There’s a set of English town names that sound more like settings for P.G. Wodehouse comedies or Agatha Christie mysteries than real places¯Bishop’s Waltham, for instance, a little place in Hampshire where Ivy Smith was baptized this month. I mention this only because she was 101 years old at the time, apparently a regular churchgoer who somehow never got around to baptism before now. "Procrastination is the thief of time," as the very English Mr. Micawber once proclaimed. "Collar him!"
Can poetry matter? The problem with most poetry these days is low ambitions. Oh, I know, Shelley once explained that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but what many of them want is to be the world’s acknowledged legislators. And so a huge amount of political verse is poured out these days to try to change the world. But it still has low ambitions, as poetry, never seeking to use poetry as the fundamental art by which we try to understand the human condition in general and our own times in particular.
So maybe it’s worth mentioning that the poet and translator Charles Martin has just published in the Hudson Review what seems, on first reading, the poem of the year¯and it has, precisely, such high ambitions. Called "After 9/11," the poem can be read online at the Hudson Review .
We lived in an apartment on the ridge
Running along Manhattan’s northwest side,
On a street between the Cloisters and the Bridge,
On a hill George Washington once fortified
Terza rima is always hard¯I mean, this is a romance-language verse form, designed for a language like Italian where every third word rhymes, and in a rhyme-poor language like English, it is always a virtuoso feat. Still, even done well, it usually sounds a little forced and artificial. So listen to the smoothness of the narrative Martin achieves:In an urban park: old men lost in thought
Advance their pawns against opponents’ kings
Or gossip beneath a sycamore’s high branches
All afternoon until the sunset brings
The teenagers to occupy their benches.
The park makes little of its history,
With only traces of the walls or trenches
Disputed, died by, and surrendered; we
Tread on the outline of a parapet
Pressed into asphalt unassertively,
And on a wall descending to the street,
Observe a seriously faded plaque
Acknowledging a still unsettled debt.
What strength of memory can summon back
That ghostly army of fifteen-year-olds
And their grandfathers?
. . . without warning,
Twin towers that rose up a quarter mile
Into a cloudless sky were, early one morning,
Wreathed in the smoke from interrupted flight,
When they and what burst into them were burning
Together, like a secret brought to light,
Like something we’d imagined but not known,
The intersection of such speed, such height¯
We went up on our roof and saw first one
And then the other silently unmake
Its outline, horrified, as it slid down,
Leaving a smear of ashes in its wake.
All building toward this ending:
. . . Time
Is an old man telling us how, long ago,
As a child in Brooklyn he went out to play,
And prodding the summer earth with his bare toe
Discovered a bone unburied in the clay,
From one of those whose rotting corpses filled
The hulks that settled into Wallabout Bay;
Time is the monument that he saw built
To turn their deaths into a victory,
Its base filled with their bones dredged out of silt;
Time is the silt grain polished by the sea,
The passageway that leads from one to naught;
Time is what argues with us constantly
Against the need to hold them all in thought,
Time is what places them beyond recall,
Against the need of the falling to be caught,
Against the woman who’s begun to fall
And the woman who is watching from below;
Time is the photo peeling from the wall,
The busboy, who came here from Mexico
And stepped off from a window ledge, aflame;
Time is the only outcome we will know,
Against the need of those lost to be claimed
(Their last words caught in our mobile phones)
Against the need of the nameless to be named
In our city built on unacknowledged bones.
This is the kind of ambition that poetry is supposed to have: a keening explanation, a better description of ourselves than we could manage on our own.