After Paris


I found two blog posts especially moving in the aftermath of last week’s attacks in Paris, both by the same writer. Josephine Corcoran’s ‘What the ‘Je Suis’ hashtag means to Me‘ and ‘Writing poems rather than Facebook posts’ seemed to me to come from a place of deep personal sorrow, frustration and anger whose personal vulnerability made them a privilege to read.

Josephine’s posts reminded me of two very different texts, both of which I have written about here some time ago. The first is James Tate’s hilarious poem of desolation ‘I am a Finn‘. There is nothing very complicated about this association. In its haphazard way my mind went straight to it as a playful exemplar of what can be said about the need to identify with a social or national grouping that is larger than ourselves: ‘When I stop by the Classé Café for a cheeseburger/ no one suspects that I am a Finn.’

Substitute the word Finn with ‘gunman’, or ‘cartoonist’ and you have a very different kind of poem, but not necessarily one which denies the longing to be noticed below the surface of the original: ‘Here, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,/ no one cares that I am a Finn.’  As the work of Chrissy Williams so beautifully illustrates, it is no longer enough to look at horrific events and be shocked by them. Just as important is what our looking, or commentary, looks like, and who it is seen by. Truly, there is no single narrative to ‘follow’.

Jospehine’s post questioning the effectiveness of trying to debate complex issues via social media sent me to another favourite text, Seamus Heaney’s magisterial essay ‘The Government of the Tongue’ from the book of the same name. ‘Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught,’ he writes, ‘the efficacy of a poem is nil. No lyric ever stopped a tank.’ Far from ceding to the argument that ‘poems make nothing happen’ he closes his essay with a reflection on another example of playful and public writing, that of Christ on the ground when presented with the woman caught in adultery. On one level, he says, it is as though the writing, whose content we never know, buys time between being tricked into saying something foolish and saying nothing at all. This, he says, is a mirror of the poetic enterprise. Like poems, he says, the writing

does not say ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

Josephine’s posts gave me personal courage in a week when it was in short supply. To say ‘Yes’ and ‘I am’ to the poems, things, and most of all the people, that matter to me most. To the notion of poetry co-existing with murder. To pursuing my Facebook fast. To sitting in silence. To these bookshelves and the words lined up on them. To the notion, however foolish, of finding a quiet space, opening a notebook, and writing there.


  1. I was going to send you congratulations on ‘Making poetry happen’, and riff on the timeliness of those two words…’making’ and ‘happen’. I send them anyway, but would just like respond to ‘In Paris’. It’s a facile world we live in. It’s one where ‘social media’ are actually nucleating media by which we only talk to people who agree with us, and OMG is the texting atheists’ stock response to every shade of pain and awfulness.
    It’s a timely post, is yours. I believe poetry, particularly if not exclusively, is what Tony Harrison called ‘the tongued-tied’s fighting’, and that its business is constantly reforging the links between language and truth. In a world of false consciousness, in which politicians sleepwalk into a world that fails to understand that it may be possible to wage war on terrorists, on men and women with guns and bombs and cellphones, ‘terror’ is a word. Three phonemes. Four graphemes. Two syllables. A two part noise. A war on ‘terror’ commits no-one to anything but ignorance of cause and effect. Orwell understood it only too well. It seems dreadfully ironic that Marxists invented the concept of false consciousness and Stalin used the bogey-word accusation of ‘Trotskyite’ to murder millions who never heard of the small man living in Mexico.
    Two posts on one morning that are part of the same struggle. Your’s and Bill Greenwell’s weekly poem. Keep on writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Anthony

    All we can really do is stand together and, given half a chance, buy a copy of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo whose proceeds will go towards helping the bereaved families of the deceased employees.

    Best wishes from Simon


  3. Anthony, I feel overwhelmed and moved by what you’ve said. Thank you. I don’t feel able to respond properly but instead will share what I read on the inside cover of ‘Poetry’ (Chicago) magazine which Hilda Sheehan has lent to me. It’s by Mark Strand (who died in 2014) and was originally published by ‘Poetry’ in June, 1970.

    I have a key
    so I open the door and walk in.
    It is dark and I walk in.
    It is darker and I walk in.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. No matter what, poetry has great power both when it comes to expressing the anguish of events like the Paris attack and the requirement that we take sides no matter how complex the issue may appear. Henry Reed’s poem “Naming of Parts” and Amy Lowell’s “Patterns”, among many others, but particularly these two, are the most powerful I know in their gentility, their use of spring to light the realities of war, and both speak louder than shouts and curses. I feel a million people marching in protest against mindlessness when I read them.

    Thanks for this post, Anthony.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A million people marching in protest against mindlessness. Wow. What a phrase. I might have to steal it! Thank you.

      That’s exactly what the James Tate poem makes me feel also.
      As ever with many thanks for your insights


      1. I thought I replied to this but am not sure it was actually sent. Thank YOU for your appreciation.As you can probably tell, I am passionate about Schuyler’s poetry. I look forward to your post very much. Pam

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have very often read the blog posts or poems that you link from your blog, Anthony. I’m glad you offered these today as well. I find what Josephine writes very interesting and honest. As a French native and an American citizen who has experienced September 11 in a collective and also personal way, I understand the people who don’t recognize themselves through the sensational hastag. I didn’t use it myself on my blog. It’s hard to say that, but I belive that these last violent events are perhaps France’s chance to open a real conversation about the way people from all cultures and religious really feel, living there. Again, thank you, for the opportunity to read yet another opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Evelyne. You are absolutely right, it is all about what makes us feel recognized and what does not. I do not feel a strong affiliation with the creative urges that gave birth to the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo, nor do I recognize myself in the Je Suis Charlie hashtag. But I absolutely want to stand with those who were murdered nevertheless. For an even more nuanced and detailed discussion of these issues, you could do worse than look at
      As ever with best wishes and thanks


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