Historically and biographically, this poem is a kind of meeting of two events. The first is the destruction of the Twin Towers. The second is my being in graduate school and reading various literary/philosophical theorists. I wasn’t actually reading Jacques Derrida, the philosopher mostly responsible for the practice and theory of deconstruction. His ideas, as least in the simple form that I understand them, have permeated a lot of other writers’ thoughts. In very simple form, deconstruction as a theory postulates that all language self-contradicts, that it puts off or defers meaning. In my simple way, I look at language as being like the yin/yang symbol in which the dark area contains a speck of white and the white area contains a speck of black. Words contain their own contradictions. We humans hate or distrust in Others that which we have in ourselves—we force others to carry our own personal disgust by demonizing or stereotyping others
I remember the day of September 11, 2001, I had just taught an 8:00 class and when the class was over I went to the computer lab to do some email. The lab was full of people watching news reports over the internet. I said the man next to me—“Oh, God. Bush will be attacking Iraq.” I don’t know why I said that—it was just a gut reaction to what I know about the kind of man Bush is and the kind of men he has around him. The man next to me said, “Oh, no, that could never happen.” Of course, I was horrified at the act and the death of so many people. It was a horrible, horrible day. But the act was an understandable act—if a person hates the world domination of American capitalism, then what better target than a center devoted to world trade. And, to me, it was totally understandable that a certain kind of person would react to the destruction of the towers by wanting to destroy somebody else.
Just to show you what kind of a stinker I am, the next class period I took Mark Twain’s story The War Prayer into class for discussion. Did I say that I was teaching at Texas A&M at the time?
So when the first anniversary of 9/11 came around and there was all this war talk, I wrote this poem. I should be clear—I am against this war (which obviously is still going on despite what Bush says). Going after Bin Laden was a different matter, since he was clearly responsible for the death of Americans. I was against attaching Iraq before we went to war. But now we are in it we are stuck and have to our best to set up some from of government that the Iraqi people can live with. But my gut tells me again that we have disaster on our hands. [Another aside—There are lots of people who will tell you that the lesson of Vietnam is that we should not give up. That is not the lesson of Vietnam. The lesson of Vietnam is that the US should not get involved the internal affairs of counties that are in some form of Civil War.] But I did not think there was reason to attack and I, and many others, believed that what has happened was inevitable. But if you remember Bush and the Republicans set things up so that anyone who dissented was called a traitor. Let this be a lesson for you young folks—when you shut down discussion you don’t get all the information that you need to make the correct decisions. If you think you “own” the truth on one side of a binary (good/evil, up/down, rich/poor, etc), and refuse to see the truth on the other side, you are headed for disaster.
So there is this poem, which is my 9/11 anniversary poem. When you set up good/evil dichotomies, you will have war and destruction. It is that simple. When you act proud and all that, then there will be people who try to bring you down. My favorite element in the poem is that the last word is “up” when the truth is that the buildings were brought “down.” This is the deconstruction .
I should also point out that this is what we call a “concrete poem,” that is the poem is relies on its visual impact as much or more than it does its linguistic content. We are used to poems being written in lines, but why not abandon traditional lines and just let the words fall on the page in other ways that support or create meaning? Since the point of these little essays is to help students in classes learn more about poetry, I will point out another feature that they may not think to look for. The number of lines in the two columns are 9 and 11. Actually, the twin towers were close to the same height, but I couldn’t pass up this little visual pun.
[I wrote this essay in 2002 or thereabouts. In 2013, my family and I visited the 911 memorial and the site of the United 93 crash site in Pennsylvania. So please do not get the wrong idea about my patriotism. I do not believe it right to destroy these buildings; I just think it is understandable. Look up Susan Sontag’s reaction, and the reaction to her reaction.]