It’s the second session of Marguerite Rivas’s English 201 class, a few days before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, and students are analyzing William H. Auden’s famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” about the invasion of Poland that led to World War II.
Using a new skill—looking up references—they learn that Auden’s “Collective Man” is not, in fact, a Marvel comic book hero, and the “Luther” he refers to is actually Martin Luther, the German philosopher, not Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader.
These discoveries and others, unlock the poem’s meaning, and Auden’s well known line, “We must love one another or die,” triggers a spirited discussion.
“We don’t have to love each other, but we have to respect people,” says one student. “You never know when you’re going to need each other.”
Next, the class reads “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” by contemporary New York City poet Martin Espada.
“He looked around after 9/11, and thought to himself, ‘Who is it you don’t generally hear about?’,” Professor Rivas told the class.
The poem is dedicated to the 43 kitchen workers employed at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the World Trade Center’s north tower, and who perished when it fell.
Many students in the room are of Hispanic descent, and had heard the expression alabanza, which means “to praise,” called out in church.
“The cook. He had a Pirate’s cap. The guy wit...