The Twin Towers & W.H. Auden
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 5/15/03
Now, over a
year & a ½ after 9/11, some of the nonsense being propagated by the
assorted groups who had vested interests in the event, its aftermath, & the
laying of blame, or heroism, can be dealt with more straightforwardly.
Let’s forget the political, psychical, & spiritual aspects & concentrate on just the poetic responses. There have been numerous poems about 9/11: the Internet is dripping with them- ranging from Leftist ‘We got what was coming to us!’ BS to Rightist calls to arms. Anthologies aplenty have been published- often with the same crapola from the Internet. Then, with the Afghan War of 2002, & the recently concluded Gulf War 2 in Iraq, we’ve gotten such vomit-inducing stuff as the Poets Against The War nonsense- see my essay regarding that- & many retread War/Anti-War poems from the past- from Tennyson to Owen & then some. But, without a doubt, the most talked of poem from the past in relation to 9/11 was W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939.
This is not to say that WHA’s poem is a bad poem- it’s not. It’s a pretty good poem- but nowhere near great, & certainly nowhere near the rapturous gushings that mostly non-poet-types have hurled at it. Let’s look at the poem, dissect it both literarily & in relation to 9/11, & then compare it with a great poem of mine written about the Twin Towers- for better or worse. Then I’ll posit why 9/11 has not yet inspired a single great poem from the published Literati, & why it may never. Also why there is this desire to find solace in old & inappropriate places. The poem:
September 1, 1939
in one of the dives
Accurate scholarship can
Exiled Thucydides knew
Into this neutral air
Faces along the bar
The windiest militant trash
From the conservative dark
All I have is a voice
Defenceless under the night
Show an affirming flame.
OK, let’s take a look at WHA’s poem stanza by stanza- & let’s start with the title. The date refers to the date of a notorious speech Adolf Hitler gave before the German Reichstag where basically he outlined his zeal for conquest, in response to ‘supposed’ Polish provocation. In short, this was the date Germany invaded Poland & World War 2 began. Here’s a snip, typical of the fanaticism which inspired WHA’s response in verse:
This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our territory. Since 5.45 A.M. we have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met by bombs. Whoever fight with poison gas will be fought with poison gas. Whoever departs from the rules of humane warfare can only expect that we shall do the same. I will continue this struggle, no matter against whom, until the safety of the Reich and its rights are secured.
For six years now I have been working on the building up of the German defenses. Over 90 millions have in that time been spent on the building up of these defense forces. They are now the best equipped and are above all comparison with what they were in 1914. My trust in them is unshakable. When I called up these forces and when I now ask sacrifices of the German people and if necessary every sacrifice, then I have a right to do so, for I also am to-day absolutely ready, just as we were formerly, to make every possible sacrifice.
I am asking of no German man more than I myself was ready throughout four years at any time to do. There will be no hardships for Germans to which I myself will not submit. My whole life henceforth belongs more than ever to my people. I am from now on just first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that coat that was the most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.
Historical background- check. Now for the analysis of stanza 1:
in one of the dives
The music is fine- not overbearing nor lacking. But the setup is a little blasé- typical Leftist droning & a few clichés- see underlined. But, the clichés are not BIG 1s, but little 1s- they are clichés of mood mostly, although the 2nd & 4th are actual clichés as well. Of course, WHA is referencing Manhattan’s 52nd Street- not London’s. On to the 2nd stanza
Music holds its own, & WHA delves in to the historic psychoses of the German people- from Martin Luther’s extremism & anti-Semitism, to the screwing of the defeated German Army at Versailles after World War 1, to Hitler’s return to his home town of Linz, Austria, after Germany annexed Austria- the Anschluss on 3/13/38. An imago is an idealized version of a real thing- usually an early childhood memory of a parent or incident. Freudian melodrama is quite a turn from stanza 1’s banalities. At this point the poem is getting interesting- with a Yeatsian Second Coming ominousness.
