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Poetic Protests Against War, Censorship
John Nichols, The NationViewed on March 22,
February 4, 2003
A bit of advice for the Bush White House: Don't pick fights with
First Lady Laura Bush's decision to cancel a White House symposium on
the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes because
she feared antiwar sentiments might be expressed has provoked a pummeling
of the Administration by poets who would have been part of the February 12
"Poetry and the American Voice" session.
"The abrupt cancellation of the symposium by the White House confirms
my suspicion that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when
it refuses to remain in the ivory tower, and that this White House does
not wish to open its doors to an 'American Voice' that does not echo the
Administration's misguided policies," declared Rita Dove, the nation's
poet laureate from 1993 to 1995.
"I had no doubt in my mind that I couldn't go, if only because of the
hideous use of language that emanates from this White House: The lying,
the Orwellian euphemisms..." added Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip
Levine, who said that he was sorry the First Lady cancelled the symposium
before he could refuse his invite.
Stanley Kunitz, the 2001 and 2002 poet laureate, observed that, "I
think there was a general feeling that the current Administration is not
really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking
Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the
The poet who got off the best line may have been Sam Hamill, who noted
that his name was on the invitation list despite his own history of
antiwar activism. "I'm sure the person who put my name on the list is
looking for a job," joked Hamill, whose request that writer friends send
him antiwar poems for the symposium might have inspired the
Administration's decision to cancel the event with a tart statement from
Mrs. Bush's office that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary
event into a political forum." (Hamill's call has, so far, drawn more than
2,000 responses, including those of W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who sent along a copy of, "Coda," a poem featuring
the line: "And America turns the attack on the World Trade Center-Into the
beginning of the Third World War.")
Actually, Mrs. Bush would have been lucky if her symposium had featured
only contemporary criticism of US imperialism and conservative policies. A
far greater danger for the Administration was the prospect that those
attending the conference would have used the words of Dickinson, Hughes
and Whitman against them.
Dickinson may not have been a radical, but neither was she enthusiastic
about militarism. Benjamin Lasee, a distinguished professor emeritus of
English at Northeastern Illinois University, has written of how Dickinson
counted the cost of war: "In one poem ('It feels a shame to be Alive'),
she provides a startling image of corpses stacked up like dollars and
closes by asking why 'such Enormous Pearl' as life should be dissolved 'In
Battle's horrid Bowl.'"
Hughes (who would have turned 101 on Saturday, Feb. 1) was a proud
leftist whose poetry condemned US government hypocrisy at home and abroad.
Reflecting on racism in the United States, Hughes wrote, "I am the darker
brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes..." and
argued: "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that
great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above." And could there be a more damning
reflection of the Bush's Administration's use of post-September 11
sentiment to pass the Patriot Act than Hughes' line: "O, let my land be a
land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath"?
Whitman, of course, would have been the most problematic poet for the
Bushes. Openly gay and radical, he was no friend to politicians,
complaining that offices such as the presidency were "bought, sold,
electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes."
And one can only imagine the reaction of this Administration's
conservative thought police to Whitman's great mandate: "This is what you
shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give
alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your
income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have
patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing
known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful
uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a
great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the
silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and
in every motion and joint of your body..."
Hamill, who plans to post the antiwar poems at PoetsAgainstTheWar.org, made
a very good point when he said, "I saw profound irony in their choice of
poets. These people wouldn't let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White
House -- the good gay gray poet! I don't believe anybody there has ever
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