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Old 05-09-2012, 06:42 AM
Maryann Corbett's Avatar
Maryann Corbett Maryann Corbett is offline
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Default Public tragedies and their poems

Looking for examples of the list poems that will be the subject of our next bakeoff, I was reminded of this one:

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100

It's one of the many poems of mourning that were written in the aftermath of 9-11. Finding it made me recall that only a few weeks ago we had reminders of another such disaster and another such poem, Hardy's The Convergence of the Twain, about the sinking of the Titanic.

Soon after that I heard a choral setting of a poem that was new to me, Herman Melville's Shiloh.

Other terrific poems came to mind then, like Howard Nemerov's poem on the Challenger explosion, On an Occasion of National Mourning. And I thought too of Larkin's The Explosion, even though that disaster hasn't stuck so prominently in the public memory apart from the poem.

How about a thread of your favorite great public poems? Sad and sobering, I know, but potentially an impressive collection.
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Old 05-09-2012, 07:42 AM
Gregory Dowling Gregory Dowling is offline
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A great idea, Maryann. Of course, the challenge is to find good poems. There are any number on 9/11 but many of them are embarrassing. I didn't know the one you posted, which strikes me as moving. An excellent one is Charles Martin's After 9/11.

Another great public poem (with its private dimension as well, of course) is Yeats' Easter, 1916.
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Old 05-09-2012, 08:43 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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You certainly name two great ones, Greg. I think Charles wrote the unsurpassable 9/11 poem.
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Old 05-09-2012, 02:39 PM
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Gail White Gail White is offline
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Then there are the really awful ones, such as Julia A. Moore's "Ashtabula Disaster" ("Have you heard of the dreadful fate/Of Mr. P. P. Bliss and wife?") or William McGonagall's "Albion Railway Calamity."
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Old 05-10-2012, 06:17 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
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Adam Kirsch's collection Invasions has some good contemporary examples. Maryann, just googling around I saw that you reviewed this book in Unsplendid. I think I liked the book more than you did, although I think you too give it a general thumbs-up. I enjoy how Kirsch intermingles history and a moral vision with the lyric. Certainly plenty of public tragedy is laced through the book.
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Old 05-10-2012, 08:47 AM
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Maryann Corbett Maryann Corbett is offline
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Thanks for that reminder, Andrew. I did recall Kirsch but couldn't find the book where I expected it to be on my shelves. I looked harder this morning. Here's a sample from Invasions:

September fifteenth, and the house is full.
It seems few patrons died or stayed at home.
The City Opera, brave, professional,
Reminds us and themselves the show goes on.
Ash drifting north has left a coat so thin
The cladded travertine still glitters white,
And so mild no one coughs to breathe it in
On the hot breeze of a late summer night--
What I call ash, but know to be this face,
Snapshotted, Xeroxed, stapled to a pole,
Which every breath I take helps to erase
And scatter incorporate in a new whole.
But what air isn't filled with old remains
Like these, and infinitely multiplied?
What did they die for but our ignorance
Of the ways and times and reasons why they died?

(I hope it's acceptable in a context of discussion to present a whole poem still in copyright.)

I do admire Kirsch's poems, though I like them best taken individually. Invasions as a collection made me feel judged and condemned, I think.

Interestingly, the Nemerov poem also judges public reaction to a tragedy and finds it shallow.
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Old 05-10-2012, 11:40 AM
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Rick Mullin Rick Mullin is offline
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Martin's 9-11 poem encapsulates what is wrong with 9-11 poetry. [But didn't we discuss this last year?]
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Old 05-10-2012, 04:14 PM
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Maryann Corbett Maryann Corbett is offline
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Originally Posted by Rick Mullin View Post
Martin's 9-11 poem encapsulates what is wrong with 9-11 poetry. [But didn't we discuss this last year?]
We did. Discussion here.

I see that you dislike the imposition of history on the 9/11 events; I feel differently about that. But then, I prefer to see that poem, in spite of its title, as about a whole tragic past, not just 9/11.

Gregory makes the point--and you did too, Rick--that there's a lot of awful poetry about 9/11, and Gail reminds us that there's a lot about other disasters too. People write it too quickly, too naively. And even when it's done right, people will have differing reactions to the products, on account of the sort of different mindsets we're exploring here.

But I'm still interested in the question of what makes such poems admirable. So, if there's a poem of this kind that you sincerely admire, I invite you to put it here.
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Old 05-10-2012, 07:27 PM
Lance Levens Lance Levens is offline
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Ode to the Confederate Dead
by Allen Tate

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!--
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel's stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

Dazed by the wind, only the wind
The leaves flying, plunge

You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know--the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision--
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick and fast
You will curse the setting sun.

Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing:
Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

Leave now
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush--
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!
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Old 05-10-2012, 11:58 PM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
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The Tate "Ode" is an excellent poem but is it about a public tragedy? It seems more about the fear or promise of death and oblivion. It hardly matters (in the poem) that the soldiers died the way or why they did, or that their death had a social/historical aftermath.

Lowell's Ode for the Union Dead takes a more historical and social slant to its subject.

Stylistically as well, the poems are polar opposites. I like both poems a lot, but prefer the Lowell.
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