Tragipoetics II


Thomas Hoepker's photo from Brooklyn on 9/11/2001 http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/09/i_took_that_911_photo.html

The earlier Tragipoetics post

Trauma is the aftermath of tragedy, though plenty of tragedies continue over a time period. It is in the long-term that poetry could have a more important role to play for it is poetry and art in general that can be tied to memory and become the artifice for the rendering of memory. While art has a role in the direct aftermath of tragedy, it is in trauma where art dwells.

In many ways, we can heal tragedy: bandages, surgery, whatever it takes– there may be some way of moving beyond an event. Even emotional tragedies, where the body is uninjured, allow for recovery: things return to normal, etc. But in trauma, there is no "normal." It is the mind which cannot recover from tragedy, even if a person has attempted to move beyond consciously. Here, poetry has the ability to allow someone to work through the experience, even as they relive it, without having to give an audience the direct marker of that event.

The abyss hides in trauma. Consider the number of suicides by those who have witnessed tragedy. From soldiers returning from wars (especially the last decade) to survivors of the Sago Mine Disaster, it is those reeling from the effects of tragedy who are unable to cope, to move on. Obviously poetry cannot help those who are severely emotionally damaged, but it seems poetry here might be a way of working through an event, no matter how painful. When we are faced with tragedy and forced to encounter the abyss, it is like trying to escape quicksand: struggling only sinks one in further and poetry ought to be the rope to pull the victim out.

Like absurdity, the fourth method for handling trauma must be simply ignoring it. We as Americans are getting used to gun-related violence, either the shooting of an individual or mass shootings. Yes, they are on television endlessly, but as Americans, we seem to cope best by ignoring and moving on. However, for individuals directly victimized by tragedy, the brain does not simply move on.

Strangely, though, it seems that through media, we experience a kind of play with trauma, in that we obsess over tragedy – we cannot look at it but cannot look away at the same time. We could discuss how much we are the media but ultimately, when events occur, television ratings go up. We may be disgusted by it but ultimately, we cannot escape. This is a function of collective trauma we have suffered in the television age and our ability to be sucked into the replay of tragedy is merely our access to that tragedy having exponentially exploded.

Poetry seemingly has a similar ability: to come back to tragedy and find ways of channeling possible trauma.1 However, where television is entirely passive and the viewer is force-fed information, poetry is an active engagement with trauma. It is through this active engagement that those suffering with trauma can have agency in dealing with their issues. Whereas trauma forces the sufferer to lose agency, poetry allows for a space in which one can directly take on tragedy and trauma that comes from it.

John Berryman is an obvious example of a traumatized person writing poetry, though it is hard to say if there was any intent. The suicide of Berryman’s father no doubt casts a long shadow onto Berryman’s life and creative output. In The Dream Songs, Berryman revisits the death of his father on several occasions, including in Song 145:

                                              he only, very early in the morning,  
                                              rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window 
                                              and did what was needed.

Berryman shows the hallmark of trauma here, an inability escape the event. Even as he offers his father forgiveness in the lines that follow, Berryman’s life is so warped by the tragedy in Florida that his poems must spend a portion of their time wrapped up in the event and its meaning to his life.

This is not an admonishment of Berryman– far from it. Obviously suicide is one of life’s most traumatic events and the death of one’s parent by their own hand even worse to the child affected by it. Berryman is not complaining or attempting to take advantage of this traumatic event by any means. He is merely attempting to deal with through the artifice which he, by the 1960s, had placed himself within.

Berryman’s work up to Dream Songs generally did not deal with his father’s suicide or, for that matter, personal events. Coming from the New Critical mold, Berryman generally avoided personal discussion and, even when he was later lumped in with the “confessional” poets around him, was disgusted by it. It is, however, safe to assume that Berryman was dealing with his own trauma in the work he did in the last decade of his life before his own suicide.

It is hard to say if Berryman’s central trauma led him to write poetry but it is difficult not to see a connection. Between poetry and his vices, it seems Berryman was somewhere between burying his traumas and attempting to justify them, again, not outside the realm of normal response. Berryman’s road to poetry seems to have been fairly normal, having read the works of Yeats as a teen and then coming to the writing of poetry in college under Mark Van Doren at Columbia. Perhaps the arts really do attract with the greatest inner turmoil.

Poetry can be a tool for those dealing with trauma in the aftermath of tragedy but it also attracts those traumatized by what it can reveal without revealing directly the nature of tragedy. In abstraction one can mask, cut and cover, trauma because it is abstraction which allows for one to maintain a barrier between themselves and event. Poetry, through its use of our most basic system of communication gives us the ability to deal the events which are most agitating to our psyches.

Again, this is not exclusive to poetry. Indeed, people use painting quite often or music to deal with trauma but expression through poetry is perhaps the more common trope.

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