Taking 9/11 apart
(I do this for all poetry I read)
Any reasonably close study of poetry involves taking chances. At what point do you go beyond the author's intent? Are you picking up on unconscious elements even the author did not intend? Are you imposing upon the work your own limited view.
The events surround Sept. 11, 2001 and its anniversary a year later have left few untouched or created an unbiased basis upon which to begin a study like this. In fact, a shallow interpretation such as mine risks broad generalizations that the poem might not justify.
In this study, I attempt to read what is in the work and try not to bring too much to it from outside the poem. In some cases, this is impossible, and I speculate on images or the meaning of passages.
I also artificially divide subject areas. Poems of this quality do not break down easily into easily categories, so that this is a bit unfair, and you will find a strong overlap in each area.
This said we begin.
WHO IS SPEAKING IN THIS POEM?
It is difficult not to picture Pinsky's face -- as poet -- when studying this poem, instead attempting to focus on the characteristics of the narrator.
Pinsky, the man, does not speak so much in this poem, but shapes out of a universal grief a kind of every man, an "us" that becomes symbolic of a nation and its people.
Like William Faulkner, who sometimes used "we" in order to make society the main character of one of his tales -- In creating this poem - Pinsky has chosen "we" as the teller of his tale: "We adore images," the main voice says in its opening. "We like the spectacle."
It is not Pinsky the poet that sickens of the sight of "our" systems turning against "us" but that forever multiple social "we."
Pinsky the poet does not dream up captured heroes, "We" do.
It is "our" courage and "our" being this poem ponders. It is our courage that "holds us together." It is "our" music the poem asks about.
The symbols of society this poem mentions are "ours" watching over us.
Sept. 11 did not happen to an individual so much as to a people, "we" speaker seems to say. Despite this multiple voice, this character is hardly free of judgements -- each phrase seeking to define us. We tend to prefer the visual, he says, and the show. We like things that move fast and that tend to be -- as in a cliché Pinsky avoids -- larger than life.
The poem's speaker seems to talk to himself, like a shell-shocked survivor a year after the event staring into a mirror trying to work out the details as to what we did to deserve such an assault.
Through this plural voice, the poets seeks to convey an experience that has been suffered by a people, even if the poem can't quite figure out the characteristics of what it means to be an American.
WHAT IS ART?
The poem starts out with a judgement about aesthetics, claiming we "adore images, the spectacle of speed and working of prodigious systems"
From this we found ourselves watching the WTC disaster on television until even we got sick of the negative side of our technological wonders. The images our media supplies sickens us, but so does the medium in which the images are presented.
The poem comments with something of an elite air on the "lowbrow" level of our heroes: we respect sports stars and actors more than meaningful moments in time. Although Sept. 11 is a rare exception to this.
The poem seems to want to make sense of something that doesn't make sense, searching for core of what we are -- stumbling over the contradictions of what being American is.
Perhaps this explains the subtle changes in tone, a sense of regret falling into mild bitter reproach: "More likely to name an airport for an actor or athlete than "First of May" or Fourth of July.
The poem says we love machines. Not just the mechanical things that huff and puff around us and pollute our air -- we also love the organizational element the poem's word "systems" implies.
While in one place we "adore… the working of prodigious systems, in another we watched those same prodigious systems turn against us, recalling the archetype of Shelly's Frankenstein.
Systems had failed us before, and the poem delves into allusions and hints of a deeper and darker history from our early days in the machine age, when a similar love of systems failed us with the rise of Nazi Germany.
This poem talks of dreamed up movie heroes who tell their interrogators that their commanding officer's name is "Colonel Donald Duck"
I do not recognize what is probably an obvious cultural reference, yet the poem's narrator refers to the interrogator's writing down the name as "code of a lowbrow memory" so assured it's nearly aristocratic.
While lowbrow and highbrow are condescending ways of describing intellectual states, there was an arrogance of ignorance with Germany's Third Reich that praised technological accomplishments with little regard for cultural knowledge or tradition. Seeming to echo this element of systems is the next very remarkable image in which the poem reports the legend of firefighters writing their Social Security numbers on their forearms before hurrying into the doomed towers. It is an image that recalls the brand the Nazi put on Jewish prisoners before herding them into ovens. The poem ponders the grim humor of firefighters kidding each other and how matter of fact this gruesome signature must have seemed at that moment.
As the poem draws back from this vivid image, it talks about Will Rogers as a Cherokee, "a survivor," a term often used by living victims of the Nazi Holocaust, but tied by his Native American heritage to a American holocaust. Will Rogers died in a plane crash, too, his body incinerated.
