In 2007, my mother, dying of lung cancer, lost her sense of time. Asked what year it was, she answered “1970”; when asked her birthday, she couldn’t say the date, but she remembered its resonance: “It was that bad day,” she said. Her birthday was September 11th.
Memory blurs, time-travels, telescopes, shape-shifts. Twenty years out, to verify my own memories of that bad day and its immediate aftermath, I turn back to correspondence, find it peppered with inarticulate attempts to describe a shared disorientation that radiated beyond the initial shock, lingering like that toxic cloud above the ruins of the World Trade Center. This ungrounding wasn’t just about the literally out-of-the-blue terror acts themselves, the indelible images of the Twin Towers falling, the tragedy of the deaths in New York, in Washington, D.C., in a Pennsylvania field; it also stemmed from the mushrooming displays of patriotism and national unity that immediately followed. Fire trucks, parked near busy interchanges, became political installations, unfurling their ladders to fly at their crest outsized American flags—not just in New York and Washington, but even here in the small southern city where I live. Here, where even in 2001—truly, even today—one could occasionally be accosted by the sight of a pickup truck motoring the main routes of town, a huge flag flapping from its bed: not an American flag, but a Confederate one. In those immediate post-9/11 days, however, dozens of pickups drove around town flying American flags; even the miniature car-window flags proclaiming team allegiance to the Georgia Bulldogs were replaced by American flags that multiplied, it seemed, exponentially.
The literary world had its own displays. At a small festival I attended just a few days after 9/11, the writer-organizers made an unscheduled break between readings—to sing patriotic songs with the audience. I failed to write down the specific titles; the lyrics now elude me. The feeling does not. Despite the true tragedy that had happened on 9/11, this ubiquitous, fervent display—the fire trucks, the flags, the songs—was itself unnerving, everything, it seemed, awash with jingoistic groupthink. Perhaps the failure was mine; some, I’m sure, viewed this synchronicity more positively, as a bonding across community lines, a gathering of unlikely comrades. But mourning the lost, nearly three thousand individual persons, so quickly morphed to nationalism, to popular support for the invasion of Afghanistan, to rhetoric about not letting the terrorists succeed in disrupting our daily lives out of fear, a repeated phrasing that was quickly driven to the absurd: “if we don’t X [insert for X ‘go to the mall,’ ‘go to a bar,’ ‘buy stuff’—or whatever you feel like doing], the terrorists win.”
As writers, we like to see ourselves as observers of, rather than participants in, unexamined groupthink. But that same insidious, coercive power was also pervasive in American poetry at the end of the twentieth century. From twenty years out, I see 9/11, its attending shock and desire for community, as a turning point in American poetry, the beginning of the crumbling of the late 20th century’s entrenched aesthetic divisions.
The story of American poetry in the twentieth century is largely one of creation via opposition, beginning in the many -isms of Modernism, with its attending clarion call always to “make it new,” moving through the many schools and movements of the midcentury and beyond—the Beats, the New York School, the Black Arts Movement, etc., etc.—culminating, or rather calcifying, in a final two decades marked by extreme aesthetic division. This was the era of “the poetry wars,” a reductive “us and them” mentality that dominated much of the conversation about poetry in those closing decades of the twentieth century. Contemporary American poetry was routinely described then as a set of binary options: on the one side, the post-confessional lyric “voice poem,” transparent language and linear narrative, ending in epiphany; on the other, opaque language, fracture, and a resistance to closure. On the one side were the “mainstream” poets; on the other, the postmodern experimentalists, the “Language” poets.
