The Titanic: How Not to Write About Tragedy

When bad things happen, we writers like to write. It doesn’t matter if tragedy struck our own little world or if we just heard about it. Some of us are compelled to comment. A lot of people commented after the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912 — many of them with poetry.

Even good ol’ Thomas Hardy weighed in:

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

“The Convergence of the Twain” is all about fate (as is Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles) and includes a reference to “the Spinner of the Years.” So, that’s one way to go; you can always blame the Fates and their yarn. Of course, the Titanic was named for the Titans, the ill-fated elder gods of Greek mythology.

Other poets went all Hallmark, like this one. (I do have a source, but in the hope that not all of my schlocky poems will be traced back to me, I shall protect this person’s identity.)

Little ones were made orphans
Widows and mothers left forlorn
When those souls sank forever
On that star-lit heavenly morn.

In fact, the New York Times was so deluged with bad Titanic poetry that they printed a helpful warning:

To write about the Titanic, a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one.

One hundred years after the leviathan sank, I stood in Northern Ireland’s answer to that event — Titanic Belfast, which opened in April 2012. It’s the largest Titanic exhibit in the world, but it holds no recovered artifacts. The oceanographer who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic, Dr. Robert Ballard, cooperated with the museum’s creators only if they agreed not to loot the shipwreck. Ballard believes the site is a graveyard that should remain undisturbed.

The day I toured the museum — which prefers to call itself an “experience” — the weather was clear and cool, and the River Lagan outside sparkled. I got the sense that 100 years of work had gone into this moment.

Titanic Belfast is rated a 5-star visitor attraction, with replicas of the ship’s cabins and a life-size lifeboat, extensive representations of the media coverage following the infamous night, and footage of Ballard’s undersea expeditions. There’s even a ride — the Shipyard Ride that travels through a model of the Titanic while it was under construction.

If you go, make a day of it and stop by Titanic’s Dock & Pump-house as well as other attractions in the Titanic Quarter. Between June 8-17, you can also see “Game of Thrones: The Exhibition.” The first three seasons of the HBO series, inspired by the books of George R.R. Martin, were largely filmed in Northern Ireland, including in Titanic Studios’ Paint Hall, where component parts of the Titanic were painted.

“She was all right when she left here.”

That’s the mantra you’ll hear if you go to Titanic Belfast. I’m no expert on the sinking, so I have no opinion on why the ship went down, other than that pesky iceberg, but I like Belfast’s boldness. With Titanic Belfast, the city turned tragedy into tourism. Some people might call it crass commercialism. I call it owning your pain. And if you make a small profit from the sale of Titanic Tea, well, call it restitution. Or poetic justice.

Photo by AngeloAngelo. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome.


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  1. says

    I’m so thankful for poetry. Recent tragedy in the lives of dear friends has left me either speechless or saying all the wrong things. Poetry gives a form to that which seems overwhelming and inexpressible.

  2. says

    Megan – I love the way you write, the way you choose words and make meaning. I love that you protect sentimental poets and applaud commercialism as poetic justice. And I love hearing more about your trip to Ireland. Like all good writers, I loved that you tucked this little tidbit away and pulled it out for the perfect occasion.

    • says

      Oh, Charity, thank you! You made my day.

      To Lyla and Ann and Laura, sometimes we need to write poems that no one will ever see, just to process.

      To everyone, I feel so awful that a tragedy happened the day this posted. I wrote the beginnings of it a year ago and polished it up a month ago. I was out of town yesterday and didn’t even know until last night.

  3. says

    I love that from the NY Times. Though, I must say, I’m not afraid to write poetry with only those qualifications that never makes it past my notebook.

    Thanks for this piece, Megan. Seems it is now doubly apt for today.

  4. says

    So well done. Loved the NYT quote.

    A Titanic exhibit came to Denver a few years back. I was hushed and awed and a little shaky walking through it.

    Owning your pain is a good way to put it.

  5. says

    It amazes me how alone I can feel when tragedy strikes, even if it affects the entire community. Maybe that’s why writers are so compelled to write about it. Sort of like needing to re-hash events with close friends over and over.

    Maybe it’s just me but sometimes my feelings just seem too big.

    Beautiful writing. Thank you for painting the picture in my mind.


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