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This item is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

Poetry and politics are uncomfortable bed-fellows, even at the best of times. It's safest for a poet to reject blandishments from the Mighty. When They use cultural bona fides the used are vexed: use is misuse. A poet appearing to support George W. Bush's assumed plans for Iraq would commit literary suicide. Does it follow that a poet who does not declare in verse against George W. and locally, against Mr Blair, commits literary suicide? After the campaign to enlist writers at the time of the Spanish Civil War, those who did not sign petitions were condemned, then and later: `Edmund Blunden, like Goering, likes tending roses.' Aftermaths are cruel: little matter that anti-fascists inadvertently sided with Stalinists. In that conflict the moral right has remained with the defeated.

The conscience of poets has been on display in the United States. Laura, Mrs George W., organised for 12 February a symposium entitled `The American Voice', centred on Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. Many poets publicly declined her invitation. Stanley Kunitz told the New York Times: `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 centre of the poetic impulse.' One can agree with Kunitz's conclusions while cavilling at his willingness to `speak for', as he puts it, `the poetic community', an arrogation in keeping with a political rather than a poetic impulse, just as Mrs Bush's singular topic, `The American Voice', with its primary emphasis on uncontroversial talismans, is political. Was Kunitz elected? Delegated? The notion of `poetic community' is cozy, and fortunately contradicted by the unclubability of poets, the differences in emphasis that they, in the United States and elsewhere, place on (as I write) still prospective events that may or may not unfold. Protest action in itself implies a belief in the responsive nature of a democratic society, even one with imperial ambitions.

Some poets accepted Laura Bush's invitation, among them Marilyn Nelson, the Poet Laureate of Connecticut. (American Poets Laureate are clearly a mixed blessing, see PNR 148 News and Notes, and PNR 149 Editorial.) Ms Nelson decided she would go: her `presence would promote peace'. Her protest was subtle: `I had commissioned a fabric artist for a silk scarf with peace signs painted on it. I thought just by going there and shaking Mrs Bush's hand and being available for the photo ops, my scarf would make a statement.' In the event the scarf was not worn. After a series of rebuffs, the White House postponed the event.

Mrs Bush's initiative did occasion something valuable, in terms of protest: not a march under banners (though these have certainly occurred, in increasing numbers) but a collection of poems by new and established voices, posted openly on the web ( by Sam Hamill, editor at Copper Canyon Press. He wrote an open letter to a few friends:

When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked `The White House', I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea as I read the card enclosed:

Laura Bush requests the pleasure of your company at a reception and White House Symposium on `Poetry and the American Voice' on Wednesday, February 12, 2003 at one o'clock.

Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on George Bush's proposed `Shock and Awe' attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the fire- bombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians. Nor has Bush ruled out the use of nuclear weapons.

I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organised to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war. Please submit your name and a poem or statement of conscience to the Poets Against the War Web site.

His e-mail travelled. More than 8800 have reached the site as I write. The contribution from Adrienne Rich, whose political conduct has been exemplary for decades, not least in the Clinton years, is particularly direct. The seven-part sequence, `The School Among the Ruins', is subtitled `Beirut.Baghdad.Sarajevo.Bethlehem.Kabul. Not of course here', and dated - as her poems always are, because they have occasions in time - 17 February 2003. Her intention, accomplished tautly, is to bring the effect of war home to America, in both senses. The last section reads:

We sang them to naps told stories made
shadow-animals with our hands

washed human debris off boots and coats
sat learning by heart the names
some were too young to write
some had forgotten how

Marilyn Nelson has now made poetic cause with her fellow poets. `I'm not speaking as a representative of the state, I'm speaking as ... a poet and private individual,' she says. `I know it's an ambivalent situation and I hesitated to contribute to the project, but I felt that I needed to say I wanted peace instead of war.' This she does in her `Unrhymed Peace Sonnet':

Who are the Good Guys now? Who are the bad?
Nobody's wearing Stetsons, black or white.
Each has a history of evil deeds:
one individual, one centuries
of rapine and ideals. It's almost noon.
One leader straps on bombs. The armies mass.
We'll blow that s.o.b. to kingdom come,
everyone thinks; bring on Armageddon!
Yosemite Sam, frustrated and enraged,
jumps up and down, shooting holes in the clouds.
And Africa is dying out, of AIDS.
Why the hell doesn't the moving finger write?
What the hell are you waiting for, my God?
Why don't you tell those bastards not to fight?
For Pete's sake, send an angel! Burn a bush!

Having originally resisted political statement, she manages to cram a dozen issues into fourteen lines. It's a lot less eloquent even than the scarf, in several ways. Does it emanate from `the humanitarian position that is at the centre of the poetic impulse'?

It is important that citizens speak and protest. Is it important for citizens who are poets to commit their protest to verse? As during the Vietnam war, it would appear that again the expression of impassioned sentiment, however coarse and ill-conceived, is tolerated for the sake of the cause. At a time when the common language is being subjected by politicians to intolerable pressures, misuse, distortion, poetry must surely have an added responsibility to be precise and to be responsible in how and what it speaks. The case against war, before that war has begun, is best made by prose analysis and by poems that make related experiences real. Lashings of sentiment are vain: evidence of a poet making sure that, for the record, he or she is on the moral side.

News flash: Billy Collins, the bland American Poet Laureate, opposes the war after all: `he finds it increasingly difficult to keep politics out of his official job as literary advocate,' the Associated Press reported. `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.'

The list of poets who have contributed to Hamill's project is distinguished, and several of the poems included in the electronic chap-book are effective as poetry, and therefore as protest. Among the contributors Hamill has featured are Lawrence Ferlinghetti (a one-time master of protest, no longer at his best), Hayden Carruth, Galway Kinnell, Marilyn Hacker (always a powerful activist among us), Ursula K. Le Guin and Joy Harjo. W. S. Merwin sensibly speaks in prose. Eleanor Wilner takes her epigraph from Edwin Rolfe: `Write as if you lived in an occupied country.' Jane Hirshfield's resonant epigram `The Dead Do Not Want Us Dead' is both precise and moving. In Maxine Kumin's abrupt, unambiguous `Heaven As Anus' an anger defines and clarifies a large satirical space. The line that stays with me most powerfully is a subtitle by Ralph Angel, from his Anxious Latitude: `Afterward, We May Want to Know What Happened'. Our knowledge will depend in part on the the quality of the knowledge, moral and therefore poetic, with which we went into the Before. It is not élitist nor aesthetically naïve to insist that a poet's protest avoid sentiment, that a poet's language be, at times of crisis, precise in focus and meaning. Not to insist is to sell poetry, and its use as a means of resistance, short.

This item is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

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