The Dead Shiite’s Kalashnikov: Preston Merchant on Poetry after 9/11

Post-9/11 Art & Poetry

Last summer, on the subway from Queens to Manhattan, I noticed the woman next to me reading from a stack of binder-clipped pages–the telltale sign of a novel-in-progress. Such a situation on the subway usually promises better over-the-shoulder reading than the dreary New York Times or the sensationalist Post, so, as we do here in the City, I craned my neck for a better view:

The dead Shiite’s Kalashnikov lays [sic] on a high shelf in the storeroom.

I was intrigued. No one has mentioned the Shiites in over a decade, as most of the terrorist groups threatening the United States are Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are Sunni nations. Saddam Hussein is a Sunni dictator. And that Kalashnikov, with its Russian name and wicked banana clip of ammunition: what image conjures militant evil more strongly, as it contrasts with the rather pedestrian outline of the American-issue M-16 and its successors? Rifles are status symbols in some parts of the world, as important as pedigree. Some weeks before, I had even read an article in the Washington Post about the weapon that always lay propped against the wall behind Osama bin Laden in his propaganda videos. Nominally a Kalashnikov, it was a paratrooper’s rifle, designed for an elite, highly mobile soldier. The rest of Al Qaeda trudged along with heavy, Chinese-made infantry rifles, real workhorse weapons like the ones used by the Viet Cong. So as the subway rattled below the East River, I thought I was in for a good read. Too bad the author didn’t know the difference between lay and lie.[private]

My disappointment was immediate. The rest of the manuscript was a potboiler set in the Middle East. I couldn’t find out how the Shiite was killed or how his Kalashnikov came to lie on that high shelf in the storeroom. I was hoping for a trenchant work of fiction attuned to the nuances of our times, something immersed in the moral grayness and shifting alliances that have come to define our war on terrorism–regardless of the pronouncements from Washington. It’s time (dammit, I thought, waiting for my seatmate to flip the page!) for writers to delve into a world wholly alien to American readers, a world whose very fabric hangs on such tropes as Shiite and Kalashnikov.

But my admittedly cursory and unscientific study only proved what I had observed, piecemeal, in the months following September 2001–the inclusion of details from the Arab world in an attempt to infuse art with what we now might call a New Seriousness.

The matter of artists’ responses to the 9/11 event will be with us for many years to come, especially as the World Trade Center site itself, in the eyes of the public, insists on such a response in architecture. Plenty of column inches have been devoted to the question in the other arts as well. How will artists come to terms with this colossal tragedy? Do writers, painters, and filmmakers have an obligation to wrestle with the countless issues and quandaries that surfaced when the towers fell? There is the pervading sense that the world has changed and that a new dispensation calls for a reordering of our national priorities. Shouldn’t artists get on board? It’s high time for serious art, the thinking goes, not the piffle that ordinarily goes unchallenged. But, as artists toil in the months and years ahead, influenced in unquantifiable ways by the tragedy, the nagging question will be: What were they doing on September 10th and all the years before?

Indeed, one might launch an investigation like the one before Congress regarding the failures of the intelligence services. There is information everywhere–we seem to breathe it–and we take pride in the fact that great storehouses of knowledge and opinion will open, like Aladdin’s cave, at a few keystrokes. What writer would let slip this opportunity? Like the CIA, writers it seems (and poets especially) had been insufficiently interested in the available data. Poets, like field operatives, have been rewarded for telling their superiors (editors, department chairs, prize committees, readers) only what they wanted to hear. Poetry culture, in universities, book groups, and slams, is as insular, cautious, and unengaged as the CIA. For lack of critical attachment to the wider world, it breeds complacency and sameness. Is it any wonder that poets now feel as flatfooted as a government agent?

Of course, poets are not charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the public, but they are often considered the advance guard of our intellectual forces. In an oft-quoted metaphor, novelist Walker Percy once compared writers to the canaries sent into the coal mines–the mechanism that detects invisible lethal gases. Writers, he believed, possessed such sensitivity and foresight to issue warnings or signal all clear. It follows, if the metaphor holds true, that writers put themselves in unfamiliar territory, testing the atmosphere, possibly dying in the process. They are not prognosticators, but they should be able to detect the shifting winds more readily than the spooks at Foggy Bottom. They also should be accountable only to themselves, willing to risk, say, a string of bad books or outright condemnation if that exercise advances their thinking and moves them closer to something real, true, and engaged.

