All I Can Say…

Source: Vanderbilt University

Twenty years ago on this day I was at work when I heard that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. A group of us, some of my coworkers and some people from other offices, gathered around a TV to watch the news. A woman next to me, whom I’d never met, spent several minutes on her cell phone. Her daughter worked in the World Trade Center and, fortunately, got out safely.
I spent the rest of the day in a kind of haze, like most people, I think, who weren’t directly affected by the terrible tragedies unfolding but still feeling terrible about the lives lost and unsure of what was to come. That day seemed impossible to put into words; it doesn’t seem any easier now, really, but I took some time then to go and sit on the steps of Kirkland Hall on the Vanderbilt University Campus, under its tall clock tower, to contemplate time and the world we live in, and to read W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939.
It’s just as relevant now, if not more so, especially line 88.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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10 Comments

  1. BarbaraM

    Chris – Reading your blog is always an education. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thank you. My goal is to be funny but sometimes I feel it’s necessary to treat solemn occasions appropriately.

      Reply
  2. mydangblog

    I was teaching at the time, and someone came running by with the news that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. We didn’t know what was going on, but turned on the classroom tv and saw the second crash. I had the students journal about it to capture their feelings in the moment, mostly horror and fear. I still remember that unreal sense that it wasn’t really happening, that any minute, someone would say it was just for a movie or something, but no one ever did.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Letting students journal about it was a really good idea and a good way for them to process their feelings in the moment. In some ways I think it would be better to be a student and have a teacher like you who understood that some kind of response was needed just then. I also feel glad I was with people I worked with and that we were able to share our shock and grief together.

      Reply
  3. The Huntress

    This still gets to me, even now with all the tributes that go on every year to commemorate this horrific event. I remember that day waking up getting my youngest ready for school. I walked him across the street to the cafeteria so he could have breakfast with his friends. Then came back to find my parents sitting in silence as they watched the second plane hit the tower. I was in shock and dismay. I was unemployed at the time and I sat in front of the television for two days watching this disaster unfold. Now, my youngest is training to be a firefighter and that scares me as well. But, he was only 8 years old at the time this happened but this tragedy shaped who and what he would become.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s incredible that your youngest is training to be a firefighter. I think sometimes of how that event really did shape a generation and how current events will too. It’s frightening but I’m glad your youngest is working to do such a great and important job.
      I can imagine how it must have felt to watch TV for two days at the time too. I remember how many of us gathered around TVs even at work, even in the days that followed, just to try and get some sense of what was going on.

      Reply
  4. M.L. James

    Chris,
    I’ve blogged about that day before. I remember when and how our lives changed on that day. I’m trying to think about good that’s come since that tragedy, but all the other tragedy over the last twenty years keeps getting in the way. Mona
    M.L. James recently posted…Getting Lost in Van GoghMy Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Mona,
      I think too of the good and bad of the last twenty years. In the days, weeks, and years following that day I think we’ve seen the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves since then. It’s the hope that the best will prevail that keeps me going on.

      Reply
  5. ANN J KOPLOW

    Chris, thank you so much for the profound post and poem. As I was reading the Auden, I saw “We must love one another or die,” and I thought, “This must be line 88.” And it is.
    Love,
    Ann
    ANN J KOPLOW recently posted…Day 3183: Expressing loveMy Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Ann, I’m so glad we can share this. Auden would later reject this poem because he felt we all die anyway but I knew you’d understand that what matters is that we love each other.

      Reply

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