A Poet For The Mosque

Let them build it. Is this what the rationalists want us to say? Let them build it. These four words counter the one, more emotional one—never—echoing across anger from the other side. Whether eloquent or irrational (or both), as the case may be, all of these words have lost meaning in the media wail. Is there one voice that speaks to both sides, one leader we can all turn to for sanity? What about turning to a poet who wrote this:  We must love one another, or die. That’s the first line of W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939.”* Auden is eloquent on the topics of love and war, and on the Christological as well as commonsensical relevance of what we could call love for love’s sake. Read him now, and ask: is there poetry in the argument for this mosque? Would it matter if there were?

Where is the voice that convinces us that there is an urgent humanity in building a mosque near Ground Zero, as well as an equally urgent validity in the horror of those who oppose it? One would think we could turn to our Commander in Chief. Who is more perfectly positioned to state the cases? Yet for once, he has elected silence. For once, has no choice.

When our President says (as he did one day following comments critics claimed supported the mosque), “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he is respecting Americans’ hearts as well as our minds. Washington, meet Alice in Wonderland. Obama is saying what only he can say, and in doing so he is saying only what he can say. He is not saying what we want to hear because he cannot risk saying what we don’t want to hear. Don’t hate him for this.

We want what we feel affirmed. We want what we believe affirmed. And yet the risks of affirmation in this case are clear: no one wins. The law says, build it, and so the lawmakers affirm.

Auden’s poem continues:

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Yet if this is a poem about evil, it is also about love. We must love one another, or die. Auden attempted to have that line removed from the text, but later editors put it back. It is the line that matters most. The essential interdependence of our lives—and nations—trumps feeling, and law. What we all want more than a mosque or the absence of a mosque is a voice: an expression of remorse from those aligned with those who committed this crime. We will call it this crime, because it remains. (The war is our red reminder.) Auden may not be the poet for the mosque but we will hope one does emerge. Le Monde’s memorable, ironic, front-page opinion piece from September 12th, 2001, could run today regarding this issue:NOUS SOMMES TOUS AMÉRICAINS.

* A speech I gave at Harvard on Auden's poem is here. Another essay on Auden is here.


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