RON SMITH | Red Guitar No. 2
In Richmond, on that beautiful, horrific September morning more than five years ago, I watched the Twin Towers burn. On my TV, the weather was beautiful in New York, too, and in the bright sunlight the clarity of the images was cruel, uncanny. Occasionally, tape of the actual attacks replayed; one new angle showed a gleaming plane melting into a gleaming building like an illusion, a hologram—then the orange bloom of flame and its monstrous ballooning. Then back to live coverage, back to the black smoke, the sinister static shots of growing catastrophe. I remain deeply grateful I wasn’t in Lower Manhattan that day to see those who jumped from seven hundred, eight hundred feet, to watch them drift, roll, ride the air currents. On TV they weren’t quite real, and I remember no shots of bodies or body parts on the pavement. Yet I still dreamed about them for months. The Towers burned, and then, unthinkably, one tower simply dissolved into gray mist, into a fountain of fine debris. I said, Of course. Why didn’t any of us think of that? (None of the officials or reporters or commentators, none of the experts had even suggested the possibility.) Of course. No building can burn like that and stand. The second would fall, too. And a plane had struck the Pentagon. And a plane had gone down in a Pennsylvania field, a plane almost certainly on its way to vaporize the Capitol dome. All three branches of the federal government evacuated. A friend who works for the FBI later told me the FBI center in DC emptied in a panic. The FBI?
When the mind bends, poetry comes.
Like a lot of other people, I found myself thinking a poem by WH Auden—thinking it, as well as thinking about it—a poem Auden wrote under similar conditions. At least they felt like similar conditions on September 11, 2001. Auden’s title, “September 1, 1939,” takes us back to the day Hitler invaded Poland, the day the entire planet lurched toward destruction. And it takes us to Manhattan. It begins,
I found myself asking, What odor could Auden actually detect in 1939? We shuddered to think what was in that dust inhaled by the New Yorkers on our TVs, the dust that powdered their clothes, hair, faces.
We knew in our guts the future would be full of suffering and killing. Auden’s second stanza ends,
Most of the people I spoke with that day felt as helpless as Auden’s speaker, who is essentially the man himself. And poetry? Poetry comes, but what is poetry good for when war begins to roll toward us like an avalanche, like that cloud of debris later footage showed rounding corners like some kind of vast sci-fi nightmare? Auden’s penultimate stanza ends,
Two generations before our horrific Tuesday, Auden had already said many things that we wanted to say or thought we wanted to say in the morning hours of September 11. The numbers were—what?—inconceivable, epic, wondrous. Most of the numbers, thank God, were exaggerated. We were told that 800 were “confirmed dead in the Pentagon,” that 50,000 worked in the World Trade Center. Were 50,000 people dead in New York?
Some numbers, though, were to prove chillingly accurate. We heard that hundreds of firefighters had rushed into those buildings, hundreds of mainly vigorous young men who rushed in despite being quite aware of the unprecedented danger. Hundreds. In the afternoon, a CNN banner read, “Latest numbers: 250 firefighters crushed.” I went from channel to channel, trying to triangulate, trying to cut through the fog of speculation and impression, to gain some reliable sense of magnitude and hysteria. A young woman, a BBC World reporter, said quietly, “Several hundred firefighters and police disappeared.” Yes. Unlike the jumpers or those killed by falling debris, unlike the few who emerged from flaming elevators—they just disappeared. Survivors spoke of squeezing past firefighters in the stairwells. The firefighters were going up, some of them cheerfully, toward the inferno, as everyone else went down to what would be for most safety. And then the building dissolved.
When the sickening, terrifying enormity of that loss sank in, I found it entangled in my mind with another poem.
What I didn’t think of was the ostensibly relevant passage from Whitman’s incomparable “Song of Myself.” In Section 33 Whitman says,
I’m guessing I didn’t think of Whitman’s passage that day—or that week—because, even now, it seems wrong to associate it with September 11. Whitman’s empathy strikes me as presumptuous, theatrical, his pain merely literary, the rescue too efficient, too abhorrently easy. Possibly, I didn’t remember the lines because I wasn’t ready to identify with the experience of the injured and dying—or rather doing so (as I did involuntarily in my dreams for months) seemed somehow voyeuristic, exploitative. I wasn’t there. I didn’t risk my life. I didn’t lose my life and bereave my loved ones, my comrades. I was an observer. I was watching TV.
