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Raising Their Voices
Poets speak out against the war with Iraq, by Victor Infante
 More of this Feature
• Part 2, Rush To Action
• Part 3, America Dreaming
• “Incident in a Rose Garden,” a poem by George Wallace
• “Lunch at the Rose Garden,” a poem by nnenko
 Join the Discussion
• Poems in political discourse
“What do you think? Could the First Lady reasonably expect to keep political statements out of a Rose Garden poetry symposium?”
   --Poetry Guide
 Related Articles
• Poems For Peace, our new anthology
• Poets in the News links to other articles on these events
 Elsewhere on the Web
• Poetsagainstthewar.org (US)
• Poets Against the War (UK)
• Poets4Peace.com at the United Poets Coalition
• Australian Poets for Peace Project
• “Not In Our Name, a statement of conscience against war and repression”
• “After the Fall,” Artists for Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties
• “Convergence,” Canadian poems for peace


All Laura Bush wanted was a poetry reading. What she got, evidently, was a firestorm.

On February 12th, Mrs. Bush had planned to hold a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice,” in which she invited several of the country’s most acclaimed poets to visit the White House, read poetry and discuss the works of the country’s three most seminal poets: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes.

The response wasn’t what she expected. Some poets, like former U.S. Poet Laureates Rita Dove and Worcester native Stanley Kunitz, planned simply not to attend, as a means of silently protesting the growing warmongering emanating from Washington vis a vis Iraq. Others, such as Copper Canyon Press founder Sam Hamill, decided to take the opportunity to make a direct political statement against the war.

“I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam,” wrote Hamill in an email forwarded among poets on the Net, which is now posted on the Web site created to publish the anti-war poems he received in response, Poetsagainstthewar.org.

Mrs. Bush responded by shutting down the symposium, her office issuing a statement that “While Mrs. Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.” Which begs the question: is the former librarian turned First Lady at all familiar with the course of American literature, particularly poetry?

“I think in truth that the symposium was originally just plain old PR -- the poetry was supposed to be a nice, cultural prop for the current jingoism. ‘Let’s celebrate America by celebrating her art.’ Never mind the fact that of three poets who were supposed to be discussed (Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes), at least two would likely have told her to go pound sand regarding the war. Makes you wonder if she’d read any of their works,” says Tony Brown, a prominent Worcester poet and the host of a twice-monthly reading in Uxbridge. Brown points out that Whitman wrote scathing critiques of the Civil War’s brutality, and that Hughes wrote blisteringly of what it was like to be black and gay in America in the first part of the 20th century. (For her part, Dickinson was more or less apolitical in her writing, although you can read most of her poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which is just plain funny.)

The symposium’s cancellation has sparked a backlash, leading to the organization of quickly-put-together poetry readings all across the country, scheduled for the day the symposium was due to be held, February 12th.

Billboard poem by S.A. Griffin

On the corner of Hillhurst Avenue/Hollywood Blvd. & Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, California, August 2002. Photo by Jesse Hopkins. Used by permission of S.A. Griffin.

“It’s frustrating to know that the White House was turning a deaf ear to those opposed to bombing Iraq,” says Francine D’Alessandro, who is organizing the antiwar reading in Worcester at the Bijou Cinema. “It’s quite another thing when the White House moves to suppress free speech. Laura Bush and her advisors should have known a discussion of the works of these poets (Dickinson, Hughes, Whitman) would touch on anti-war issues. There are people who are anxious to be heard because they oppose all acts of aggression. Lots of people are simply against this specific White House policy on Iraq. And I suspect some folks are just anxious to assert their right to free speech through poetry.”

As word of this and other similar events across the country has spread, one has to wonder whether it wouldn’t just have been easier if Mrs. Bush had gone ahead with the symposium. After all, she only wanted poets to explore the American Voice. Now, she’s got an earful of it, and its volume is growing.

The question is, is anyone listening?

Next page > Rush to Action > page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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