Poetry criticism of the era often reflected, or reflected on, this division, as did Hank Lazer’s 1996 book Opposing Poetries, and my own essay published in 2001, pre-9/11, “The Politics of Poetics: Creative Writing Programs and the Double Canon of Contemporary Poetry.” What led me to write this essay were my own experiences as a student at two graduate creative writing programs I completed degrees at in the 1980s and 1990s, programs with near polar-opposite aesthetics: my MFA program, solidly in the “mainstream,” and my doctoral program, very much of the postmodern vein. I count myself fortunate to have attended both of these programs, especially as studying in both “camps” and feeling a bit of an aesthetic outsider in each program (too associative, too disrupted, for the mainstream; too narrative, too imagistic, for the avant-garde) forced me as a young poet to begin to clarify what I wanted to embrace and to work towards in my own poetry. But how partial my education would have been, I understood, had I only attended one graduate program, as was typical then—especially with PhD programs in creative writing at the time being new and few. Those decades were marked by poet-professors, passionate and evangelical about their own aesthetic preferences, employing the structural processes of creative writing programs—selecting new faculty, visiting writers, and assigned texts—to create a local institutional canon that stayed within the gates of their preferred aesthetic camp, whether mainstream or avant-garde. What students received, then, was a one-sided view of contemporary American poetry.
In my doctoral program, to praise a mainstream poet would be to expose oneself as a misguided simpleton, as one of “them”: the not-true artists. In one workshop given by a brilliant postmodern poet, my fellow classmates scrambled throughout the course to be more and more experimental, competing to “out avant-garde” each other in order to win the highest approval of our leader. In my MFA program, postmodern experimentalists were simply never assigned or discussed. Though Language poetry began in the 1970s, I only learned about it after completing my MFA. My experiences, I am certain, were not atypical of that divisive era, which extended beyond my mid-’90s completion of the PhD. A few years later, at the institution where I teach, a visiting “mainstream” poet confided in me that her university’s large creative writing program was being “taken over by Language poets.” Another poet, with whom I worked selecting poets for a reading series, who also attended a postmodern doctoral program and identified strongly with this aesthetic, complained to me privately that the nature of the committee was such that we were bringing in only mainstream poets. The attitude was familiar, the implication clear: these weren’t the “real” poets, the ones doing the difficult work of “language first.”
Then 9/11 happened.
In early 2002, I attended a reading by this same poet. He read, in addition to poems from his book he was promoting, new work, post-9/11 work—work that a year before, I’m certain, we both would have described as transparent, accessible: reflective of the aesthetics of what had been for him “the other side.” Equally transformed was how he spoke about American poetry, about America, even, between poems; he was clearly speaking not of an us and them, but of, and out of, a collective we.
Poems written by other postmodern poets about 9/11 in those early months also share a new directness, a new accessibility; “Hum,” by MacArthur Fellow Ann Lauterbach, is a good example. In an interview with Rain Taxi published in 2002, Lauterbach states that what she is interested in as a writer is “a more difficult kind of sense-making . . . difficult in the sense of complexity, and obscurity, but not willful obscurity, just the fact that there are certain things we cannot penetrate.” As she is drawn to “things that are furtive and peripheral and ephemeral,” the “subject matter” in her work, then, “is often under the poem, or to the side of the poem.” But in “Hum” the subject matter appears centered and surfaced: the sense of shock and disorientation resulting from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The poem’s use of the direct phrase “the towers,” a clear, shared referent for speaker and reader; its unironic use of words in the sentimental realm (“weeping,” “beautiful”); the synchronicity of line and clause, with each line in the poem being a separate complete sentence: all this makes for a syntactic simplicity and accessibility unusual in Lauterbach’s work.
That her contemporary reader has shared experience with the speaker, and poet, also prepares the reader to better access and process Lauterbach’s characteristic discontinuity and disruption that does remain here. Shock and disorientation are structurally embodied in the poem through its questioning, its pervasive use of repetition, its sometimes disjunctive placement of these lines, and its at times unusual, though still clear, phrasing, as with “The weather is yesterday” in these representative lines:
The sky is dust.
The weather is yesterday.
The weather is yesterday.
The sound is weeping.
What is this dust?
The weather is nothing.
The days are beautiful.
The towers are yesterday.