Here is where WHA starts veering from a possibly unique take to a classic War Poem reaching back in to history to show off the poet’s breadth of staggering knowledge. The whole trope of Nietzschean recurrence is not new. Thucydides was a famed general from Athens who was scapegoated after losing a battle in 424 BC, at the start of the Peloponnesian War. He responded with a scathing attack, his version of ‘The History Of The Peloponnesian Wars’ on the dictatorial bent of Athens’ rulers. OK, so we know WHA is smart- but this is a diversion that could be summed up in a line or 2- at most. Instead, WHA’s peroration hits a 2nd stanza- #4:
this neutral air
This stanza references Thucydides account of Pericles’ eulogy for the wasted dead soldiers of Athens. It also goes back to Hitler’s declaration of war on Poland, where the Führer none too subtly warns those nations who agreed to remain neutral to remain neutral. There’s less music in this stanza & it drags in sound & narratively. This stanza could easily be elided. Excelsior! On to stanza 5:
along the bar Who have never been happy or good.
A bit more alliteration & assonance lift the music, & we’ve come almost all the way back to the ‘real world’ after a 2 stanza aery. There is a reference to a famous WW1 quote by a British diplomat, Edward Grey, on 8/3/14, which stated ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our life time.’ Hyperbole, for sure, but effective in politics- in poetry? Not really. There are, however, some nice turns of phrase- ‘Cling to their average day’ & ‘All the conventions conspire/To make this fort assume/The furniture of home’- & some clichés- ‘music must always play’, ‘Lost in a haunted wood’, & ‘afraid of the night’- especially as used in this context. But, perhaps being grounded will set the poem right. #6:
The windiest militant trash
This stanza should also have been a line or 2- a bit windy & overdone. Nijinsky was the famous- & manic depressive- ballet star whose comment on his ballet producer/lover was inspired by rage & said after Nijinsky forsook homosexuality & got married. It was ‘Some politicians are hypocrites like Diaghilev, who does not want universal love, but to be loved alone.’ This psychoanalysis of Hitler &/or militancy, in general, is- to say the least- specious as headshrinking, & a bit silly for this poem- especially considering the metaphor of 2 homosexuals & ballet aficionados. But, musically & narratively the stanza piques. #7:
From the conservative dark
More melodrama & overblown statements- most of the clichés are intended here, to show how narrow the middle brow bourgeoisie is- so WHA gets a bit of a pass, & the music is fine- but, again- this is a 2 or 3 line reference, not a whole stanza. On to #8:
All I have is a voice
Who have never been happy or good.
melodramatic here, although very nice musically. But, narratively the stanza’s
a throwaway- especially the egregious last line. The whole trope of being the
lone truthteller is PC decades before that horror was unleashed. Stanza #9,
& the last 1:
under the night
Show an affirming flame.
& the poem ends with the lone vigilant standing against the ravening
hordes, the coming darkness, the madness, etc. Ugh! A very weak end to a poem
with a lot of potential. So, we’ve seen this is a so-so poem with potential-
but why the connection with 9/11? Just a guess- but I think a lot of Leftists,
who were hoping 9/11/01 was the start of WW3 (& the demise of the American
Imperium), thought this was as definitive a date as 9/1/39. Indeed, it may prove
so- but I doubt it. Non-Americans cannot conceive how quickly Main Street
Americans have tucked 9/11 away like a nasty little cold. This was not our
Hiroshima, nor another Pearl Harbor. How quickly we’ve digested the tragedy
& moved on stands in sharp contrast to the current regime in Washington, D.C.
It was on their watch that this lapse in security happened so they are hyper
about resolving something. But, to Joe Average, Reality TV shows, sporting
events, personal events, & the withering U.S. economy are far more cogent
than that long ago bombing. The comparisons with WW2 have been overdone, &
the connection to this poem has proven shaky.
