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Suffering and the Arts: Making Sense of the Senseless

On Friday, December 14th at 9:30 in the morning, a man armed with hundreds of deadly ammunition rounds forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and gunned down 26 innocent people, including 20 children between the ages of five and ten, for no apparent reason. To know what to do or how to respond in the wake of such a horrific massacre was paralyzing.

“A common feeling is one of helplessness,” wrote New York Times reporter John Rockwell two weeks after one of the most monumental national tragedies of the 21st century: 9/11. “What we love and what they do seems so marginal to the crisis. To create or perform or enjoy cheerful Broadway shows and peppy contemporary novels and lines drawn on paper and movies big or small and even the soul-stirring depths of music seems irrelevant, even offensive.”1

This struggle is one that resonates with all of us who have the privilege of receiving a liberal arts education, but is especially hard-hitting for those of us who give our lives to the “impractical” majors of art, music, or creative writing. As a writer, I don’t just struggle with the practicality of whether I can get a job with my major, but with how my major matters to the world. For when I hear the story of 20 innocent children purposelessly riddled with bullets at point blank, I wonder, how does my writing of a poem or telling of a story help? In the face of real tragedy, need, and injustice like 9/11, why does creative writing matter?

Maybe these questions aren’t the right ones to ask, because, if I’m honest, creative writing and the arts in general will never be able to offer the practical help that other professions can. Yet that doesn’t mean that the arts are worthless.

“We are all too aware that art itself is “irrelevant”,” wrote Lucy Lippard in Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change, “and that compared to the world of slums, wars, and prisons, the art world is a bed of roses. At the same time a world without art would be a hopeless world indeed”2.

Creative writing may not be a channel of practical help, but it can serve as an illumination of hope and as an affirmation of our shared humanity. It is an instinctive human impulse, a need to express and share with one another. It may not be practical, it may not even be rational, but neither are tragedy or grief. Staring into the face of senseless suffering, perhaps the only fitting, the only possible, response, is to expose and respond to its senselessness; to not shirk from reality in all its unbelievable terror and yet search for and imagine possibilities of hope in the midst of that reality. In the aftermath of 9/11, poems emerged everywhere. “People in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand,” Philip Metres remembers. “By February, 2002, over 25,000 poems written in response to 9/11 had been published on alone. Three years later, the number of poems there had more than doubled”.3 You may ask: why? Why do people feel the need to write and to read poems, and to share them with others? Why do they matter? Perhaps the answer is beyond us. Or perhaps, as Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, "Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction." Whether we can rationalize or not, we need writing; we need the arts. Writing may not be practical, but it is life-giving and life-sustaining. It is the illumination of the imagination, and that imagination can give light to the hope that we so desperately need.

1Rockwell, John. "Peering Into the Abyss of the Future." The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2001. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

2Lippard, Lucy R. Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984. Print.

3Metres, Philip. "Beyond Grief and Grievance: The poetry of 9/11 and its aftermath." Huff Post Books. The Huffington Post. 9 Nov. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.

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