Poems help Americans reflect and move forward

Jess Wisloski
The Upshot

It's the first September 11  commemoration that New York City has held at its completed, 16-acre memorial site.

Amid the disorder left on the city by its most recent terror threat -- and the ensuing police response of closed roads, check points, and bag searches -- hundreds of thousands turned to peace and reflection in the ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

Over the years, poems and songs have helped the U.S. grieve, heal and move past the most difficult of times. At Sunday's ceremony, and in past memorial services for September 11, these pieces of deeply meaningful prose took center stage.

Rudy Giuliani, who was in the final months of mayoralty in New York City when the twin towers were struck, read an excerpt from the King James version of the Bible -- Ecclesiastes 3:1 -- also popularized in a song adapted by Pete Seeger in 1962, called "Turn, Turn Turn,":

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

"Turn Again to Life" by poet Mary Lee Hall (1843-1927) was read by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey:

If I should die and leave you here a while,
be not like others sore undone,
who keep long vigil by the silent dust.
For my sake turn again to life and smile,
nerving thy heart and trembling hand
to do something to comfort other hearts than thine.

Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine
and I perchance may therein comfort you.

The poem is often used at funeral services, and was written by a suffragist and one of the first female attorneys in the U.S.

For the 2002 ceremony, the then-Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, read a poem he had written specially for the victims, and the name-reading tradition (which will discontinue after this year's ceremony).

Former New York governor George Pataki read an excerpt from the poem on Sunday.

"The Names" by Billy Collins (b.1941), written in 2002.

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.

Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name --

Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.

A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner --

Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O'Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.

Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.

Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.

In the evening -- weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,

And the names are outlined on the rose clouds --
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)

Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.

Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg read an excerpt from a classic poem by John Donne (1572-1631):

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

And former New Jersey senator, Donald DiFrancesco, who was the state's 51st governor when the planes hit the towers, read the following unattributed poem:

If tears could bring you back to me,
You'd be here by my side,
For God could fill a river full
of all the tears I've cried

If I could have one wish come true
I'd ask of God in prayer
to let me have just one more day
to show how much I care.

If love could reach the heavens shore
I'd quickly come for you,
my heart would build a bridge of love
one wide enough for two

But this I know
the day will come
when we will never part,
until that day we meet again
I'll keep you in my heart

Other touching poems have marked the memorial ceremony over the years.

In 2002, an 11-year-old girl from Brooklyn named Brittany Clark read a poem she wrote for her father, Benjamin Keefe Clark, a food service worker.

She has reappeared at memorial services since, but her first poem was republished by the New York Times:

"This poem makes me feel like my daddy is speaking to me," she had said. It has been circulated widely as a poem by "Anonymous" in e-mails, but Clark's mother says she wrote the poem for her father.

I give you this one thought to keep/
I am with you still, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on the snow.

I am as sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in morning hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not think of me as gone,
I am with you still in each new dawn.

In 2003, a young boy named Peter Negron, whose father Pete had perished in 1 WTC, read a poem by children's author Deborah Chandra, called stars. See the entire poem, and read more about Negron, who appeared this year at the memorial, at Yahoo! News.

Contact Jess Wisloski, NYC editor