Bearing Witness to Suffering Throughout the World

"Given the nature of Whitman's, Dickinson's, and Hughes's own lives and words, I can't help but believe that they would find in the unfolding of the current events a most fitting tribute to their lasting effect on American poetry and American culture. Robert Lowell once said, visiting the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, 'Art does not make peace; art is peace.' I have always found it so--in the very bone structure of good poetry is the recognition of our interconnection with all being. But let art also make peace, when and how it can." -- Jane Hirshfield, poet and author of NINE GATES: ENTERING THE MIND OF POETRY (Perenial 1998)

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Feature

From the Archives: The Politics of Poetry

Poets Stand Up in Protest Across the Nation
Just a few weeks ago, the question was, “Where have all the protest songs gone? Why aren’t the artists and poets of America speaking out against war?”

Now, suddenly, it has happened, and a plea for peace is being heard around the world. Agitator Michael Moore has won the British Book Award; Beatnik poet Sam Hamill has the White House cowering; every bookseller and author in the State of Vermont has become a modern-day Minute Man, carrying a book instead of a musket. And, after a glut of boy-band cultural softness and literary self-importance, authors and poets have again become the conscience for our culture and are back in the streets and up on the soapbox.

It may be that every good protest needs a rallying-crier; a folk-singer, a rabble-rouser. The world certainly came together in protest on the weekend of Feb 15-16, with some 600 peace rallies held around the globe, attended by an estimated eight million people. That Saturday saw massive marches in New York, Rome, London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney and many other cities worldwide.

The uprising of poets occurred when the White House cancelled a Feb. 12 event organized by First Lady (and former librarian) Laura Bush, who has made literacy her signature issue. "Poetry and the American Voice, featuring the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman," was to be part of a series of symposiums to salute America's authors, but it had to be "indefinitely postponed" because of fears it would become a protest against the war in Iraq. A White House spokesman said that although George Bush's wife "respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions," she felt it "would be inappropriate to turn the literary event into a political forum."

In reaction, a wave of poetic activism swept through the poetry community, as a "Day of Poetry Against the War" began at 1 p.m. on February 12, the same time the White House event would have taken place. Writers across the U.S. held rallies and read poems of opposition to the war on campuses, at libraries, and in coffee shops. See a list of the “Read-ins” held around the country at www.UnitedPoets.org.

The movement was spearheaded by Copper Canyon Press publisher Sam Hamill, who was among the first to respond negatively to Mrs. Bush's invitation. "When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked The White House, I felt no joy," says Hamill, in an open letter posted at the website he created, www.poetsagainstthewar.org. "Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea as I read the card enclosed..." Hamill reacted by sending an email to 50 friends and colleagues asking them for antiwar poems to send to Mrs. Bush. In four days he'd received 1,500 responses; as of Feb 15 the number had risen to 9,000.

A group of Vermont poets held their own gathering in Manchester Village, Vermont on Feb. 15, calling it “A Poetry Reading in Honor of the Right of Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition.” Some of the original White House invitees were on hand, and an overflow crowd of 700 people gathered at the First Congregational Church. The event was organized by the Northshire Bookstore of Manchester, and crews from 60 Minutes II, the BBC and LA Times were on location.

"For poets to remain silent at a time of national crisis is unconscionable," said event organizer Jay Palini. "Poets from the time of ancient Athens have raised voices in protest." Other participating poets included Jamaica Kincaid, David Budbill, Julia Alvarez, Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell, National Book Award winner Ruth Stone, and Vermont poet laureate Grace Paley.

Ms. Paley said she was encouraged by the large turnouts at protests around the world over the weekend. "What happened in the last few days has really been so encouraging, so hope-making," she told the audience. "And I really feel that the rise of the poets had a lot to do with it happening everywhere in the world." Mr. Kinnell, who had been invited to the White House event but declined, read his own work and from the work of Walt Whitman. Kinnell said Whitman's bitterness was not because he was a bitter person or because he was anti-American or unpatriotic. "It was because he loved America so much that he was continually disappointed." One of Whitman's classic statements of protest was, "Resist much, obey little." A book of poems recited at the event will likely be collected and published by George Braziller, who was in attendance.

