I am a little late in writing these reflections prompted by the tenth anniversary of 9/11. What I want to say concerns not so much the events of that day, which have been endlessly analysed and described elsewehere, rather than a personal memory of what I was thinking and writing about at the time and how these have changed in the intervening decade.
Like everyone else I can remember the day very clearly. It was a beautiful day here in Exeter as well, with a crisp blue sky and warm sunshine. I had begun writing up my doctoral research study of teaching poetry writing to primary-age children for only a few weeks, and had reached something of an impasse in my literature review.
I was trying to argue that poetry was an important human need, not a frippery, as important as narrative perhaps, and that its place in the reading, writing and speaking and listening curriculum of children should be a reflection of that.
But I had come up against Geroge Steiner’s argument which proposed that an intellectual life saturated with poetry is in fact no guarantee of civilised behaviour. He based this argument on an analysis of the compartmentalised lives of Nazi guards and officers who would exterminate Jews in the daytime and return home in the evening to listen to Wagner and read Goethe.
The famous line of W.H. Auden that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ also appeared to weigh in favour of condemning poetry to the margins. This troubled me greatly.
Then, coming home from a buying a loaf of bread, I watched the planes go in to the Twin Towers. Seamus Heaney’s words from his essay ‘The Government of the Tongue’ seemed freighted with a kind of negative capability as to poetry’s ‘use’ in the face of such horror: ‘Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank.’
Sitting thousands of miles from the appalling events in New York my little study of children slowly learning to respond to and make poetry somehow more central in their lives suddenly seemed like a very lame exercise indeed. And here was Seamus Heaney, who had seen enough troubles of his own, appearing to confirm my suspicion.
I was relieved to read on, however. In a reference to the story in John’s Gospel of a woman caught in adultery being brought before Jesus by the Pharisees, Heaney says this: ‘In another sense, [the efficacy of poetry] is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed…It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective.’
Heaney is right. Poems do not prevent planes being flown deliberately into buildings. Paradoxically this helped me greatly. I knew rationally that my research was not going to change the world or bring about peace. But I also felt emboldened as I sat down to write my study in those days after the towers fell.
New York was the home of Kenneth Koch, member of the eponymous school of poets of that city and pioneer of teaching poetry to pupils and teachers in landmark projects recorded in Wishes, Lies and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Whether they realise it or not, he influenced everyone who has encouraged a child to write imaginatively. I suddenly felt that I owed the liberal and liberating ideas that Koch stood for the respect and honour of finishing my work to the best of my ability.
Like everything I have cared about writing, it was not easy. The project lurched around seemingly out of control at times, followed by periods of great flow and purpose. Sustaining me through it all, even when I was asked to rewrite it, was the knowledge that not having the answer to the question of poetry’s ‘usefulness’ did not matter. It was too big a problem, and one I had not set out to appease. What did matter was paying due attention to the words of the children I had worked with, both spoken and written. In the end I went where the energy was. That is all I could do and all I have tried to do since.