In the same interview, Lauterbach states that “meaning is something that can only come from the reader.” However, “Hum” is more directive of meaning, more accessible, less “difficult,” then, for the aesthetic and structural choices Lauterbach makes.
Another example is Robert Creeley’s poem “Ground Zero.” A major experimental poet first associated with the Black Mountain School, co-creator with Charles Olson of “projective verse,” Creeley taught at the State University of New York-Buffalo for more than three decades, helping, as the Poetry Foundation notes, “to turn its English and Poetics program into one of the most famous havens for avant-garde writing in the world.”
Yet Creeley’s 9/11 poem also is direct, ending with these “transparent” lines where a unified speaker creates a “we” with the reader:
Persist, go on, believe.
Dreams may be all we have,
whatever one believe
of worlds wherever they are —
with people waiting there
will know us when we come
when all the strife is over,
all the sad battles lost or won,
all turned to dust.
But not all 9/11 poetry was unifying; it could also be oppositional, controversial—even at times provoking outrage beyond the poetry community. The most dramatic example of course is that of Amiri Baraka, cofounder of the Black Arts movement, whose position as Poet Laureate of New Jersey was eradicated in response to his 9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which propagated an anti-Israel conspiracy theory, contained in these lines: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day….” But the conflict here, importantly, was over content, not aesthetics.
The next major conflict American poetry became embroiled in occurred as President George W. Bush sought to extend the post-9/11 War against Terror beyond Afghanistan in order to settle an old score with Iraq. In late January 2003, First Lady Laura Bush abruptly cancelled a poetry symposium to be held at the White House celebrating the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes because she learned invitees were planning to use the February event to present anti-war poetry in protest of President Bush’s proposed “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq. Poet and Copper Canyon Press cofounder Sam Hamill had put out a call for poetry protesting war in Iraq; this collection, which he’d hoped to present at the symposium, ballooned into a massive project, Poets Against the War.
From the many thousands of poems Hamill received from poets ranging from former Poets Laureate to children and first-time poets, poems he formally presented to Congress with poets W.S. Merwin, Jorie Graham, and Terry Tempest Williams, Hamill selected work for a print anthology as well as an online chapbook featured on the Poets Against the War website. Each anthology project includes poets associated with both sides of the late twentieth century’s oppositional poetics: included is the “mainstream” poet, Maxine Kumin, but also the experimentalist C. D. Wright; Sharon Olds and Lucille Clifton are there, but so are Robert Creeley and Brenda Hillman. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, who had turned down an invitation to the event (and whose work also appears in the chapbook), stated after the event’s cancellation, “the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to stay in the ivory tower.” As did 9/11 itself, the protest against the Iraq war brought poets together as a “we,” rather than an “us” and “them”; that so many poets refused to stay in the ivory tower—or towers—resulted in further erasure of the poetic divide.
Even as the poetry wars waned, however, there were some who still held tightly to a model of binary division—most notably, Ron Silliman. Silliman was at the forefront of experimental poetics not only as a practitioner: he also edited the primary anthology of Language poetry in 1986, In the American Tree, and wrote what’s widely considered the movement’s foremost critical text, The New Sentence, in 1987. Silliman held to his oppositional take on American poetry, which he referred to as the “School of Quietude” vs. the “Post Avant,” advocating post avant aesthetics on his well-visited and contentious blog he began in 2002. (As of this writing, the blog is still online; his last posting was January 31, 2021).
In large, though, the conversation in the decade of the aughts was moving beyond the Manichean binaries of the poetry wars into a discussion of hybrid poetics. Key in this dialogue was American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, edited by poets Cole Swensen and David St. John. Hybrid, as Cole Swensen writes in her introduction, “springs from the conviction that the model of binary opposition is no longer the most accurate one”; instead, Swensen argues, “the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unexpected ways” (xvii). American poetry, she argues, had abandoned the poetry wars’ “fundamental division” between the traditional and the experimental. Instead, a new eclecticism had emerged, where poets felt free to blend aspects of poetic aesthetics previously seen as diametrically opposed.
