How to write a poem after September 11th
First: Don’t use the word souls. Don’t use the word fire.
You can use the word tragic if you end it with a k.
The rules have changed. The word building may precede
The word fall, but only in the context of the buildings falling
Before the fall, the season we didn’t have in Manhattan
Because the weather refused, the air refused…
Don’t say the air smelled like smoldering desks and drywall,
Ground gypsum, and something terribly organic,
Don’t make a metaphor about the smell, because it wasn’t
A smell at all, but the air washed with working souls,
Piling bricks, one by one, spreading mortar.
Don’t compare the planes to birds. Please.
Don’t call the windows eyes. We know they saw it coming.
We know they didn’t blink. Don’t say they were sentinels.
Say: we hated them then we loved them then they were gone.
Say: we miss them. Say: there’s a gape. Then, say something
About love. It’s always good in a poem to mention love.
Say: If a man walks down stairs, somewhere
Another man is walking up. Say: He sits at his desk
And the other stands. He answers the phone and the other
Ends a call with a kiss. So, on a rainy dusk in some other
City of Commerce and Art, a mayor cuts a ribbon
With giant silver scissors. Are you writing this down?
Make the executives parade through the concourse,
Up the elevators, to the top, where the restaurant,
Open now for the first time, sets out a dinner buffet.
Press hard. Remember you’re writing with ashes.
Say: the phone didn’t work. Say: the bakery was out of cake,
The dogs in the pound howled. Say: the world hadn’t
Asked your permission to change. But you were asleep.
If only you had written more poems. If only you had written
More poems about love, about peace, about how abstractions
Become important outside the poem, outside. Then, then,
You could have squinted into the sky on September 11th
And said: thank you, thank you, nothing was broken today.
From “Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets” (Published 2002)