Anyone who has read Elie Wiesel’s Night or heard Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw has experienced the unsettling feeling of being moved by Holocaust art. What is disturbing — morally and emotionally — is that such works are highly controlled, artistic accounts of terrible, chaotic events. As audience, we willingly choose to enter into a relationship with a work that draws us into the suffering of others. We luxuriate vicariously in pain because art, especially narrative, offers us an experience that will help us make intellectual or emotional sense of suffering.
But in the immediate wake of tragedy, we turn not to art but to news, to political analysis, op-ed commentary, and eyewitness journalism. Lyric poems in the airy realm of art would seem to have the least to say to a no-nonsense country in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Other than being quoted in a eulogy or comforting the holy remnant who turn to them at such moments, poems will not be making the lecture circuit or the Sunday morning talk shows.
The poet Geoffrey Hill, a one-time resident of Boston, offers a different kind of aesthetic response than political commentary, historical analysis or first-person memoir. He tackles a different problem by asking the uncomfortable question: whose tragedy is it? His short poem “September Song” memorializes the Holocaust from the perspective of one whose relationship to the tragedy is suspect. (Read the poem here.)
The odd epigraph-cum-dedication laconically indicates the birth and deportation dates of a ten-year-old boy who died in the Holocaust: “born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42.” It was the critic Christopher Ricks, not Hill himself, who dug up the buried personal key here: Hill was born on June 18, 1932, the day before the birth of this unnamed Jewish boy, who would not be “passed over” by a merciful God but chosen by the Nazis.
The indifferent machinery of the Holocaust is glossed in a quatrain:
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
Into this broad-brush evocation of tragedy, Hill inserts an awkward parenthesis, an aborted tercet that slides apologetically down the page, muffling its own grammar:
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
(As Ricks has asked: what is true? That Hill has made an elegy for himself, or that his elegy is true? Is it an assertion of candor or of validity?)
The broader issue raised here: is the turn to the personal narcissistic, or is it the only thing to be done honestly? As if in rejection of the confessional mode, the next stanza turns to lyric observation. The speaking “I” has been muted, but it still looks alarmingly like a retreat to the personal: “September fattens on vines. Roses / flake from the wall.” Is the speaker indulging in irrelevant detail — the abundance of harvest, the natural death of plants—or contrasting his secure existence to the boy’s tragic death, measuring the Septembers he has spent mediating on nature against the September the boy was deported?
But ultimately, he cannot keep all these proliferating meanings separate. The “harmless fires” of September are indistinguishable from other incinerations whose consequences, “drift[ing] to his eyes,” have the potential to blind him morally, politically. And so he abruptly puts an end to the uneasy tension, because it risks memorializing himself more than the victim:
This is plenty.
Or not so abruptly: the speaker tries to stop talking about himself and his poem, but he can’t help himself. It is not enough to regret that his poem has already said “plenty.” And so he repeats himself, the excess belying a lack:
This is plenty. This is more than enough.
It is a fatuous thing, appropriating someone else’s suffering as if it were your own. As if your feelings and reactions to it, your peripheral involvement in it, were somehow the most engrossing fact about the tragedy.
Neither Hill nor I are questioning the need to honor the dead and the suffering: they deserve their eulogies, as we need to be comforted by them. Nor am I speaking of the need for reasonable public discourse on justice or security. (Nor — to be clear — am I comparing the terrorist attacks in Boston to the Holocaust.) I’m speaking of the temptation to arrogate suffering so that its significance relates to one’s self and one’s motives.
In response to this temptation, it might seem that Hill’s poem calls us chattering masses to silence, to shame the gratuitous Facebook postings, the I-was-doing-X-when-it-happened anecdote. But he offers instead a more complicated response, because a poem cannot be silent, can only gesture at the need for silence. Hill knows that to publish a poem is to speak. What he offers is something like a terseness that is both dignified and self-conscious, cut short—right after he repeats himself unnecessarily — by an ambiguous silence.
The national logorrhea has already begun: the inflated rhetoric (“We will go to the ends of the earth”), the grandstanding politicians, the earnestly asinine pundits, the reasonable-seeming fear-mongers, the unhinged conspiracy theorists, and the flag-waving singers, all of it born of a hysterical need to control what cannot be controlled, and to turn vulnerability into the more convenient reactions of anger and blame. So before we become swamped in it all, it is more than enough to remember Geoffrey Hill on the subject of appropriating tragedy to our own uses.
This is plenty.