Today I happened to remember I’d written a poem in the voice of a hero from a previous school shooting. Romanian holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, blocked the doorway to keep the gunman from entering while his students got out through the windows, “into the garden.”
Let’s get real, you say. What good can poetry possibly do, faced with these kinds of horrific acts? I’d reply that anything that helps to deemphasize and demythologize the role of the killer can’t hurt. I tend to think that the mass media’s focus on the killers not only ensures that they will be remembered, but also encourages other violent, antisocial types to emulate them knowing they’ll get the same kind of notoriety. And notoriety might sometimes be just what such troubled young men are after. I love old-time murder ballads as much as anyone, but I think it’s time to put those behind us and stop feeding a gun culture that romanticizes lone killers and vigilantes.
I don’t believe that news reports should be censored, so how to combat the sensationalism? By elevating and memorializing those like Librescu who resisted, and who led truly exemplary lives besides. I hope it’s only a matter of time before we start hearing songs and poems about Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung and the other heroes of the massacre.
More than poems of mourning — which are also necessary, and which we poets are always Johnny-on-the-spot with after every major cataclysm — we need poems of celebration and defiance. We can’t allow the killers to dominate our memories of these events, just as we can’t allow the gun fetishists to continue to hijack public discussion of the role of violence in our culture and how to change it. If we do, to coin a phrase: the terrorists will have won.