From top; Jessica Traynor’s poem on 9/11 commissioned by the Consulate General of Ireland in New York; Kevin Higgins
Poet Kevin Higgins writes:
In his book Revolution Betrayed (1937) Trotsky predicted that the Stalinist era “will, in spite of individual exceptions, go into the history of artistic creation as a time of mediocrities, laureates, and toadies.” He was, by and large, correct. A cursory glance at a poem such as Pablo Neruda’s ‘To be men! That is the Stalinist law!’ is all the evidence one needs that Stalinist cultural constrictions could reduce even a great poet, which Neruda undeniably was, to momentary mediocrity.
But such Stalinist errors are not my main purpose here. What I find interesting is that Trotsky places the word “laureates” between “mediocrities” and “toadies”. A laureate is something many poets aspire to be. But no poet likes to have the word mediocrity attached to their name. And, though a good few poets are prepared in fact to be toadies, most would prefer if, in the interests of continued literary decorum, you refrained from calling their networking activities by this more appropriately pungent name.
The commissioned/laureate poem is always difficult, particularly for the poet who pretends/aspires to be a anti-establishment. I personally don’t expect to ever be the laureate for anywhere. I know, from excellently placed sources, that one of my poems ‘You Can Take The Man Out of Eyre Square But You Can’t Take The Eyre Square Out of The Man’ was earmarked to be displayed, carved in stone, in Eyre Square in Galway, the town where I grew up, as part of the Cúirt Festival’s Poetry Trail in 2018 but the then Festival Director intervened to make this not happen. Such things are clichés off a duck’s back at this stage. I take them as great compliments. When it comes to laureate type poems I far prefer my own suggestion that Galway City Council/Cúirt/Poetry Ireland appoint me poet laureate for the disused public toilet on Galway’s O’Brien’s Bridge. Should that great honour ever be bestowed on me, I already have my poem written.
When I recently read Jessica Traynor’s ‘What Holds: a poem in honour of Fr Mychal Judge and all first responders on 9/11’ a few things struck me. First, given the poem was commissioned by the Consulate General of Ireland in New York – a branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs whose mission is “to promote Irish interests in the USA” – for the 20th anniversary of the successful Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers, this was a pretty tricky assignment. Made trickier by the fact this anniversary took place in the immediate aftermath of the American empire’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, after a twenty year war into which they were lured by Al Qaeda’s demolition of the World Trade Center.
The American empire is in a sensitive state right now, and a poem which in any way contextualised the Twin Towers atrocity, by making any mention of why such people might want to wound America in this way, would, it’s safe to say, not be welcomed by the diplomats at the Consulate General of Ireland in New York. Nor would they smile on any mention of the hundreds of thousands killed, most of them civilians, in the subsequent War on Terror throughout the presidencies of Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden.
So, it is a poem which started out being unable to mention either the context or consequences of the event it commemorates. And it succeeds admirably in this. It must be said: Traynor’s poem is Shakespeare compared to Pablo Neruda’s dirge for Stalin. It is however a poem which is part of the reassuring foot rub Ireland, and other such allies, have been giving the American empire in the aftermath of its humbling in Afghanistan.
Americans are special, this poem implies, because American’s who die in imperial conflicts get poems commissioned in their memory. The ten civilians, including seven children, wiped out in a U.S. drone attack near Kabul during America’s hasty escape from that country will have no poem commissioned for them by any branch of the Irish diplomatic service.
Also, by not contextualising what happened on 9/11, the poem plays into the notion that 9/11 was an inexplicable act by crazy brown people. Whereas in reality it was a case of a group of people inflicting injury on the empire in what they felt was the most effective way they could for entirely understandable reasons.
Though liberal humanists will see the poem as being about one heroic man, and will leap to accuse this critique of it as being demeaning of that dead hero, in reality you, me, and the New York Times know that your average liberal humanist does think that a Western life is worth more than that of an Afghan, or an Iraqi, or a Yemeni. In this sense, this poem promotes the ideology of empire, the ideology of war.
To paraphrase what Karl Marx said about such inadvertent ideologues in Das Kapital: It does not know it, but it is doing it.