Close reading, Auden, Shelley, &c

Every so often there’s news stories about the increasing popularity of poetry as a means of expressing or channelling reactions to 9/11, & I’ve noticed that various poems, especially Auden’s “September 1st 1939” & Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, keep on coming up in this connection. So I recently returned to these texts & am left rather puzzled…do people actually pay attention to what they say? Auden of course was already appalled at the way “September 1st 1939” could be selectively used for political ends–he excised the poem from his collected poems after its most famous line (“We must love one another or die”) was (mis)quoted in a infamous Lyndon B Johnson ad. In any case Auden’s poem hardly offers easy consolation in current circumstances: consider lines like “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”, or “Out of the mirror they stare, / Imperialism’s face / And the international wrong.” – Even stranger is the popularity of “Ozymandias”: this poem shows an evil tyrant getting his comeuppance: the supposedly imposing & permanent buildings & monuments he has erected as symbols of his power have been reduced to ruins by time & history. – Even more astonishing is this passage from an article by Martin Arnold in the Nov 1 New York Times:

That should be “Easter 1916” of course. But this is an even more grossly inappropriate poem–it’s a celebration of the heroism of the participants in a suidical, doomed rebellion against the British–people whom Yeats says he thought little of until their spectacular turn to heroic armed resistance & martyrdom.

Anyway, my point here isn’t about the events of 9/11 per se, or the way poetry might help console or grieve. But for heaven’s sake, if we’re going to use poetry in this way, let’s make sure we pay attention to what the poems are saying, & pick poems that actually suit the occasion, rather than actually say the reverse of what we intend. I know this is a futile argument–for instance, despite Paul Fussell’s careful exposition of the propagandistic pro-war sentiment of the poem “In Flanders Fields” (in his The Great War and Modern Memory) it is still inappropriately trotted out each Remembrance Day. But I thought I’d make the effort.

Another example would be the way every memorial service highlighted people singing “Amazing Grace”

It’s a lovely song, it really is. But it was written by a man who had engaged in one of the most truly evil practices ever–the Middle Passage. Every single individual who profited because they stepped on to one of those ships, with people packed like cordword, starving and rotting all jammed together, was arguably more evil than Bin Ladin. Later in life, he converted, and after conversion he realized the enormity of his sinfulness. “Amazing Grace” is his remarkable expression of faith in a God could forgive someone as evil as himself. It is a song of forgiveness, and of humility–of recognizing our own need for forgiveness. These are wonderful emotions, of course, but they weren’t what people were feeling right after the 9/11 events.

Manda JO: a good point, though I think I can perhaps be more patient with the use of a song like that, because the emotional impact of music might be independent of the words. That is, the music itself might convey a feeling that has little to do with the particularities of the lyrics. But this hardly helps in the case of the Yeats, Auden & Shelley poems I cited, where there’s only words. What do people think the poems mean? Obviously not what they actually say.