Shades of meaning
Even a superficial analysis of Pinsky's Washington Post poem reveals a remarkable depth of both meaning and music -- a powerful clash of historic and contemporary images.
Near the center of this tight word-nugget is an image that haunted me for days after hearing Pinsky read an image that popped up in my head begging for a more thorough study of the poem.
This is a painful close up at the World Trade Center disaster involving firefighters. The poem and the poet then pan back from the intensity of the image the way a camera might on a helicopter floating over the towers of smoke to put the whole horror in perspective.
The poem refuses to focus on the disaster alone, seeking to pit the scene against its historic relevance, moving back frame by frame the way the after-the-battle scene does in the movie Gone with the Wind, showing more and more of the immensity of the poet's emotion.
Pinsky claimed his poem was not particularly political, yet not without political elements.
This is a gross understatement considering the single scene he chose for the poem from the World Trade Center attack: the firefighters.
As a conscious poet, Pinsky could not avoid the dark history his image had in the wider world when he showed New York City firefighters imprinting their social security numbers on their arms before continuing on into the holocaust above. The image recalls similar numbers forcibly imprinted on the arms of concentration camp Jews during World War Two. Both groups marched to their deaths by incineration.
I wrote Pinsky to inquire about this image, but he didn't respond. Poets don't like to explain their poetry, especially to satirical critics like me.
The written reality of this image remains like an afterglow against the rest of the poem, even as he pans his poetic camera out to look at the society and history against which the disaster transpired.
He focuses in on the specific of the attack only for one more vivid image, that of the boxcutter-wielding man calling out God's name.
In his lecture on craft, he talked about finding your own monuments and using music comfortable to your own ears. It is a conscious battle to find insight and avoid cliché. Although I had heard such lectures before, his talk amazed me because here was a poet who practiced what he preached, and a closer study of his poetry showed an amazing craft that was far more -- as he put in it describing criticism of Stevens -- more than prose broken up into smaller lines.
During our trip to this year's festival, Sharon asked me about my tendency to "take apart" other people's art and where I had learned it.
School had taught me some of the tools, I told her.
Public performance provides only shallow appreciation of a poem's worth. To get the patterns of the meaning behind the music, you had to take apart the poem piece by piece -- something I've always felt the need to do.
And more so with Pinsky's poem 9/11.