“Enough about beauty. Not everyone cares about plosives and rhyme, but everybody cares about understanding the world. Everybody cares about the truth,” a wise and persuasive friend of mine recently told me. “Where are all the poems that people need?”

My friend deserves an answer. But I should say first: I don’t apologize for my emphasis on sound. W. H. Auden once apocryphally said if you took two people — one who wanted to say something important about the world and another who merely wanted to play with words — the latter was more likely to become the poet. If poetry allows us access to capital-T Truth, it does it through the sounds of language. But this doesn’t mean we should ignore whatever truths those sounds allow us. Auden knew that too, and I think this knowledge was gnawing on him when he wrote these lines from “September 1, 1939”:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Though it stares down the German invasion of Poland and the inevitability of the Second World War, the poem was circulated widely after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. Its most famous line — “We must love one another or die” — showed up in one e-mail forward after another, though Auden himself had struggled with the “truth” of the line. He revised it obsessively, eventually cutting the entire stanza, then disowning the whole poem for being “dishonest.”

But the poem had become necessary in a way art rarely does. People had found comfort, however slight or fleeting, in the words of this poem just when much of the world seemed so suddenly unfamiliar and terrible. While it has been omitted from many editions of Auden’s work, a poem people feel has laid claim on truth — even if the poet doubts that claim — is not so easily disowned. What was said could not be unsaid. So the poem survives in anthologies and memories and, in the autumn of 2001, in countless forwarded emails.

Every cultural institution struggled to find what to say that September. The first issue of The New Yorker after the attacks included a single poem, by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, printed on the magazine’s last page. The poem must have been accepted by the editors months earlier and was probably written and translated years before that. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine a work of art more relevant in that awful fog that followed the 9/11 attacks, a poem to remind us beautifully and without pretension how to live our lives. To “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh):

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrew
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Lower Manhattan lay in chaos and ruin, but even this world, we are reminded — especially this world — must nevertheless be praised.

Of course, not everyone agrees that poetry reveals truth, and by not everyone, I mean Plato. Before going into business selling gently used clothing to teens and 20-somethings, Plato kept busy by expelling poets from his Republic. Poets, by creating images of virtue, lead people toward illusion instead of the truth. Without the allure of their language, poets “are like faces which were never really beautiful, but only blooming; and now the bloom of youth has passed away from them.”

That Plato uses the poetic device of the simile to condemn poets is a note of irony I cannot resist mentioning. But Emily Dickinson has already answered Plato far better than I ever could. If poetry diverts us from the truth, it’s only so that we get there by the scenic route. In other words, poetry tells the truth slant. I doubt if anyone has ever told it more beautifully than she:


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Dickinson and Plato both remind us that any truth is always mixed up with the way it’s told — which is why Plato thought poets so dangerous, and why I think poems are so important. It’s good to have a wise and persuasive friend to remind you just how important they are.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” from WITHOUT END: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by Adam Zagajewski, translated by several translators. Copyright (c) 2002 by Adam Zagajewski Translation copyright (c) 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

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