Percy was not speaking directly of poets, whose track record of insightful and shrewd analysis of culture, intellectual life, or world events is decidedly poor. One need look no further than the last thirty years of Poetry magazine (or any other poetry journal) to find staggering uniformity of purpose and style–utter blandness. We might submit bound copies to Congress to start the investigation. But I would argue that poets haven’t responded to events in the wider world because no one has asked them to.

* * *

In the weeks following September 11th, a poem circulated widely on the Internet because it seemed to speak, presciently and eloquently, to what was happening. It came to me with a header that went on for several screens to accommodate all the email addresses it had acquired along the way. If you usually pass over these things that accumulate in your in-box, the opening stanza might have given you pause:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

The poem is “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden, but it came without a title or attribution, as if the fact that it was over fifty years old might lessen its impact. Though I knew the poem and the author, I read it with fresh eyes and an awakened sensibility. The poem really is chilling, perhaps as chilling as it was to its original readers as the Second World War flared up from the embers of the First. It’s one of Auden’s best known works, for its remarkably simple assertion, “We must love one another or die.” We now might take greater interest in the lines that precede it: “There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone; / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die.”

It’s worth also taking note of the event to which Auden was responding–Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s address to Britain’s House of Commons on September 1st, 1939. He was recommending that Britain go to war after Hitler’s invasion of Poland:

It now only remains for us to set our teeth and to enter upon this struggle, which we ourselves earnestly endeavored to avoid, with determination to see it through to the end. We shall enter it with a clear conscience, with the support of the Dominions and the British Empire, and the moral approval of the greater part of the world. We have no quarrel with the German people, except that they allow themselves to be governed by a Nazi Government. As long as that Government exists and pursues the methods it has so persistently followed during the last two years, there will be no peace in Europe. We shall merely pass from one crisis to another, and see one country after another attacked by methods which have now become familiar to us in their sickening technique.

This makes for chilling reading today as well, but the speech is mere history. Auden’s poem resonates across contexts of time and culture; it is local as well as universal; it is eloquent and deft. It is, in short, great poetry, and as such it will speak to events it could never foresee. Its success lies not in having predicted the future (reflecting on disaster while sitting in a New York bar) but in having sifted through the available information, digested it, and rendered a disciplined and thoughtful response. This is what poets–the metaphorical canaries–are supposed to do and why “September 1, 1939” was passed around the Internet by people who have never cared about poetry.

Auden is not unique. Speeches from Shakespeare have always served us in time of need. Dante finds currency in every age. The poets of the First World War, like Siegfried Sassoon, are admired for having written not just for their battlefields but with an ironic eye toward the martial poetry of Rome. In the abstract, we seem to believe that poetry–as heightened, heroic utterance–has a duty to bear witness.

Poetry is supposed to matter, and it does in some quarters. In the first grainy and poorly lit video to find its way to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel, after the American invasion of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden quoted poetry extensively as he and his lieutenants celebrated the felling of the Twin Towers. In addition to the Koranic verses, which always suffuse everyday speech, bin Laden quoted nominally secular poetry celebrating victory on the fields of battle. We tend to pass over this, as it seems like mindless rhetorical flourish. But if you look generally at public speeches from throughout the Middle East and South Asia, you will find that poetry occupies an important position. Poetry is quoted often by politicians and other leaders, regardless of the occasion. As common linguistic currency, it binds the speaker to his audience: these are our words, he seems to say, that which we value collectively and which separate us from our enemies. Something similar occurs in American political discourse (and not by asking Maya Angelou to read a poem at an inauguration). During the official events marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attack in New York, politicians read from the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. What these two documents have to do with September 11th, 2002, is anyone’s guess, but they do serve as America’s civic “poetry”–the linguistic core of who we are as a people–and can be deployed whenever the situation calls for it. Written according to the style of another age (like Chamberlain’s speech), they seem heightened, important, grave.

* * *

Being the canary in the coal mine carries with it a certain amount of risk. Indeed, a good poet should relish the danger, even thrive on it, for there can be no risk at all without an audience. What good is sounding an alarm if no one hears it? But since poetry and realpolitik rarely intersect these days, there are few opportunities for a poet to get into any real trouble.

