After 9/11 terrorist attacks, bad verse made things better

September 7, 2011

This column originally ran 10 years ago,
shortly after 9/11.

I ’ve just finished reading, in one single burst,

A mailbag of letters written in verse

Deploring all terror and commending to heaven


(by Eric Shansby)

Every one of the victims of September eleven.

We don’t publish poems, this newspaper cautions,

But the e-mails still flew, beyond all proportions.

So I’ve plowed through the oeuvre, and God only knows

These aren’t from Whitmans or Brownings or Poes.

Page after page and line after line

Of dreary cliche and dubious rhyme.

And saccharine sentiment hyped even sweeter,

And lines that utterly fail to achieve even a semblance of meter.

Words are misused till they’re battered and bruised.

Where subtlety’s called for, a sledgehammer’s used.

Points are made and remade and run into the ground

Like a word that’s repeated till it’s simply a sound.

The writers, so busy at being distraught,

Fail to observe what their writing has wrought:

An inferior dearth of good writerly feats

Like interior rhyme or anapest beats.

Philosophical insights are scattered and few,

Platitudinous thoughts of Hallmarkian hue:

Hate begets hate! Love conquers all!

Time to unite! Our country stands tall!

Weep for the dead! Hail to our chief!

God, I’m so sad! How great is my grief!

When you’ve so much to say, well, there’s no point in dwelling

On grammar or structure or syntax or spelling.

Those not busy misquoting Melville or Kipling

Were quoting instead their own little stripling

Who uttered at dinnertime some gooey notion

Dad thinks is some magical peace-on-earth potion.

There’s no peace to be had, I fear, not for a while,

Not much stuff in the news to make a guy smile.

So why am I finding, in reading these rhymes,

A strange reassurance in very bad times?

Maybe it’s this: That a people laid low

Terrorized by an implacable foe

Who is driven to kill with maniacal zeal —

How do they react? They say what they feel.

What they feel is not hatred, not an urge to kill more,

Theirs is not a rhetorical drumbeat for war,

No road to revenge that others have trod.

What they feel is a trust in the goodness of God.

And a deep aching pain for the vast loss of lives

Of people who could be their husbands or wives.

Here’s the powerful part of these frailest of poems:

The hijacked airliners struck all of our homes.

Poems are not all that simple to grade.

It’s not just the skill with which they are made.

As their feelings get truer, their quality mounts.

Trust Mr. Hallmark: It’s the thought that counts.

So to everyone out there who gave his utmost

You’ll still find no poems in The Washington Post.

But reading your work really gave me a lift.

Thanks for your tenderness. Thanks for the gift.

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