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On September 11th

Six years later, and the piece of writing that best asserts itself in the still-roiling wake of the Trade Center tragedies was composed almost sixty years earlier, not long after Hitler’s tanks started rolling freely over Eastern Europe.

The poem that I continue to find most apt is Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” I’m not alone–many turned to it immediately after the disaster. Even composed over an entirely different set of generating events, the poem is a remarkably prescient take on the force of collective and individual griefs, and on the emotional spectrum possible in a world capable of harboring intolerable acts.

Eric McHenry wrote an excellent piece for Slate about the poem. About suffering, he notes:

“Tragedy sends people to poetry. “Suffering is exact,” Philip Larkin wrote, but the vocabulary of consolation is loaded with abstraction and clich??, as anyone who has tried to write a sympathy note in the past week knows. Naturally, there’s a certain comfort in pillowy, familiar phrases–”This too shall pass,” “Our hearts are with you”–but living through a day like Sept. 11, and listening to all the subsequent cant from public figures and TV personalities, can leave people craving language that’s as precise as their pain.”

Enter Auden, and his precision. In seeking comfort, the poem-as-salve yields. But it is astonishing to consider how Auden’s nervy tone–which must have fit the circumstances of the poem’s creation and his times–also hews to the heart of our 21st century experience.

The famous line (and in Auden’s own opinion, the poem’s crutch) “we must love one another or die” has invited criticism for it’s ostentatious sentimentality; it is also a provocative declarative in a time of grief. Auden revised the line later to say “we must love one another and die”–an entirely different meaning–before giving up on the poem for many years. Eventually the poem, with the original line, found favor with Auden again.

The power of that confident, declarative voice in the poem (the one that even Auden himself was skeptical of) continues to persuade me on this day, continues to act like a buoy by which we might strike a course. I think part of that effect also comes from a sense of responsibility taken in the final stanza:

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

of Eros and of dust

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

I take the “affirming flame” as more than putting a plastic American flag in the window of my car–I take it as an effort to repair. I take it as a step past the guilt of existing in the same moment as a travesty of a terrible scale. It is an act even as “defenseless under the night / our world in stupor lies.” Even as we continually shuffle along “beleaguered by the same / negation.” It is a suggestion that we continue to be capable of more than grief.

About the Program

The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

KR Associates attend regular seminars conducted by Kenyon Review editorial staff, visiting readers, and publishing industry professionals. These seminars cover a wide range of topics including editorial philosophy, evaluation of submissions, print and electronic production, marketing, and design.

KR Associates enjoy also enjoy exclusive access to visiting writers and speakers, free issues of The Kenyon Review, and valuable work experience and employment references.

This program is made possible through an initiative of the Kenyon Review, part of the mission of which is to contribute to the enrichment of the academic, cultural, and artistic life of the Kenyon College community.

Requirements and Expectations

  • Submission Evaluation: All Associates are required to read and evaluate eight Kenyon Review submissions per week. Associates who are not able to complete their weekly submission assignments for more than two weeks in a row may not be allowed to continue in the program.
  • Trainings and Seminars: In-person attendance is mandatory at all trainings and seminars. We plan on scheduling six to eight seminars per semester, and most will take place on Thursdays during common hour.
  • Literary Engagement: Associates are expected to participate in literary events on campus and throughout the local community.

Application Details

The application deadline for the 2023-24 program has passed. Applications for the 2024-25 program will open in the fall of 2024. Please check back then for more details.

Questions? Please contact Tory Weber for more information.