Sunday, September 25, 2005

Poets Do This Nation Proud

As many of you are likely aware, First Lady Laura Bush invited a number of Poets from around the country to participate in a celebration of "Poetry and the American Voice" in 2003. As timing would have it, the President's plan for a unilateral attack on Iraq got in the way.

One by one, poets from around the country expressed their concern about the course the President was setting the nation on. So many, that the White House was faced with two unpleasant facts. One, that many very well recognized poets in this country had, as a matter of conscience, declined the invitations. In addition, one such poet, Sam Hamill both declined his invitation and asked about fifty fellow poets to reconstitute a Poets Against the War like one that had been such a powerful voice of reason during the war in Vietnam. Over 1500 poets not fifty responded. This led to a second fact that created discomfort for the White House. In a matter of days, poets all over this nation were using the power of word to take issue with the military attack by this nation on the people of Iraq. As such, the First Lady feared that the planned symposium, if carried out, could well become the catalyst for public airing of powerful words of opposition to war. She could not allow that. The event was cancelled altogether.

In spite of this, today, Poets Against the War have a web site with more than 20,000 poems that speak to the insanity of war. It is the largest poetry anthology ever published.

Such action by poets to confront American foreign policy issues is not new. The Letters of Robert Lowell - published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2005 contains an interesting correspondence by Robert Lowell of May 30, 1965 to President Lyndon B Johnson. In it Mr. Lowell recants an invitation he earlier accepted to read at the White House Festival of the Arts the following month. Lowell writes, "When I was telephoned last week and asked to read... I am afraid I accepted somewhat rapidly and greedily. I thought of such an occasions a purely artistic flourish, even though every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments. After a week's wondering, I have decided that I am conscience-bound to refuse your courteous invitation." Lowell goes on to explain that he is very enthusiastic about most of [Johnson's] domestic legislation he could only follow the nation's present foreign policy with "the greatest dismay and distrust."

I'm sure that Robert Lowell was by no means the first example of a poet of conscience that felt a higher calling of responsibility with respect to a bankrupt national policy. I am even more confident in saying those who have stood up and spoken out from the depths of their core beliefs about the present American actions in Iraq will not be the last.

I take comfort in knowing that American poets of all walks of life have a history of taking a strong stand in defense of reason and justice when it comes to matters of how this nation behaves in the larger context of the world community.

Visit the web site of Poets Against the War [here]

I also recommend reading the letter by poet Sharon Olds to Laura Bush [here]

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