A bit of advice for the Bush White House: Don’t pick fights with professional wordsmiths.
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 poetic impulse.”
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.