1 of the reasons, however, that this poem has been posited as a ‘9/11’ poem is because there have been no good- much less great- published poems about 9/11- the date, the buildings, the politics, etc. So, ego-fed critics have grasped at whatever they could find to shoehorn in as a 9/11 poem. Yet, I’ve written a few 9/11 poems- even 1 I’d consider great. Still, the best poem I wrote about the Twin Towers was a poem I wrote about 2 years prior to 9/11. It was part of my series of Skyline Poems- each adapting a musical type of song about a particular skyscraper, & moving beyond its Whitmanian idea. The poem is called The Twin Towers Canon- that’s canon as in Row, row, row your boat….To achieve the canon-like effect of repetition & rhyme I placed 2 sestinas side-by-side on a page, to be read by 2 competing, yet complementary, voices. Each ½ was about 1 of the 2 towers. Let’s gander at it & opine:
The Twin Towers Canon
of humanity, the taller World Trade Center
at least gray proficiency. This is a sure sign
a young boy's design? When it is cast in this light
its dreams. It is real. Reality is taller
hopes vaguely, yet dreads precisely. In the night
the joys of big boys with their toys, or even dull
It stands, a dull icon, in the taller
have lost ourselves to marvel, much as the skyline
ardor that you inspire. And, as I enter
Manhattan at night, all my depths become that light
eternity, save you beauty, which I feel pull
rinses your eyes of their doubt. You see me, this night,
the future, itself, which can never grow smaller,
the east meets morning. The skyline would grow smaller,
in pace [1972-2001]!
Even if 1 puts 9/11 out of their mind, the poem is flat-out awesome.
It’s difficult enough to produce a great sestina (although 1000s of bad 1s
abound in print & online), but to do 2, that play off of each other &
produce an even greater entity!? The
1st sestina, The South Tower, is darker, more political, while
the 2nd, The North Tower, is more a philosophical love poem.
That the sounds play off of 1 another as they are read, & the last tercet of
the 2nd sestina starts only after the 1st sestina’s
tercet has ended, is only 1 of the many examples of the poem’s technical
excellence- including such things as its alliteration, assonance, rime schemes,
lack of clichés, neologizing, & lack of bathos.
But reading the poem post-9/11 let’s us see a little spoken of aspect of great poetry- that of timelessness & applicability to present circumstances & themes. Although political realities, & the physical realities of the World Trade Center had changed it’s interesting to note a bit of presaging in this poem. The South’s political bite & the portrayal of the WTC’s symbolism to the world ring especially true after 9/11, while the North’s ‘reminiscence’ of a thing still there, as of its writing, is downright freaky. Post-9/11, however, it adds a touch of terrible poignancy. These things lend the poem timelessness to tandem with its excellence. It also shows its greatness by the poem’s becoming even more incisive & heartrending after the tragedy.
Now, let’s compare that to WHA’s poem. Post-WW2, the poem lost alot of its oomph, due to its being tied to its time- not by the title, but by both its references & very naïve approach to political poesizing: ‘From the conservative dark/Into the ethical life/The dense commuters come,/Repeating their morning vow;/"I will be true to the wife,/I'll concentrate more on my work", indeed! So why this bizarre need to equate a poem that is outdated, & more of a relict than a relevant thing? Is it just the Left’s childish desire to not let go of things? I don’t think that’s all- although it’s part. More I blame a deep-seated recognition in today’s Academia that they simply cannot produce poetry of lasting value. While this will always go unspoken in print, & even be furiously denied, if you truly sit down with an Academic- or any poet in the system- they’ll tell you that there simply is no getting around the fact that the ridiculous reaches into street-wise politicking & the detestable über-Confessionalism have basically divorced contemporary published poetry from the rudimentary skills needed to even play enough with words & ideas to create the environment where that hidden creative self can spring forth. Need proof? Just look at the horrid poetry on the detestable website www.poetsagainstthewar.org (& see my essay on it & its founder, Sam Hamill), & compare it with the pre-Vietnam War era War (& anti-War) poetry being published. The reason the crap that’s on this website goes unchallenged is 2fold- 1) to criticize it would cut short any hope of an Academic career in poetry, & 2) there are no published essayists &/or critics out there that even have the tools & skill TO PROPERLY CRITICIZE the bad writing!
as the east meets morning. The skyline would grow
without you, if our love were to pull, as the night,
what kind of love could it light? Or a new love enter?
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