Unless he runs afoul of a vocal and politically active group. Amiri Baraka, Poet Laureate of New Jersey, found himself in the middle of a swirling controversy after reading at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in September 2002. His diatribe called “Somebody Blew Up America” (Baraka’s rambling compilation of a host of evils, from slavery to the book of Revelation to Clarence Thomas and Condaleeza Rice) contains the following lines:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

For this, he provoked the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League, who claim the poem is part of a widespread campaign to blame Israel for the 9/11 attacks. ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said that Baraka “continues to be the anti-Semite we always knew he was, unrepentant, and an embarrassment to the people of New Jersey.” Baraka said that some reports on the Internet convinced him that Israel had some foreknowledge of the attacks.

(It should be noted for the record that, in its desultory all-inclusive list of the world’s woes, “Somebody Blew Up America” does, in fact, include lines decrying the murder of Jews during the Holocaust and other outrages committed against them.)

The overriding concern here, which has received considerable media coverage, including the editorial pages of the New York Times (“this hateful anti-Israel myth” and his “ferocious political opinions”), is that Baraka holds a state-appointed position as poet laureate and receives a stipend of $10,000 of taxpayer money for his work. Since there is no provision on the books for firing a poet laureate before the end of his term, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey asked Baraka to resign. He refused. The state Senate then passed a bill to eliminate the laureate’s position altogether, though it’s not clear if the bill will pass the Assembly.

Baraka has said he will sue on First Amendment grounds, but (perhaps in a conciliatory gesture) the Newark Public School Board hired him as the district’s poet laureate. The news of the Senate’s vote and Baraka’s Newark gig touched off a flurry of letters to the Times, some suggesting that he would poison the minds of innocent New Jersey schoolchildren.

This is not a particularly interesting controversy, nor is the poem in question really worth reading (poetry is too strong a description for the thing). What is noteworthy is how the climate has changed since September 11th–how even such little precincts as the world of poetry have become proving grounds for George W. Bush’s litmus test, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Since the late 1950s Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, has been a proponent of a variety of leftist (and often bizarre) causes, was associated with the Black Power Movement, and has been a mainstay in college literary courses on the 1960s Beat/urban/jazz/avant garde/poet-activist scene. I’m sure the FBI has a file on him.

The dust-up with the ADL doesn’t say anything new about Baraka, but it goes a long way toward showing how anemic and weak our poets really are. That Baraka is actually on the government’s payroll as poet laureate is strange enough. That four lines of his bad poem have people on the phone to their lawyers shows how far poetry has been pushed to the margins. It doesn’t even track on our cultural radar until a loopy counter-culture holdout thumbs his nose at the Anti-Defamation League.

There are those who see this as a free-speech issue, and no doubt Baraka will win his case in the end, but the best comment comes in the form of a letter to the Times in response to its editorial. One William Ayres from Chicago wrote:

The logic and structure of good journalism are poorly fitted for poetry. Spreading myths and printing falsehoods may violate the standards of a decent newspaper, but they are the very stuff of poetry, and that’s why no one with an ounce of sense goes to Homer or Neruda or Szymborska or Bob Dylan for the facts.

When you instruct your readers that the “proper response” to reading Amiri Baraka is “discussion and condemnation,” you confuse the register of poetry.

Mr. Ayres aptly summarized Plato’s rationale for banning poets–liars–from the Republic. No one interested in a “proper response” to Baraka’s offering would care to discuss or condemn it–why bother? It’s frightfully serious and rhapsodic, and timely perhaps. But the fact that it is nominally about 9/11 shouldn’t privilege its status or provoke a response different from the one it would have received on 9/10. Read the poem: it’s adolescent screed.

This is the direction the arts are heading? To be sure, Baraka’s piece is only one notorious example. Despite its hip-hop lingo (“Who genocided Indians / Tried to waste the Black nation?”) and its in-your-face pronouncements, the poem is as insular, cautious, and unengaged as anything else. Bombast requires no great skill. Without the 9/11 event, no one–including the ADL–would have cared.

* * *

In the spirit of post-9/11 New Seriousness, Poetry magazine was quick to declare itself in the September 2002 issue. The following statement appeared on the website but not in the printed issue:

It’s been a year since September 11th. As reported in the media, many readers have turned to poetry to help make sense of the horrific events that day. They’ve found solace and understanding in poems modern and ancient. Gathered in this issue are a few of the many “9/11” submissions POETRY began receiving just days after the attacks. Not all of the poems here are directly about September 11th, but in the universal language of poetry, all have some bearing on what happened that day. Those tragic events will resonate through poetry for years to come, affecting new work and reshaping even our readings of poems long familiar.

