Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Poet Heather McHugh has pointed out that in all the photographs of 9/11, none of the witnesses covered their eyes. Instead, they covered their mouths. Their bodies said what their words could not: What they were seeing was unspeakable.
In the days and weeks following, newspaper editorial offices across the country were swamped with poems. Long-experienced editors had never seen anything like it.
Where speech stops, where syntax shatters, where prose fails is where poetry begins.
When we are most profoundly moved, our syntax not only shatters, it shatters into rhythm. We stammer and stutter and repeat ourselves. Our language, illogical and irrational and emotional, is rhythmic and repetitious.
“I love you,” is prose: clear, simple, direct, and completely understandable, but utterly inadequate to the task of conveying profound love. The instant we start, as we inevitably do, to repeat ourselves out of awareness of the inadequacy of this language to convey our meaning—“I love you. I love you. I really really love you!”—we’ve fallen into rhythm and repetition.
In any extreme—of horror, mourning, terror or ecstasy—our speech becomes rhythmic. In our most primitive, pre-verbal responses, sobbing or laughing, our entire bodies are wracked by rhythm. Shakespeare understood this. Lear’s “Howl howl howl howl howl” as he cradles his dead daughter is likely the most perfectly natural line ever written.
And yet, rhythm has also always been the gateway to the spiritual realm. All spells, incantations, rituals, and prayers are rhythmic and repetitious. The goal of chanting, in a war dance, a rite of passage, or a celebration of the mass, is to influence or communicate with the higher power, even if, as in many meditation practices, the higher power sought is within us.
All these ancient rituals originated in a time when it was believed that breath is the source of inspiration because spirit and breath are one: We expire (exhale and die); we inspire (inhale and are filled with spirit). Spiritus, the Latin word for breath, is the root of spirit and inspiration.
But this direct experience of a higher power has always required what modern psychology would describe as a letting go of the ego: that is, of that formulation our consciousness has created and named the self. Our consciousness fights like the devil to avoid this letting go. It is frightening to explore who we are without our usual habits, fears and concerns, to go beyond the narrow limits of what we’re willing to know about ourselves. Who are we in the unknown, that place made entirely of our ignorance? Almost all mystical traditions are rooted in exploring this question, as are all the arts.
All ancient spiritual traditions used rhythm in some way. Somehow they understood to be set free of the self, we must step off into that deeper place rhythm opens up in us. That place is the source of our humanity, where we are both visceral and spiritual beings, where we discover that we are the unknown, that, as Melville wrote in White Jacket, “We ourselves are the repository of the great mystery.”
On the first anniversary of 9/11, a memorial concert was scheduled to be broadcast live from Liberty State Park, just across the river from where the Twin Towers had stood. Severe thunderstorms forced the cancellation of the concert. Instead, the film of the rehearsal was aired. With ground zero as a backdrop, the New Jersey Symphony played before an amphitheatre that contained almost exactly one empty seat for every person who had died.
As Verdi’s “Requiem” rose into the clear sky, I thought of all the hours the assembled musicians had to work to master their instruments—whole lifetimes devoted to music—and of all the hours they had to rehearse together to become a symphony. And then I thought of other lifetimes, those devoted to planning the murders of complete strangers. We are the creatures who make music. And make death.
To attempt to speak of this, to try to step outside of ourselves and understand why, is where poetry, theater, music, art begin.
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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10
For more information, visit the Poetry website.