A Letter from the Director

Christina Patterson

"What is a poet for in a desperate time?" wrote the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. It's a question that many have raised in the last few months. At the time of writing, it is three months since the tragic events of September 11. Since that terrible day, many more have died in acts of war or terror, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Israel, Gaza and all over the world. An agreement for an interim Afghan government has just been signed in Bonn, and millions around the world will be hoping and praying that a country which has seen twenty-five years of turbulence, civil war and oppression might have a period of something approximating peace. It's a hope and prayer extended to the Middle East, much of Africa and, on our own doorstep, Northern Ireland.

The haunting footage of the Twin Towers crashing down again and again in an interminable video loop will remain with many of us throughout our lives. The tragedies of individual families, of husbands who kissed their wives and children goodbye for the last time, who sent emails, sat in meetings and sipped their coffee moments before their office turned into a collapsing tornado, are rarely captured live on film. Nor are they watched by millions of office workers, abandoning their terminals, as we did, to watch the TV in the pub on the corner and watch again at home that night and again in the nights that followed. September 11 was momentous and uniquely mesmerising, but the world has not, as many pundits immediately asserted, changed for ever. It rarely does. Human beings are born and die. They eat, love, sing, go to restaurants and cinemas if they can afford to and buy clothes, CDs and houses. They read the newspaper, novels and poetry. They may even write the stuff. There may be pauses in some of these activities but they don't, unless you live in a Taliban or war-torn regime, grind to a complete halt.

The newspapers after September 11 included some of the best journalism I've read, from a range of voices and perspectives. Some of this was by novelists. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, A L Kennedy, Caryl Phillips, Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie all wrote strikingly in the aftermath. Where, the whisper began and quickly gathered momentum, were the poets?

Well, a page of readers' poems on the subject appeared in the Guardian and many more have been entered in the National Poetry Competition. Three years ago a similar phenomenon occurred in response to the death of Princess Diana. Clearly, people turn to poetry in an attempt to express grief and pain. Much of this will be touching, a great deal of it will be therapeutic and some of it will be interesting, but this is probably not the poetic response which such a crisis demands, if indeed it does. "After Auschwitz, no poetry" said Adorno famously, an assertion that has haunted many of those who've grappled with any kind of artistic portrayal of the Holocaust. At the other end of the spectrum, Dylan Thomas believed that "the world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe..."

 Poets, like pundits, commentators and indeed all of us, can be quick to make pronouncements on the world and its capacity for instant change. Such pronouncements are rarely accurate. What poets can do, perhaps uniquely, is give some kind of shape to any experience, to hold and reflect it in a way that feels truthful and not cheap. For that reason, good artistic and poetic responses to life's tragedies are rarely instant. It takes time to do them justice. Andrew Motion wrote a fine poem for the memorial service for the British victims of September 11 at Westminster Abbey last week, but this was nearly three months on. I've seen some good poems circulating on the internet, but I think it will be longer before a body of good work on the subject emerges and is seen. The late R S Thomas, no stranger to life at its bleakest, concluded that "Poetry is that / which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart". I think that may be the best we get.

Poetry News, winter 2001-2