In the magazine, J. D. McClatchy offers a poem titled “Jihad.” D. Nurske (the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn) contributes two pieces about the dust cloud and the search dogs. David Wagoner’s poem, “In Rubble” is about being trapped in the aftermath of an explosion, though it need not necessarily adhere to the World Trade Center event. Jay Parini serves up a dreadful villanelle, “After the Terror”: “Everything has changed, though nothing has. / They’ve changed the locks on almost every door, / and windows have been bolted just in case.” Sandra McPherson follows with a poem about having her luggage inspected in the Cedar Rapids airport (it’s about “security”). After the 9/11 material come poems about Armenia in 1915, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Rape of Nanking in 1937 (which was lifted from Iris Chang’s best-selling work of nonfiction), a grandmother’s recollections of the Holocaust, two poems about Vietnam, and few others treating more private concerns.

It’s tempting to judge this volume by a higher standard–or, I should say, by different criteria–in light of its stated (online) and implied (in print) project. It’s also tempting to point out the failures of these enterprises, given the enormity of their task, which is to respond creatively, compellingly to an event we don’t yet understand. Auden’s ability to get his mind around world catastrophe as it unfolded is most certainly an exception.

But one poem in the issue goes much farther than the others. Here is McClatchy’s “Jihad” in its entirety:

A contrail’s white scimitar unsheathes
Above tufts of anti-aircraft fire.
Before the mullah’s drill on righteousness,
Practice rocks are hurled at chicken-wire

Dummies of tanks with silhouetted infidels
Defending the nothing both sides fight over
In God’s name, a last idolatry
Of boundaries. The sirens sound: take cover.

He has forced the night and day, the sun and moon,
Into your service. By His leave, the stars
Will shine to light the path that He has set

You to walk upon. His mercy will let
You slay who would blaspheme or from afar
Defile His lands. Glory is yours, oh soon.

Of the heart. Of the tongue. Of the sword. The holy war
Is waged against the self at first, to raze
The ziggurat of sin we climb upon
To view ourselves, and next against that glaze

The enemies of faith will use to disguise
Their words. Only then, and at the caliph’s nod,
Are believers called to drown in blood the people
Of an earlier book. There is no god but God.

He knows the day of death and sees how men
Will hide. Who breaks His covenant is cursed.
Who slights His revelations will live in fire.

He has cast aside the schemer and the liar
Who mistake their emptiness of heart for a thirst
That, to slake, the steams of justice descend.

Ski-masked on videotape, the skinny martyr
Reads his manifesto. He’s stilted, nervous.
An hour later, he’s dropped at the market town,
Pays his fare, and climbs aboard the bus.

Strapped to his chest is the death of thirty-four
–Plus his own–“civilians” on their way
To buy or sell what goods they claim are theirs,
Unlike our fates, which are not ours to say.

Under the shade of swords lies paradise,
Whom you love are saved with you, their souls
In His hand. And who would want to return to life

Except to be killed again? Who can thrive
On the poverty of this world, its husks and holes?
His wisdom watches for each sacrifice.

McClatchy is getting close to the dead Shiite and his Kalashnikov. The poem is set in a terrorist training camp, where the recruits listen to the seductive words of their mullah instructor. The italicized portions are intriguing, as they clearly represent the mullah’s voice, outside and inside the head of the terrorists-in-training. Taken out of the context of the poem, they need not be Islamic at all, and McClatchy might very well have pieced them together from the Old Testament. Such ambiguity amplifies their impact on the reader, as they should sound oddly familiar to a Christian or a Jew.

McClatchy has taken pains to produce an elegant, seductive poem about a sophisticated evil, knowing all the while that evil is remarkably simple. The contrast between the mellifluous lines of the mullah and the pedestrian descriptions of the suicide bombing (“He’s stilted, nervous. / An hour later, he’s dropped at the market town, / Pays his fare, and climbs aboard the bus”) recalls the best of Anthony Hecht (see “More Light! More Light!” and “The Feast of Stephen”). But where Hecht exposes the brutal ironies of morally ambiguous worlds, McClatchy can’t escape sanctimony: “The holy war / Is waged against the self at first, to raze / The ziggurat of sin we climb upon / To view ourselves.” Despite his attempts to come to terms with jihad seemingly on its own terrain, the poem is at best American armchair moralizing. It reduces jihad to some vague inner conflict, identity politics foisted on the young. Whether jihad is a call to self-improvement or to take up arms against an infidel (whether Islam is a religion of peace or the sword) is debated, hotly and widely, by professors and political scientists, journalists, State Department spokesmen, and Muslim leaders across the political spectrum. Does anyone care that J. D. McClatchy contributes four lines to the discussion? The poem as a whole does not surprise or startle; it does not venture beyond the “chicken-wire / Dummies of tanks with silhouetted infidels.” McClatchy’s poem about cardboard cut-outs treats them as cardboard cut-outs. Jihad is merely an abstraction, an occasion for poetry.