As if seeking to link one atrocity with another, this poem connects a 16-year old Rogers with the death of Frederick Douglass, one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War and later worked with Lincoln to adopt constitutional amendments guaranteeing civil liberties for blacks. Douglass like Rogers became a voice for the oppressed -- using words to counter prejudices.
Panning back in time more, the poem claims Douglass was 12 when Emily Dickinson was born, a recluse who had to step back from the world to contemplate it from a distance in order to write about it.
I think that the best of these theories is that Emily could not write about the world with out first backing away from it and contemplating it from a distance.
The speaker ponders how easily America seems to have forgotten these one-time giants, indeed, wonders if even Donald Duck is half-forgotten now -- a symbol of perhaps a cheaper art by historic comparison -- lowbrow?
WHAT IS A HERO?
In a remarkable juxtaposition of images, the poem presents us with our fantasy heroes derived out of Lowbrow memory, then sets it side by side with the firefighter heroes who knew the likelihood of not coming out of the towers alive. The poem even ponders their light-hearted treatment of the danger as an ordinary event.
Continuing this, the poem eases out of the purely physical hero, presenting us with Will Rogers who is a hero of another kind. And still Frederick Douglass whose own efforts were larger than life in a heroic effort to find rights. And in this line, he brings us to Emily Dickinson -- a poet. Possibly a hero of yet another kind?
The speaker thus ponders the meaning of "American," puzzling out the paradox that we as a people are not defined by blood or religion the way others nations are.
The massive amount of blood we journalists recorded donated wasn't needed after all "except as meaning," a symbolic gesture perhaps of American generosity? Are we heroes, too, even though our gift was not needed in the physical sense? Was our gift really something spiritual?
We are generous and we are greedy. We are courageous and cowardly. Which of these did the shaved man with the box cutter see as he screamed the name of God?
The speaker wonders what stuff holds our people together, greed or what? What is the stuff that makes up our essence?
We live in a confusion of cultural icons, with music that dances across the spectrum of quality "imprudent and profound." We surround ourselves with old icons, the symbols of secret societies no longer relevant to modern life. These symbols some how seek to protect us from each generations' most featured plague, yet strangely we are unprotected. And the poem ponders, what if the terrorists blow up the symbols themselves?
In something of a snide tone, our speaker suggests the "survivors" will "in grief, terror and excess" build a dozen more."
The speaker, perhaps not the poet, mocks the fact that our culture (whatever that is) might "produce a catchy song about it" (O shades of Bruce Springteen!)
But the meaning of Sept. 11, this speaker seems to say, it beyond comprehension, the symbols of our lives unable to define the full impact of that moment. But what else do we have but old symbols as inappropriate as they might be: Ray Charles singing "American the Beautiful," in a setting as gaudy and tasteless as only Americans can produce -- each of us caught between extremes of our own sad sense of style: high heals and sneakers, yet each full as full of symbolic purpose as our symbols.
USE OF METAPHOR
Pinsky's poem uses subtle metaphors. Where the poem seems a straight presentation of facts without the usual parade of similes: this is like that or that is that, the poem relies strongly upon the symbolic. Its prodigious systems serve to mean not merely the mechanics of the machines used to attack us, but the structure of our lives: the financial institutions, the media covering the disaster, even the process of heroism: firefighters, police, United States Army. In some ways, the whole poem is a metaphor of value, looking at our culture and the things we admire while forgotten are other buildings blocks that lack the dramatic images, "spectacle of speed and size."
The poem does not say we are as ignorant as Donald Duck, but shapes the comparison of a lowbrow memory "so assured it's nearly aristocratic."
The tattoo of Social Security numbers on the arms of firefighters is an allusion and half of a metaphor compared against the image of Jewish prisoners in concentration camps. Both groups bore a great heroism. Both bore a grim humor. Both would be incinerated in a horrific event. The simile "as if they were filling out some workday form" hammering home the bureaucratic matter of factness of both societies. This was the fire fighters' job. The Nazi recorded every transaction.
In reading parts of this poem, news reels of Nazi parades march through my head, especially those spectacles of goose stepping soldiers and banners full of powerful icons. The poem says we live with similar icons in our lives "mystic Masonic Totems" such as the "the Eye of the Pyramid" or the "hexagram of stars."
Pinsky ends of the piece with a strange comparison of culture as well, giving us the symbolic images of Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful" with its alabaster cities, amber waves, and purple majesty against the cheap high tech production studio of "soundboards," sequins, high heels and jeans.
This poem, of course, is so rich that we could continue nearly indefinitely, finding threads to tug. But this gives you a general idea of the scope. Since this could be done for any of the number of poems Pinsky read at the Dodge, we could be at this forever. What was it that James Joyce said: he merely wanted someone to spend a lifetime studying his work?