Finding words when no words seem possible

POET'S CORNER

July 21, 2002|By Michael Collier

To the Words

(9 / 17 / 01)

When it happens you are not there

oh you beyond numbers

beyond recollection

passed on from breath to breath

given again

from day to day from age

to age

charged with knowledge

knowing nothing

indifferent elders

indispensable and sleepless

keepers of our names

before ever we came

to be called by them

you that were

formed to begin with

you that were cried out

you that were spoken

to begin with

to say what could not be said

ancient precious

and helpless ones

say it

1/3

-- W.S. Merwin

To the Words" opens September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, a capacious and urgent anthology of poems, journal entries, letters, fables, and other literary fragments from more than 100 writers responding to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

W.S. Merwin's poem, unlike many of the other powerful and moving responses, gains its authority from what it admits can't be said. As a result, the mystery and enormity of the Sept. 11 tragedy is not reduced to the limitations of anger and rage, blame and politics. Nor does it make categorical claims that Sept. 11 changed the world. Instead, Merwin's poem describes the ritualistic role of language as the vehicle for recording human history -- "beyond numbers / beyond recollection / passed on from breath to breath."

Shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon and crash of the jet in Pennsylvania, people sought out poetry almost instinctively. We did this in part because of a belief that poetry, like prayer, might provide consolation or understanding.

But more important -- perhaps more instinctively -- we sought out poetry as a way to avoid the rhetorical machines of government and media that quickly packaged what it was we should feel and who it was we should blame.

As a prologue to the volume of responses, Merwin's poem tells us that words, "ancient precious / and helpless ones," have always been used "to say what could not be said." We are prepared, then, for the honest struggles, private and public, that many of the writers in the volume enact as they try to come to terms through language with their fears, angers, resignations and helplessness.

We should be thankful to William Heyen, the distinguished poet who edited the volume, and to the Etruscan Press (etruscanpress.org), the Silver Spring press that published the book. The collection has many virtues, but its most outstanding one is the precision of each response. There are few flag-wrapped pronouncements, no ultimatums, and as a result one feels the honesty and necessity of each attempt.

In particular, Maryland authors such as Lucille Clifton, Stanley Plumly, Elizabeth Spires, Michael Waters and Ann Lolordo (a Sun editorial writer), among others, speak clearly and courageously in their characteristic voices.

("To the Words," copyright c2002 by W.S. Merwin. Reprinted by permission of Etruscan Press.)

Michael Collier is Maryland's poet laureate. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

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