Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

11 September and its aftermath exclude no one. As soon as the attacks were announced, I received a phone call from a writer friend. Now the Americans knew, he declared, what Israelis live with every day. I had taken this man to be liberal, secular, open-hearted, yet his unsolicited expression of satisfaction testified to an anti-American resentment based on what? The story of Israel is unthinkable without the support of the United States; so, too, the frail and bloodied survival of a Palestinian entity within the state of Israel. What is more, the day to day reality of life in New York with its deep ethnic differences and violence are not entirely dissimilar from the tensions and terrorisms of Israel. A day later, my friend rang again to explain himself. I was and will remain otherwise engaged. He had responded instinctively. This is how the new news had affected him, not horror, outrage, grief. It was as though in some way a lesson had been given and a score settled, a score with an abstract entity, the United States of America. The human cost was no more than a dramatic statistic.

I received the evening of 11 September an e-mail from a secular writer from Pakistan for whose political radicalism I had developed respect. After perfunctorily expressing formal regret (after all, I am of American extraction), he added a 'but'. These manifestations of religious fundamentalism, something to which he had expressed strong hostility, were 'retribution' for the one and a half million Iraqi children the Americans had 'killed' since the Gulf War.

I will find it hard to re-open communication with either friend. I do not wish to justify American foreign policy, but I was startled at how reflexively the frightful events had taken their didactic place in 'the order of things' for both men. The deaths of so many people and the terrorist 'artistry' that went into their execution were for them remote dramas, numbers and film-clips, as in their view the lives of Israelis or the deaths of Iraqi children are to the framers of American policy.

Other immediate and even some more considered responses left me, almost as though I was again an American, unable to grasp the depth of targeted dislike not for a government but for a people, because it was American people from as many backgrounds as there are nations on earth who had been attacked.

There was also for me a problem- as teacher, publisher and reader - of how and what to teach and read in the immediate aftermath. What belonged in the kit bag as we set off into this 'new kind of war' which implicated us all? Housman, Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon and Douglas belonged to other kinds of war and a different century. I was consoled to read William Germano's article, which will be reprinted in PNR 143, about what Americans read in the wake of metamorphosis, before the shape of the new world emerged from the mess of Ground Zero.

As I write this, the bombing of Afghanistan begins. By the time these comments are in print a great deal of history will have unfolded, history which we will all share as we shared the collapsing towers and the dented Pentagon. We will read this history in dozens of ways, according to our ideologies, tribes, prejudices, and according to the images which the media give us to accompany the facts. Already there must be confusion in the minds of New Labour supporters who regarded Mr Bush as an imbecile: their leader has thrown himself so wholeheartedly behind him that they, or he, must have erred. Is it possible that liberal Britain misread the American election? Is it possible that the visceral anti-American sentiment which surfaces readily at times of crisis may itself undergo an adjustment? Will my writer friends respond in the same way to the next atrocity?

In circumstances such as these, what can writers do? Journalists thrive on the instability of facts, the ways that - like sculpture - they have varied aspects, depending on the angle of approach and the lighting. But a poet: what can he or she do? Normal business has been suspended. Expressions of solidarity - with the Afghan people, with the New York victims - are less powerful, less effective than news reports, images and literal testimony. Yet because events are so close and threaten to affect us all, there seems to be only one thing worth writing about. Events of recent weeks will find an indirect way into poems, the way that the First World War works into Edward Thomas's poems by unostentatious adjustments in diction and landscape. Keith Douglas suggested that the bulk of poetry of the Second World War would be written after the war was over. It might be a poetry of re-invention or of aftermath. The indecent speed with which editors sought to gather poets' responses to the Gulf War and to the unfolding horrors of the Balkans is opportunistic and misguided. Those who promote 'Poetry', as though that term expressed some value in itself, try to borrow authority from current events and share in the instamatic popularity of journalism. Poetry, one might think after the deep thematic adjustments in Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Auden and Lowell, tells truth at a level which is neither merely subjective nor merely topical. The Poetry is not in the Pity but in texture of language and accomplishment of form. We learn more about the failure of the Commonwealth from Paradise Lost than we do from many a history book, even though the facts are not presented in literal form and that was not Milton's declared object; or about the end of the Second World War from the Pisan Cantos despite the agonising eccentricity of Pound's perspective.

The instant responses that troubled me on 11 September were those of creative writers. Such events might be expected to leave a person whose life is dedicated to looking into and through language in a state of shock, reflection, silence. After all, they issue from the failure of language. Miguel de Unamuno remarked, when the Falangists occupied the campus of Salamanca University where he was the politically reticent rector, 'There are times when to be silent is to lie.' There are times when to speak is to lie, or to confess a modern failure: that many of us cannot register extreme deeds as anything more real than a fascinating image whose moral can be readily plucked, like a cloverhead from its stem.

This item is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image