So Laura Bush will not, after all, be discussing the works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes with a selected group of American poets at the White House on February 12. The conference, “Poetry and the American Voice,” was abruptly “postponed” after Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press and author of thirteen books of verse, responded to his invitation by putting out an e-mail urging invitees and others to send him poems and statements opposing the invasion of Iraq. When I spoke to him on the phone, Hamill described himself as a lifelong radical (“What on earth were they thinking?” he wondered out loud), and said he had planned to decline his invitation but had hoped to compile an anthology that another invitee would present to the First Lady. Within days almost 2,000 poets had responded to his plea. It was almost like old times, when Robert Lowell refused to attend a poetry symposium at the Johnson White House to protest the Vietnam War.
Why was the conference canceled? Hamill expresses himself rather forcefully (“I was overcome by a kind of nausea,” he wrote of finding the invitation in the mail)–in fact, he sounds a lot like writers of letters to The Nation. But he didn’t urge poets to take off their clothes and pee in the punch bowl, or to stage a reading of the Not In Our Name statement. He merely suggested giving the First Lady some poems. Poets these days are a mannerly crowd, and it’s a safe bet that those who chose to attend would have been polite. Marilyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut, said she planned to wear a silk scarf decorated with peace symbols, in hopes of attracting the First Lady’s eye. So is that it? The White House, so bold to make war, is afraid of poems and scarves?
So much for democracy, free speech, vigorous discussion. In this most insulated and choreographed of administrations, the “American voice”–note the singular–is welcome only when it says what the White House wants to hear. And yet, as so often, censorship backfired. “They did us an extraordinary favor,” Hamill told me. “They revealed that there are many, many poets opposed to the Bush regime. And they demonstrated their fear of the carefully chosen word–their fear of poetry.”
Now Laura Bush, a former librarian, likes to read, and that’s good. As Texas First Lady she helped start the Texas Book Fair, and as First Lady she has held a number of symposia on interesting historical topics–women writers of the West, the Harlem Renaissance and Mark Twain, whom she calls the “first real American writer,” so eat your heart out Bradstreet, Edwards, Franklin, Irving, Douglass, Emerson, Thoreau (especially you, Henry, you civilly disobedient antiwar tree-hugger, you). To her credit, she invited to these gatherings serious writers and scholars–Arnold Rampersad, Justin Kaplan, David Levering Lewis, frontier historian Ursula Smith–who she must have known could not, on the whole, be happy with her husband’s policies. Still, according to press reports, invitees to these events arrived suspicious, went away charmed. That’s how it usually works with the presidency–Bill Clinton beguiled an entire roomful of poets at a 1998 soiree, with only a few refuseniks. Proximity to power, a brush with history, the cachet of exclusivity and, in the case of Laura Bush, a private glimpse of perhaps the biggest contrast-gainer in the history of marriage–say what you like about the irrelevance of poets in today’s world, if they’re willing to forgo all that, antiwar feeling must be positively rampaging across the land.
“There is nothing political about American literature,” Laura Bush has said. But it would be hard to find writers more subversive than the three she chose for her event. Whitman’s epic of radical democracy, Leaves of Grass, was so scandalous it got him fired from his government job; Hughes, a Communist sympathizer hounded by McCarthy, wrote constantly and indelibly about racism, injustice, power; Dickinson might seem the least political, but in some ways she was the most lastingly so–every line she wrote is an attack on complacency and conformity of manners, mores, religion, language, gender, thought. None of these quintessentially American writers would have given two cents for family values (Whitman was gay, as perhaps were Hughes and Dickinson), abstinence education, the death penalty, tax cuts for the rich, Ashcroftian attacks on civil liberties or the other hallmarks of the Bush regime. It’s hard to imagine them cheering the bombing of Baghdad.
There will be readings all over the country on February 12. As of this writing some 3,500 poets (who knew?) have sent poems and statements to www.poetsagainstthewar.org. Here’s mine:
Trying to Write a Poem Against the War
My daughter, who’s as beautiful as the day,
hates politics: Face it, Ma,
they don’t care what you think! All
passion, like Achilles,
she stalks off to her room,
to confide in her purple guitar and await
life’s embassies. She’s right,
of course: bombs will be hurled
at ordinary streets
and leaders look grave for the cameras,
and what good are more poems against war
the real subject of which
so often seems to be the poet’s superior
moral sensitivities? I could
be mailing myself to the moon
or marrying a palm tree,
and yet what can we do
but offer what we have?
and so I spend
this cold gray glittering morning
trying to write a poem against war
that perhaps may please my daughter
who hates politics
and does not care much for poetry, either.