Months later, the final total of lost police and firefighters exceeded four hundred.
The poem that possessed me, the poem that appeared to me as sensory experience more than as words, the poem I had to find and read again and again—it wasn’t by the famously compassionate Walt Whitman. It was by the famously sardonic Philip Larkin. It was a poem I had read and admired before. But suddenly I needed it the way I needed food and air, the way I need my wife and my son. Here it is:
I had always been moved by the detached tenderness of this poem. And now I found Larkin’s poem simultaneously intolerable and necessary. Before the week was over, I had photocopied it from my Brit lit anthology and I carried it with me everywhere.
In the years since 9/11, I have gradually turned from suffering the poem to examining it.
It tells of another beautiful day in which brave, vigorous men stride through the tall gates of history and simply vanish. The extinguishing of such vitality and burly innocence barely registers in the natural world, where cows stop chewing only “for a second.” And it’s only “for a second” during the funeral that wives glimpse their ordinary working men’s transformation into heroes. In the penultimate line, wives—and readers—become the pithead. We stand at the convergence of the miners’ pointing shadows where one of the dead presents an emblem of joy and beauty that is wickedly, inexplicably less fragile than a strong man’s life.
Joy? “What larks!” says the gentle, childlike blacksmith Joe Gargery in Dickens’s Great Expectations, always anticipating, but rarely indulging in, adventures. And it was with similar joy, anticipation, gentleness that a similar man “Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs; / Showed them; lodged them in the grasses”—lodged them, no doubt, for retrieval after his shift in the mine. In this poem, Larkin, the cramped poet of disappointment and bitterness, moves into Dickens’s lusher world of sentiment, careful to stay just this side of the novelist’s too-frequent sentimentality.
“The Explosion” appeared in the same volume with Larkin’s better-known (and much-beloved!) poem “This Be the Verse,” with its memorably cynical opening, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . . .” Now, that is the voice preferred by both Larkin’s determined admirers and that “rush of dunces” referred to by Clive James, those who have repudiated Larkin, of whom Lawrence Durrell was an early arrival. “The Explosion” presents a rarely-seen side of Larkin, one that the self-indulgently romantic and the politically correct choose to ignore.
Technically, there is much to admire in “The Explosion”: the crisp yet rich imagery; the elliptical restraint of the narrative; the deft secularization of Dante’s terza rima, partly effected by refusing end-rhyme; the quietly confident handling of trochaic meter, a meter close enough to iambic to suggest the ordinary (everyday routine) and yet different enough to create an air of the extraordinary (a mining disaster).
In a forty-five year career, Larkin published only three books of mature verse, books that he sequenced very carefully. He wrote “The Explosion” in 1970 during what he referred to as “a thin, starved, uncreative time.” In his 1974 book High Windows, he placed “The Explosion” last, ending what turned out to be the final book of his life with a vision of love and splendor.
Love and splendor. But of course there’s something else in that ending. Something in Larkin must have known his life as an artist was over. Except for “Aubade” (1977), he was to write no more indispensable poems, and when in 1984 he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, he declined, saying the muse had left him. He was, astonishingly, no longer a poet. An artist always looks to the future, always expects or at least hopes to create more and better art. As others have observed, for all Larkin’s pose as an ordinary working guy (he was a librarian), he lived and breathed poetry. And despite what looked like a lifetime of preparation for and resignation to loss, the actual loss of his gift must have inflicted massive psychic trauma.
Larkin was an unbeliever, an artist whose genuine, chronic fear of death’s oblivion was met with a candor that rose to the level of heroism. Consider the last line of “The Explosion,” effectively the last line of Larkin’s last poem. The beautiful eggs, symbols of life and creativity, are retrieved only in imagination, only through grief’s agonized yearning. They are unbroken and will remain so: they will never hatch. Maybe they are Larkin’s poems, the ones that somehow vanished in the subterranean world of the poet’s unconscious. For a poet named Larkin, what is a lark’s egg?
Heroism has its grandeur. And some losses leave us inconsolable.
“The Explosion” from Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin.© 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip Larkin. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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