Ruth Stone read a poem called "Lesson," about one of her former students at the University of Wisconsin who was jailed after protesting against the Vietnam War. Ms. Stone is published by Copper Canyon Press, and her In the Next Galaxy won the 2002 National Book Award for Poetry. William O'Daly received a standing ovation after reading a piece he penned for the PoetsAgainstTheWar website entitled "To the Forty-third President of the United States of America." It begins, "today, our solemn duty is to defy your willful aggression,/to parse provocative words and habits, your heroic battle/to distract us" and contains the line, "What 'urge and rage'/thrives in the American heart, that so many cheer/this obsessive, unilateral madness?"

On Feb 17, playwright Arthur Miller, rapper Mos Def and former U.S. poets laureates Rita Dove and Stanley Kunitz were among the artists and performers appearing at "Poems Not Fit for the White House," an antiwar gathering held at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. Miller received the most enthusiastic response for asking, “Why can’t this wait for a month, six months, or years, or long enough for Saddam Hussein to just die?”

Even our current U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, has publicly declared his opposition to war, as have at least three former laureates. Collins isn't known for his political activism, but he defended fellow poets who caused the White House postponement. "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," he told The Associated Press.

This poetry of protest symbolizes the role of the arts in politics, and reminds us of the traditions and important task writers and publishers have in gathering information, getting the word out, and inspiring public debate.

The Poetry websites:

www.poetsagainstthewar.org - Poets Against the War

www.iqpoetry.com/index.php - Poets for Peace

www.nthposition.com/poetrymain.html - 100 Poets Against the War

Informational websites:

www.arras.net/circulars - Poets, Artists and Critics Respond to U.S. Global Policy

One of the nation’s largest and most engaged bookstores, Powells Books of Portland, OR, has compiled, “To help you sort out your own answers on the war in Iraq,” the following list of books representing various points of view. www.powells.com/features/wariniraq.html

Meanwhile, Across the Pond…

The 14th British Book Awards, presented in London on Feb 24th, were a tribute to independent publishing and to world peace. Speaking out for free speech and a free world was surprise Book of the Year winner Michael Moore, who told the audience how HarperCollins U.S. had postponed and nearly canceled the release of Stupid White Men in the wake of September 11, whereas Penguin U.K. had shown no such reluctance. Harper’s political wimpiness caused a furor among librarians and other activists in the U.S., and it finally went to print and became a bestseller around the world.

Awarding a “Nibby” award to the satirical book that calls for the ouster of George W. Bush and his policies was a political message in itself, and comments by Moore and other presenters kept the peace rally going throughout the evening. Also speaking out against the war were former parliamentarian Tony Benn and environmentalist Patrick Moore. Jamie Byng, founder of Canongate, Britain’s hottest and most independent publisher, accepted the award as Publisher of the Year, and also supported the previous anti-war comments.

"It looks like a very strong anti-war vote both from insiders in the book business and the public," said Awards organizer Merric Davidson, referring to the fact that Moore's win was influenced by a strong telephone vote from the public, who were invited to participate in the awards for the first time this year. Previously, only those in the publishing industry were able to vote.

Where will it go from here?

For the protest songwriters and poets of this country, 9/11 was the wake up call. Now, with “security measures” like the Patriot Act and Total Information Awareness bearing down on us, and the White House itching for a military confrontation in Iraq, maybe enough is enough. The poetic response to the Sept. 11 attacks was one of grief. Now, many of this nation's poets, writers, and musicians have been incited to protest -- just as they have always done.

* * * * * *

Poets Against the War have announced an International Day of Poetry Against the War on Wednesday, March 5th. Poets around the world will schedule readings and/or discussions of poetry and protest for that day. At noon on March 5th on Capitol Hill, three of America’s preeminent living poets (representing an extraordinary cross section of distinguished poets) will present approximately 15,000 anti-war poems – the poems and statements of the 12,000 poets that have contributed to the PATW website -- to members of Congress. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) will host the event with other members of the Progressive Caucus including Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA).

The poems will be presented by Pulitzer prize winner and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer prize winner Jorie Graham, author and poet Terry Tempest Williams and founding editor of Copper Canyon Press Sam Hamill.


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