Influence Of The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks On The Poem “Photograph Of September 11” By Wislawa Szymborska

The poem I have chosen for my seminar is “Photograph of September 11” by Wislawa Szymborska. This poem was published in 2005 in her book “Monologue of a Dog”, a collection of poems written in different times of Szymborska life. I will be analyzing to what extent the terrorist attacks of September 11 have influenced the poem.

The September 11 attacks, also called the 9/11 attacks, was a series of airplane hijackings and attacks committed in 2001 by 19 terrorists who are associated with the Islamic group Al-Qaeda. The attacks directly affected New York and Washington and were the most destructive and deadliest attacks on American soil. According to the Britannica School “the September 11 attacks were precipitated in large part because Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, held naive beliefs about the United States in the run-up to the attacks”.

The hijacked planes were all en route to California, and full of fuel. According to the New York Times, “The first, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 out of Boston for Los Angeles, crashed into the north tower at 8:48 a.m. Eighteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, also headed from Boston to Los Angeles, plowed into the south tower”.

What happened next, according to the New York Times, was Boeing 757, originating from Washington's International Airport, hit the western part of the Pentagon, a military headquarter where 24,000 people work, at 9:40 a.m. Lastly, Boeing 756 flying from New Jersey to San Francisco, crashed near Pittsburgh, “raising the possibility that its hijackers had failed in whatever their mission was.”

Britannica School states that 2,750 people were killed in New York, 184 at the Pentagon, and 45 in Pennsylvania. All 19 terrorists died in the attacks.

The scenes of horror were unforgettable. Outlets such as the New York Times advert to pedestrians who first-hand saw what happened, ''We saw people jumping from the tower as the fire was going on,’ said Steve Baker, 27. ''The sky went black, all this stuff came onto us, we ran''. The New York Times compared Manhattan to “a desert after a terrible sandstorm.” as they describe items left of those who ran away covered with “thick, gray ash, through which weeping people wandered in search of safety, each with a story of pure horror.” According to Britannica School, “hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the attacks firsthand and millions watched the tragedy unfold live on television”.

The largest city in the United States, and the financial capital of the world, was practically shut down on September 11th.

The relation to the September 11 attacks to this poem is obvious. September 11, internationally, will always be a date that brings people back to the terrorist attacks that took place in America in 2001: including Szymborska. This poem describes a small aspect of the attacks. If we look at the poem, we could see that Szymborska begins the poem describing people, “they”, jumping off of a building with numerous “burning floors”. From these opening lines, it is made clear that this poem is describing the image of office workers who leapt out of the World Trade Center to their death instead of facing the raging infernos inside the tower. In this poem, Szymborska describes the feelings and thoughts of these office workers.

Szymborska’s focus on this aspect is interesting knowing the greater magnitude of the day. I think this emphasizes the sorrows of the day, even though a small time frame of the day.

If we look at the poem, “There’s enough time for hair to come loose, for keys and coins to fall from pockets”. Szymborska’s choice of these items (“hair”, “keys”, and “coins”) is related because they are all personal possessions of value. The loss of these items suggests that the jumpers are being stripped of their personal possessions. This could be a metaphor comparing the loss of personal possessions to the jumper’s hopelessness. Stripped of their possessions, they feel exposed, and powerless to prevent the inferno that has taken over the Tower.

This image was a profound sight when people turned on their televisions on September 11th. A feeling of despair and hopelessness was relayed through the images of the jumpers which is similarly demonstrated through the tone of this poem. If we look at the end of the poem, Szymborska says that she can only do two things for the jumpers: describe the flight (as she has done in the poem), and not add a last line. By not adding a last line, Szymborska sends off the message that she feels sympathetic for the jumpers: Nothing she could write could change the outcome of the situation, so she doesn't.

The idea of time in this poem is intriguing. In reality, the elapsed time for the office workers to jump out of the building is a very short amount of time. If we look at the poem, we can notice the word “halted” which elongates that short amount of time. Though it may have been a short amount of time, Szymborska suggests that this time must have felt much longer for the jumpers. If we look at the poem, “There’s enough time for... keys and coins to fall from pockets.” of the jumpers despite the raging inferno taking over.

All in all, I think Szymborska clearly depicts the sorrows of September 11, 2001 in this 19 line poem as she describes the image of people jumping out of the WTC. 

09 March 2021
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