The publication of this anthology, though, itself provoked a heated response; in an AWP panel, remarks later posted on the Poetry Foundation’s blog in 2010, poet Craig Santos Perez’s “Whitewashing American Hybrid Poetics” makes a scathing attack on the anthology for its dominant whiteness and on Cole Swensen’s introduction for not considering or acknowledging the extensive critical writings on aesthetic and cultural hybridity by Native American, Asian American, and Latinx poets and theorists. Citing an extensive list of such works, Perez asks: “Why are white poet editors jumping on the hybrid bandwagon so late in the game, seemingly without any true understanding of the historical depth and vitality, as well as the complex problematics of the concept of poetic hybridization in American poetry?” Perez also writes: “I blame Ron Silliman. For many things, but most of all for propagating the simplistic binary reading of poetic history into quietude & avant garde.”
While, unlike Perez, I find Swensen’s essay an insightful and eloquent summary of the evolution and disintegration of the poetry wars, Perez’s point is a serious one. Yet the failure that Perez rightly identifies I believe isn’t Swensen’s, whose introduction focuses on the rise and fall of the oppositional aesthetics which had dominated American publishing and academia in the twentieth century, poetry’s sites of institutional power—not on “the historical depth and vitality” of the full spectrum of American poetics.
The truth is that both sides of the poetry wars privileged White poets, largely eliding poetry and criticism by writers of color. This was especially true of the academic avant-garde in the late twentieth century, who also touted critical theory by White, largely European, thinkers. The failure Perez identifies belongs to the late twentieth century poet-critics who reduced poetry’s possibilities to a set of binary options—one good, one bad—then weighed all poetry accordingly. The failure belongs to the institutions we, the poets of my generation, came up in, and the failure belongs to us, the White graduate students of the 1990s who lived obliviously, comfortably, and silently in the disconnect we experienced moving between, on the one hand, our department’s newly diversified American literature courses and its new courses in postcolonial literature and theory, and on the other, the culturally as well as aesthetically narrow focus of the creative writing program despite the ideological empathy expressed there for the socially marginalized.
While American Hybrid aptly noted a shift happening in the first years of the poetry wars’ crumbling, what has happened in American poetry in the twelve years since the anthology’s publication is what I find truly remarkable. These years have brought ever richer work as the poetry wars fade into memory. In becoming still more eclectic, more aesthetically individualistic, American poetry has become more truly innovative: Jericho Brown’s fusion of the ghazal and the blues to create a new form, the duplex; Patricia Smith’s equal brilliance with Spoken Word and with sonnet crowns; Layli Long Soldier’s use of text and disruption to create not opacity but a unified, clear meaning in Whereas—these are just a few examples. Each of these is an extraordinary individual achievement, but collectively they are also representative of how American poetry has freed itself from the reductive binaries dominant in the late twentieth century—in its composition as well as in its critical reception. A poet no longer has that coercive pressure we did to claim an allegiance to one camp vs. the other, the mainstream vs. the postmodern, or to explain how their work differs from each. Of course, there are new pressures. Differences, even heated debates, still occur, as they should, but the conversations regarding aesthetics—from my perspective, at least, having come up during the poetry wars—are now more nuanced, less contentious. While we still have far to go, conversations about urgent issues beyond aesthetics, such as the role racial and other types of privilege have played and continue to play in publishing and the academy, have been significantly amplified.
Still, twenty years out from 9/11, a question remains: if 9/11 did reveal foundational fractures that would bring in the following years the collapse of the twin towers of oppositional poetics the poetry wars had raised, in 2001 were those towers ready to fall on their own? Or did it take the collective trauma of a 9/11 and its aftermath to bring them down? I believe it was a confluence of the two, and that the way we experienced 9/11 versus other catastrophes is a key reason it did serve as a catalyst for change.
