Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Day that Poetry Mattered

For those of us who were introduced to the literary life during those scary years of the Cold War, on the cusp of the counter culture with its anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movements, and all those other progressive movements which now define the national dialogue, we have been witness not to a New Morning in America but to an American nightmare. Its darkest time was in those days and weeks and months that followed the events of September 11th. Not only was the Iraq War the wrong war fought for essentially no reason, since nothing was found, but also because of the Bush's Administration's assault on our Constitutional protections. Lies had fed the crest of mass hysteria headlong into one big bad bill to pay and a pack of angry nations.

While that hysteria was being whipped to a froth, cooler heads prevailed among poets and others who lived the literary life. Is it any wonder? Even though we may lead the literary life, that doesn’t mean we don’t see through all their crap. And we don’t like being co-opted either, which is what Laura Bush, the First Lady, attempted to do on the eve of the Iraq War. Let me refresh some memories.

For February 2003, Mrs. Bush attempted to convene a White House symposium of poets and literati on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Invitations went out and in return poets everywhere responded with anti-war poems. Her symposium was canceled. This is not the end of the story.

On February 17, 2003, during a blizzard, at the Lincoln Center in New York City, two thousand people convened for a reading. The event was billed as “Poems Not Fit For the White House” and its warning was of the consequences of the Bush Administration’s headlong rush to war. You’d be surprised who showed up.

Among those poets not particularly known to involve themselves or their work with a lot of political or even social issues were Sam Hamill, Sharon Olds, and a 97-year old Stanley Kunitz, who delivered one of the more moving poems presented during the event. Some poets couldn’t make the event because of the snowstorm and had others read for them. For example, Ellen McLaughlin read for Robert Pinsky, Kathleen Chalfant read for C.K. Williams, the actor Eli Wallach read for Robert Creeley, Wallace Shawn read for Mark Strand, and André Gregory read for W. S. Merwin. Arthur Miller, whose 1953 play The Crucible was an allegory of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt of suspected subversives throughout the early 1950s, was a participant. Anne Waldman, in keeping with the theme originally proposed by Laura Bush, read poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, as well as her own poem “War Crime.”

The writing of poetry is not an “either/or” proposition. Just because a poet may also be an activist, or maybe only a proponent of a cause, does not make that poet incapable of writing poetry that is closer to writing poetry merely for the sake of poetry. Laura Bush evidently took it for granted that poets were either, at best, apolitical or, at least, without a conscience. She may have been surprised that such great crafters of poetry like W. S. Merwin and Stanley Kunitz also thought about issues crucial to the welfare of our national community.

Personally, I’ve been accused of using literature as propaganda. At times, I’ve thought this accusation to be unfair, because I had only felt the need to expose something important going on in the environment around us that needed exposing. I’ve always been upset when a good poet disassociated him or herself from a project with which I was involved because we weren’t restricting our endeavors to writing or promoting poetry only for poetry’s sake. A good poet can write both kinds of poetry within this kind of imposed dichotomy. And a good poet should never be afraid to let his or her conscience show, especially when it could benefit the welfare of all those we care about during times of crisis. Poetry does not only matter to the individual poet and his or her devotees. The real value of poetry is that it should matter to us all.


  1. I still have a copy, posted on my office door, of a letter Sharon Olds wrote to Laura Bush, in which she declined an invitation to speak at the National Book Festival, to dinner at the Library of Congress and to breakfast at the White House.

    After politely refusing the invitation, Olds proceeds to explain why it was appealing: i.e., the opportunity to speak to a large group of people, to reach new listeners, to participate in a community of readers and writers, etc. She describes how she considered trying, "to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq ..."

    She then explains how she could not face, "the idea of breaking bread with you ... as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, high-handed actions of the Bush Administration."

    She concludes, "So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."

    As I pondered this letter, I wondered what I might have chosen to do in the (highly unlikely) event I had been offered such an invitation. It was a time when tempers bolied over and those who spoke out against the war and George W. Bush were vilified and tarred as traitors by some in the media. One recalls the rabid reactions to anti-war statements made by performers like Linda Ronstadt and members of the Dixie Chicks. Their words were twisted and their characters defiled by the likes of Limbaugh and others of that ilk.

    I still do not know whether it is better in that circumstance to attend the event and try and take advantage of access to the ear of a president's wife, or to decline and make the refusal public, as did Ms. Olds. Given that many key power players in the Bush Administration would accept no criticism and rejected dissent as if it were sedition, the latter choice may have been the only sensible one.

    In either case, it was essential that those poets and writers who declined to participate hold their own forum to express their views and shed light on why they chose their course. If what is left of the freedoms we hold dear is to be salvaged, all of us - and most of all those of us who love and regularly celebrate language - owe it to our country, our loved ones and ourselves to make our voices heard.

    -David P. Kozinski