By John Nichols, The Nation
February 4, 2003
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.
Dickinson may not have been a radical, but neither was she enthusiastic about militarism. Benjamin Lasee, a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Northeastern Illinois University, has written of how Dickinson counted the cost of war: “In one poem (‘It feels a shame to be Alive’), she provides a startling image of corpses stacked up like dollars and closes by asking why ‘such Enormous Pearl’ as life should be dissolved ‘In Battle’s horrid Bowl.'”
Hughes (who would have turned 101 on Saturday, Feb. 1) was a proud leftist whose poetry condemned US government hypocrisy at home and abroad. Reflecting on racism in the United States, Hughes wrote, “I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes…” and argued: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.” And could there be a more damning reflection of the Bush’s Administration’s use of post-September 11 sentiment to pass the Patriot Act than Hughes’ line: “O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath”?
Whitman, of course, would have been the most problematic poet for the Bushes. Openly gay and radical, he was no friend to politicians, complaining that offices such as the presidency were “bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes.”
And one can only imagine the reaction of this Administration’s conservative thought police to Whitman’s great mandate: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…”
Hamill, who plans to post the antiwar poems at PoetsAgainstTheWar.org, made a very good point when he said, “I saw profound irony in their choice of poets. These people wouldn’t let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White House – the good gay gray poet! I don’t believe anybody there has ever read Whitman.”