Wall Street poet takes stock of life

Sonnets: A corporate lawyer helps colleagues make sense of Sept. 11.

War On Terrorism

The Nation

November 01, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - When terrorist attacks damaged his downtown Manhattan office on Sept. 11, Eugene Schlanger responded like the rest of Wall Street: He went home, spent a few days with his family, then tried his best to get back to work at temporary quarters in Midtown.

And somewhere along the way, he started a sonnet cycle.

Schlanger is a deputy general counsel at Nomura Securities, one of the world's largest trading houses, and the chairman of the National Association of Securities' Dealers Committee of Greater New York.

But to his friends and co-workers, he is also the "Poet of Wall Street," a writer whose poems, many of them with Wall Street themes, have long circulated in the upper echelons of the financial world and appeared in several top literary journals.

FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1A article yesterday about Wall Street poet Eugene Schlanger referred to his poem about the Orange County financial scandals of the 1990s, but misidentified the Orange County in question. It is Orange County, Calif. The Sun regrets the error.

As Schlanger's experience since Sept. 11 has shown, the attacks have revealed more than the life stories of the thousands who died. They also have altered and broadened people's views of those who lived, encouraging colleagues to take closer looks at those in the next carrel or office.

Before Sept. 11, Schlanger was a Wall Street oddity, a corporate lawyer who was as comfortable quoting the Odyssey as the prices on the New York Stock Exchange. Colleagues appreciated his poems as clever distractions, small windows into the quirks of their seemingly unpoetic jobs.

That changed with the attacks. Like an army chaplain after a bloody battle, Schlanger the poet has moved front and center, called on by his compatriots to make sense of the losses.

`Just his niche'

"When it happened, I thought of Gene, because people are looking for a cathartic experience, looking for a way to cleanse themselves, to relieve themselves of the emotional toll," said Harold Gordon, a lawyer with Jones Day Reavis & Pogue who met Schlanger in the 1980s when they were working at the Securities and Exchange Commission. "And that just seems his niche. His poetry would be perfect for that."

Schlanger, 45, is doing his best to meet the challenge. He is nearing completion of a cycle of two dozen sonnets about the attacks, which he hopes to rush into publication in time to be sold, for charity, as a holiday gift. He is giving readings at memorial services and downtown cafes, where his poems about Wall Street, even those penned before Sept. 11, are greeted, he says, with "quietude and respect."

View from the inside

Schlanger knows there will be plenty of poems written about Sept. 11 by writers far better known than he.

But he also believes he has an edge in writing about the destruction of lower Manhattan, and an obligation to exercise that edge: Unlike other poets, he is writing from the inside.

He knows what the offices that folded into dust looked like, what the people who fell with them would have been doing before the planes struck, what they would have said to each other when the buildings shook.

"It's like the World War I poets," said Schlanger, in an interview near Nomura's temporary office at Rockefeller Center. "You read poems from the poets in the trenches ... and you get a different feel of what it was like than if it was written by someone from afar."

The insider angle gives readers the view of a Midtown bar full of Wall Street refugees, one week after the attacks: We went to a new saloon and drank Heavily, without pity, mocking friends And counter-parties, as in the old days Before terrorists ruined some buildings South of Vesey ... Returning from the lavatory the agency Trader warned us, loudly, he had walked pretty Far south last night and the sky was bright with death and excavation in the distance.

The insider perspective also offers a glimpse of the economic fallout of the attacks: In the scramble after the disaster one Sees benevolence and greed. Daily, The managers, promoting their own well-being, Make announcements: emergency measures; Restructured committees; a hiatus of terminations, in an industry that Measures profit and loss hourly ... No matter what relief comes from Washington, Wall Street still devours its young.

Separate as they might seem, poetry and Wall Street have vied for Schlanger's affection since he was a teen-ager growing up in New York. As a student at Stuyvesant High School, the elite public school just blocks from the World Trade Center, he wrote his first poem at the same time as he was investing his bar mitzvah money in the stock market and subscribing to The Wall Street Journal.

He opted for a career as a corporate lawyer rather than as a professional poet or English professor because he believes writers benefit from real world exposure - something that much contemporary poetry lacks, he says.

"It doesn't click. Poets today tend to write to audiences of other poets," he says. "It's unfortunate. You have poets celebrating pure emotion, but it's not grounded in anything."

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