9/11 was such a traumatizing, bonding event for so many Americans, and thus, so many American poets, as much for how we experienced it as for what it was: the worst terrorist attack on American soil, with nearly 3,000 people killed, a loss which cut across lines of race and class and nationality. It was more than the nature of the attack itself, not just the out-scale horror of huge passenger planes directly flown into the tallest building in the country, one which to many was a symbol of American success, and to others an embodiment of the oppressive power of American capitalism. How many of us were routinely watching the news that morning, who, after breaking news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, called, as I did, a loved one to tell them to turn on the television, then together watched in horror, in real time, as the second plane struck?
That shared moment so many millions experienced brought us together in a collective trauma we didn’t feel for frankly the larger catastrophes happening all around us, then as now, resulting from enduring social and environmental injustice: disasters at the intersection of racism, poverty, and human-driven climate change. Even a disaster that could be concretely documented but not collectively witnessed, gun violence, didn’t move us: in 2001, 2,990 people were killed on American soil due to terrorism; 29,573 died from firearms. A traumatic moment rivets our attention in a way constant trauma doesn’t—when that constant trauma is experienced by others. It took witnessing via played and replayed cellphone video in 2020 of the horrific murder of George Floyd, hearing him say again and again I can’t breathe, hearing him call out to his mother as a policeman kneeled on his neck, hands casually pocketed, literally squeezing the life out of Floyd, to widen communal outrage beyond those who were all too aware of police brutality and racism because these were woven into their lives each and every day.
We prefer to look outward to locate evil. The conventional wisdom about 9/11 was that our collective trauma resulted from an awareness that we were all vulnerable in ways we hadn’t even imagined. Over and over the cliché was repeated: “we’ve lost our innocence,” a phrase I do not recall hearing following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, at that time the worst terrorist attack in American history. But that terrorist wasn’t an “outsider”: he was a White American. In announcing in 2001 that we’d lost our innocence, we revealed that what we had wasn’t innocence but a willful ignorance of our history and our present. If we were all vulnerable in ways we hadn’t even imagined, many of us had long been vulnerable in ways others of us chose not to imagine or see, even when we were the problem ourselves.
I’m writing this on August 16, 2021, a day, like September 11, 2001, newscasters are speculating we will always remember where we were when we first saw the pictures—this time not of the fall of the Twin Towers but the fall of the U.S.-supported Afghan government, nearly twenty years after the U.S. invasion. 2001-2021 is now an era bookended by traumatic images of planes: passenger planes crashing into skyscrapers from out of the blue; a military plane filled with evacuees taking off from a Kabul runway as people desperately cling to it, grabbing onto the wheels as it rises. 2001-2021 is an era bookended by horrendous images of people falling to their deaths from the sky.
Earlier this month, I travelled to Manhattan, to see not the 9/11 Memorial, but an art installation by Maya Lin. “Ghost Forest” is a stand of 49 dead Atlantic White Cedar trees which had been slated for removal from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Ghost forests are woods that die from salt intrusion of rising tides and from other events driven or worsened by climate change; Lin’s installation, the Madison Square Park Conservancy website says, “stands as a metaphor of the outsized impact of a looming environmental calamity.” At the site, however, it seemed the work had become a kind of performance piece people weren’t aware they were a part of, as they casually leaned up against the dead trees, resting, eating their lunch, just as they did elsewhere in the park with its live trees. They were paying no attention to what was literally right above them, what was holding up their bodies. How good we are at not seeing. It’s a shock, then, when we do see.
Twenty years out, I think about the disasters whose anniversaries aren’t marked, that don’t hold us, the ones we ignore because we can. Globally, more than 10 million people die of air pollution each year; according to WHO, human-driven climate change is already killing 150,000 each year. I think about the disasters we collectively refuse to end; still in the middle of a pandemic, with well over 600,000 Americans dead from COVID, the county I live in, despite easy access to vaccines, is just 30% vaccinated.
Every day the numbers of the dead ratchet up.
Meanwhile, we rest our heads against the ghosts and look up, through the dead limbs, into a blue sky.