Why, when it comes to poets, do politicians so often blow it?
Case in point:
Laura Bush had hoped to hold a symposium of poets at the White House this past Wednesday to honor Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes.
But when she learned that some of them intended to use the occasion to voice their opposition to a war in Iraq, she canceled the event — giving the anti-war poets a far better platform and more publicity than they ever could have hoped for.
Instead of having a small gathering at the White House on Wednesday, poets by the hundreds held dozens of readings at universities, bookshops and cafes from coast to coast, kicking off a long-term campaign that was to include a major performance Monday at New York City's Lincoln Center.
"[The first lady] misunderstood what probably would have happened and she got a little panicky," said Galway Kinnell, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and is a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets.
"She may have thought the poets would have come in like Weathermen [the radical group that was active in the 1960s]," he said. "That probably wasn't going to happen."
Some might say she misunderstood from the very start, if she thought that poets could be expected to play the role that authorities wanted them to play, but it's a mistake that politicians often make.
New Jersey officials found themselves embarrassed last fall when their poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, read a poem entitled "Somebody Blew Up America" that seemed to say he thought Israel or Jews were behind the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even more disturbing to the state officials was the discovery that they did not have the authority to fire Baraka.
Later in the year, Harvard University rescinded an invitation to the poet Tom Paulin to give a lecture on literature when it was revealed that he had made statements to an Egyptian newspaper that compared Jewish settlers in the West Back to Nazis and said they should be shot.
Poets for Peace
More recently, even the poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, has stated his opposition to going to war in Iraq.
"If political protest is urgent, I don't think it needs to wait for an appropriate scene and setting and should be as disruptive as it wants to be," Collins said in an e-mail to The Associated Press earlier this month.
"I have tried to keep the West Wing and the East Wing of the White House as separate as possible because I support what Mrs. Bush has done for the causes of literacy and reading. But as this country is being pushed into a violent confrontation, I find it increasingly difficult to maintain that separation."
Collins was among the poets and writers who signed a "Statement for Peace" that was issued by the attendees at the 21st Key West Literary Seminar last month. Among the other signees were former U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur, Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, and Pulitzer Prize winners John Ashbery, Charles Simic, James Tate and Alison Lurie.
Thousands of Friends
Kinnell was among the poets who had been invited to the White House. He said he declined the invitation, but did not try to organize a boycott.
The spark for the anti-war readings came from Sam Hammill, the founder of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash., who sent e-mails to about 50 poets asking them to submit anti-war poems that he could read during the White House gathering.
The response was overwhelming.
"It seems everybody I sent it to, sent it out to all of their friends, and they sent it out to all their friends," he said. He soon had thousands of poems, which he was posting on the Web site of a group called Poets Against the War, which also posted a schedule of readings around the country.
One reading, which coincided with the canceled White House event and drew about 150 people to New York University's Fales Library, featured about 20 readers, including E.L. Doctorow, Paul Auster, Sharon Olds and Kinnell — some of the finest American writers and poets.
To drive home the point that the first lady shouldn't have reacted negatively to poets speaking out against war, most of them chose to read Whitman, Dickinson or Hughes — the three poets Mrs. Bush had hoped to honor — because all had written poems of protest.
"No poet worth his salt is harmless," said Auster, the author of 18 books, including The New York Trilogy and Timbuktu.
"Emily Dickinson was a protest poet," said Genine Lentine, a student in the New York University graduate program in creative writing. "I find it interesting that any of these poets should not be seen as protest poets."
‘Dear Old Emily or Walt’
The selections chosen included a Hughes essay that asked, "When the next war comes, I want to know whose war, and why?" and a poem by Whitman that includes the advice "resist much, obey little."
But that they could be remembered as "just dear old Emily or Walt," as Lentine said, says something about the way Americans think of their poets, as opposed to, say, people in Russia, which has a long history of sending its poets to jail, exile, the gulag or worse.
"The great heroes of the Russians, the heroes of human life in Russia under the communist regime, were mostly poets and writers," Kinnell said.
"It's different from culture to culture," Auster said. "In some cultures, writers are listened to and what they say is taken seriously. In America, writers tend to be ignored entirely. If I could explain why, I would understand this culture much better than I do."