Marianne Moore's 9/11

"Finding the Words"

About eight weeks after the September 11 attacks, the Writers House and Rosenbach Library collaborated on an event held at the Writers House featuring, of all things, the modern American poet Marianne Moore. Moore's 9/11, if you can imagine that. Well, it turned out well, I think. The idea was that a number of us would dip into the Moore papers at the Rosenbach and find something apprarently relevant to say. Then several poets - Greg Djanikian, Tom Devaney, Bob Perelman, Jena Osman - would each read a poem for the "occasion." (Jena and Bob read poems they had just written.) Audio recordings of each presentation - and of the whole - program are available. Tom Devaney sent to the Writers House core community a summary of the event.

The event was webcast live and a number of people, especially in Philadelphia, watched us on their computers (somehow the Rosenbach directors had persuaded the PECO people who own the tall skyline building that runs messages across its top floors to announce it). So you can watch me and others "finding the words." Yes, that was the title we gave the event - "Finding the Words." Jena Osman's piece, "Dropping Leaflets", I admire very much and to this day teach it at the end of my course on modern and contemporary American poetry.

My own piece was called "Mending the Break in Time." Below is the text and here is the RealVideo recordings, and here is downloadable mp3.

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MENDING THE BREAK IN TIME, by Al Filreis

The wartime letter exchanged between and among modern poets was a place "where the fragments met," as Marianne Moore put it in "Nevertheless" - forming a temporary whole that was nevertheless no illusion of enduring wholeness. In 1944 Moore's book Nevertheless was published, mutedly proclaiming that the old perfectly shaped lyric fruits were marred although delicious as ever--but, again, marred so that the hard process of fruition now bore in the final sweetness. "Nevertheless / you've seen a strawberry that's had a struggle." Frost kills rubber-plant leaves but can't destroy down to the roots. A prickly-pear leaf clings to barbed wire, but roots shoot down for a later greener day. "Victory won't come / to me unless I go to it." In his charming November 7, 1944 letter to Moore, William Carlos Williams wrote to her about--exactly as we've categorized it tonight--"the uses of art" in a time of worldwide crisis. While in November '44 it was "hard to focus the mind on praise," Williams said he especially loved the title poem of Moore's new book, which she had sent him: "Nevertheless."

I cannot think of a better gloss on Moore's wartime poetics than what Williams wrote here about what "we get from writing": "All artists are secretive and fly from a style which has been found out." This is why H.D. in her moving 1940 letter is "so keyed-up and happy in our fortress"-that fortress being London hunkered against the Luftwaffe which at the time many believed augured the destruction by air of England. In her poem "May 1943" H.D. wrote that the carpenter "has his chisel" while "I have my pencil": "he mends the broken window-frame of the orangery, / I mend a break in time." And it is precisely why Winnifred Ellerman, a.k.a. "Bryher," could speak of the "irreality and great beauty" of a wartorn night sky, not to say that beauty made sense but precisely that it didn't, any more. It is why she, too, received Moore's homefront letters, as physical things, "with such joy," personal impressions on paper, the crabbed inimitable handwriting, seen immediately upon the postman's delivery, that announced the arrival of what Bryher calls Moore's "strength." Williams's typewritten letter ends with the briefest handwritten postscript: "Paul Sr. is at sea--a destroyer."

We can sense here, in this letter--but also everywhere in Williams' writing at this time--how worried about his son he was. Paul eventually made it all the way to Tokyo, part of the time on an aircraft carrier--in the vicinity of the most terrifyingly difficult fighting of the war. What could the father do? Well, he was putting together the first drafts of Paterson I, another hard-bitten place where the modern fragments would meet.

But with Paul in the Pacific, he did what homefront grandfathers do. He took the disconsolate Paul Jr. on an outing-the perfect Williams outing, down to the dirty but stately Hackensack River, to a "marvelous old-car dump," with "hundreds of junked cars." Paul was beside himself with joy as the grandfather poet "paraded him up one alley and down another, old cars on all sides." He, too, so keyed-up and happy in his fortress. "The weak overcomes [the world's] menace," Moore wrote in "Nevertheless," "the strong over- / comes itself. What is there / like fortitude! What sap / went through that little thread to make the cherry red!"