the shock of realizing that you are actually afraid of someone you’ve never respected. You doubt yourself.
I’ve always loved Pete Seeger’s version of “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (My Thoughts Are Free). I listened to it with the utmost belief in the power of the mind to stay free, even when the body is imprisoned. But my belief in the mind’s power to stay free is not as strong as it used to be. The imagination, the poet’s stronghold, has a porous and democratic nature. It is vulnerable to fascists and bullies. “My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator” Seeger sings. But it takes an enormous discipline of mind to keep them out. A lock down of the imagination. Death to the poet.
I wrote my mid-length poem “The Occasion” (Clampdown, 2009) about an evening “a few days after the start of the war,” in this case, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I had been trying to find a way to write about that moment in a way that might capture the confusion, sadness, frustration, and divisiveness of it. But my voice was uncertain and I felt myself going silent. Then I came across John Greenleaf Whittier’s long poem “Snow-bound.” “How strange it seems, with so much gone / Of life and love, to still live on!” A perfect fit. I admired how Whittier’s narrative structure allowed for several distinct voices, how he set a scene and let the drama unfold. I tried to do the same. My narrative tells of a failure to come together, of a group of people, well-meaning, good-intentioned, imaginative people, poets, failing to find a common ground: “The war at hand had taken all our thought /and all of our imagination.” It was difficult to say anything, trapped as one felt in some perverse consensus:
of the past had marked us, for better or worse,
and no amount of preparedness or cash
could serve to save us when like targets we
stepped out into speech, powerless to know
the future or which way the tide of common
prejudice, though it be shaped by the uncommon
few, would turn at any given moment.
I’ll admit to a smallness: the worry that in this new clampdown the power of the imagination will find no quarter and all poems, obliged to resist, will cease to construct those habitable spaces of future hope we so desperately need to live. I do not care to write the poem or say the name of evil. Against the possibility that such a plea is mere “obfuscation of social and political realities in the interest of imaginative transcendence” (as Jonathan Culler reminds us many said of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), I return to Adorno’s conception that, as Culler summarizes it, “there are other ways to participate in the social than to represent it.” I must believe that poems can speak important truths that transcend their historical moment. Time, again, to dust off Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” the oddly specific title of which belies its continued relevance: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
A final thought: “The Occasion” was much about the inability to find a consensus even among friends. About the disruptive nature of ideological confusion. Since Tuesday I’ve experienced something quite different. A kind of lovely and spontaneous solidarity among the like-minded. All of us who are deeply saddened and angered by the outcome of the last election. People simply wanting to be in rooms with each other. To share. To catch a glimpse and say, with eyes, no words, “I know, me too.”
You can read my poem “The Occasion” here.