Joan Murray is a poet, writer, and playwright. She is the editor of The Pushcart Book of Poetry and the anthologies Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times and Poems to Live By in Troubling Times. A repeat guest on NPR's Morning Edition, she is also a National Poetry Series Winner, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship Winner, a Wesleyan New Poets Series Winner, and Winner of Poetry Society of America's Gordon Barber Award.
Four days after the terror attacks I was traveling on an Amtrak train. Like most Americans, I was gripped by sorrow, fear, and uncertainty about the future. I went to the café car for coffee, and noticed a group of men there—they were wearing shorts and jeans, but they were carrying themselves erect, with a sense of mission. It dawned on me they must be firemen. Yes, they were firemen, they told me when I asked them, and they were going to New York “to dig.” They reminded me of the men and women of my parents’ generation: ordinary people who stepped forward to do very difficult things. I told them, “I hope you find some survivors,” and I went back to my seat and wrote “Survivors—Found.” It shot out of me in ballad rhyme—something I’ve never used before or since.
Because I’d been on NPR’s Morning Edition before, I faxed the poem there, and so, eight days after the attacks, I read “Survivors—Found” on the air, and thousands of people from all over the world contacted NPR for copies. I was invited to read the poem at the official New York State Memorial Observance; at a Fallen Brothers Foundation firefighters fundraiser; and at a stadium unveiling of the 9/11 stamp. Boston-based ABC Affiliate NECN-TV taped me for a 9/11 video using “Survivors—Found” as the voiceover. People seemed to need the poem because it paid tribute to our better natures and gave us something to weigh against the horrors and sorrows of that day.
I was also approached by publishers who invited me to edit an anthology as a response to the attacks. Since I’d published with Beacon Press before, I knew they’d do something respectful (no flaming towers on the cover!), and so I began assembling an anthology from poems in my own home library—the same poems that I’d been turning to myself in those sad, anxious days. I called the book: Poems To Live By in Uncertain Times. And the whole time I was choosing its poems, my Beacon editor and her assistant were moving mountains to obtain permissions and bring the book forward. The designers, copyeditors and publicists were working at record speed too. I don’t think any of us slept for weeks, but we had the book in hand 11/11/01—exactly two months after the attacks.
Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times became a Beacon Bestseller—and it continues to sell well today, probably because it’s not a book of 9/11 poems; rather, it’s a book of timeless poems by noted contemporary poets that can guide us through our own difficult times—whatever times we face that require solace or encouragement. I hadn’t wanted to include “Survivors—Found” in the book, but my editor insisted it be there, and I’m very glad she did. “Survivors—Found” has become an anthem for 9/11—and, ten years later, it still reminds us of what we gained in the midst of all that terrible loss. Coming forward with generosity and courage, we discovered ourselves as a nation.