If you take away the Orientalism, it’s not much of a poem. It’s telling that McClatchy says the recruits are hurling “Practice rocks” at their targets, as if that very exercise is abstracted. But the poem should not so readily dismiss those hunks of sandstone and crumbling cement, familiar to any Palestinian schoolboy. Thrown in practice or in the rage of the street, these rocks are the terrain itself, very soul of jihad. They are not “the nothing both sides fight over / In God’s name.”

This is where I would begin to take issue with Mr. Ayres in his letter to the New York Times. What would poetry look like if it took pains to get its facts right, to present itself with journalistic integrity, without wallowing in myth and falsehood (or sanctimony) but attempted to engage–head-on and without apology–the brutal circumstances in which we live? The nexus between journalism and fiction is well known; indeed, many great novelists started out as newsmen. The skills necessary for reportage are easily adaptable to fiction writing. But poetry, as stylized utterance regardless of its form, seems to delight in being, to adapt lines from Robert Lowell, “heightened from life” without being “paralyzed by fact.” As Mr. Ayres says, you might not ordinarily look to poetry for the facts, but you would hope that the poet is aware of at least a few of them. “Yet why not say what happened?” Lowell wonders in “Epilogue”:

Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.

I am not making a call for historical accuracy or reportage but for poetry to be grounded in hard, inescapable, unfiltered reality. That accuracy should be important if the poem is to function as an engine of understanding–processing information, distilling it, coming to terms with it. The end result is necessarily subjective, but it need not be inaccurate. The poet’s unique task, as Lowell would have it, is to see grace and accuracy as the same thing.

* * *

Despite the popular calls for art that responds to 9/11, there has been very little of it, and what has arrived has not fared well. The most notorious work is a bronze sculpture that was installed in Rockefeller Center but almost immediately removed after vociferous protest. Tumbling Woman, by Eric Fischl, depicts a nude woman tumbling head first to her death. She is suspended a few inches from the ground, frozen in her final living moment. The artist intended to memorialize the victims, desperate to escape the flames in the Twin Towers, who leapt to their deaths from those staggering heights. TV and print media initially carried those images but stopped after an outcry, so that piece of the WTC disaster has been effectively erased. Fischl clearly thought that his art should engage the brutality of that day, but the public and the corporate interests at Rockefeller Center disagreed.

Post-9/11 art is a dangerous game because the public believe they should have a stake in it. It’s an odd situation for American artists especially, who have rarely, if ever, been forced to confront public criticism. There have been famous exceptions–painters or photographers who ran afoul of the NEA or the Christian Right or the Mayor of New York–but artists, and poets especially, have generally been lonely boats adrift in a sea of unconcern.

It’s not so bad that the public wants to hold them accountable when they take up the matter of 9/11. Certainly censorship in any form is wrong, no matter how dreadful the poem, but works that provoke, intrigue, and even outrage are now more important than ever. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is not a comforting poem. If it is true that “we must love one another or die,” then the prognosis for humankind is not good, but I would be glad for a few canaries down the coal mine. Mr. Baraka discovered some noxious gasses. Mr. McClatchy lit a flashlight that proved too weak to illuminate anything. Mr. Fischl nearly brought the roof down. But all these gestures, these post-9/11 works of art, are range finding, and the public (readers, critics, government decision-makers) believe that art (some of it, anyway) should not be uncoupled from our daily lives. The challenge, though, will be to confront the stark violence and moral ambiguity of our times, despite the President’s insistence on the black and white and the public’s need to believe him. Poets should be damn glad that someone would care enough to get upset. I’m sure we will have to suffer a prolonged period of mindless platitudes, vague sentimental yearnings, and easy sanctimonious solutions (rather like an endless Broadway musical), but maybe the “grace of accuracy” will eventually obtain, and the dead Shiites and their Kalashnikovs will mean something.[/private]

About PMerchant

Preston Merchant has worked as a documentary photographer; he is at work on a project on the worldwide Indian diaspora. A preview, and other galleries, are available at his website. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Antioch Review, Sewanee Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Tameme, and Verse. He also edited the special feature of Verse on poets from India. He lives in New York City.
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