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Analysis: Group of Poets Will Gather to Read Poems in Protest of War With Iraq

All Things Considered: February 11, 2003

Poets Mounting Anti-War Protest


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary.

Tomorrow in Washington, DC, and in hundreds of other places around the country, poets will gather for readings denouncing the looming war in Iraq. It's called a National Day of Poetry Against the War. Thousands of poets have submitted work to a Web site, among them Grace Paley, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Rita Dove and Robert Bly. As Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW reports, the event took off after one poet decided to decline an invitation to a White House literary symposium.


Sam Hamill did not set out to organize a national day of poetic protest. He says when he got Laura Bush's invitation to the White House, he felt he could not accept because he opposes her husband's plans to take military action against Iraq.

Mr. SAM HAMILL (Poet): So I wrote a few poet friends thinking we'd put together a little anthology to send. The title of the conference was Poetry and the American Voice. I just thought we might make a little political statement.

SILLMAN: Hamill sent his e-mail to 50 poets. Within 24 hours, he says more than 1,500 had bombarded him with e-mails. Hamill set up a Web site called Poets Against the War. From North Carolina, National Book Award-winning poet and translator John Balaban was one of the first to respond.

Mr. JOHN BALABAN (Poet): Poets Against the War is not just to be a cry of desperation, but at some point--and those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War, it's important to make that cry if we still want to feel human.

SILLMAN: Balaban is not only old enough to remember the Vietnam War, he spent two years in Vietnam, a conscientious objector whose job was to help bring severely wounded children to the United States for reconstructive surgery.

Mr. BALABAN: So I saw the worst of injuries--children with their chins glued to their chests by white phosphorous or napalm, children who couldn't walk because the sciatic nerves had been severed.

SILLMAN: Balaban sent Sam Hamill a poem he wrote in 1975 after the Vietnam War was over.

Mr. BALABAN: "In Celebration of Spring." `Our Asian war is over. Others have begun. Our elders who tried to mortgage lives are disgraced or dead. And already the brokers are picking their pockets for the keys and the credit cards. In Delda Swamp(ph), in a united Vietnam, a Marine with a bullfrog for a face rots in equatorial heat; an eel slides through the cage of his bared ribs. At night, on the old battlefields, ghosts, like patches of fog, lurk into villages to maunder on dorsals and cratered homes while all across the USA, the wounded walk about and wonder where to go.'

SILLMAN: As of yesterday, 5,300 poets had joined Balaban, sending their work and money to Hamill's Web site. Word of Hamill's efforts got back to the White House, and the symposium to which he'd been invited was postponed. The first lady's spokesperson, quoting Mrs. Bush, said it would be inappropriate to turn what was supposed to be an event to celebrate the written word into a political forum. The symposium was intended to honor Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman.

Mr. HAMILL: Whitman is a political forum.

SILLMAN: Sam Hamill.

Mr. HAMILL: The first lady should have perhaps taken a closer look at him before she thought about a literary conference free of politics.

SILLMAN: To prove his point, he whips out a short poem by Walt Whitman.

Mr. HAMILL: "To the States to Identify the 16th, 17th or 18th Presidentiad." `Why reclining, interrogating? Why myself in all drowsing? What deepening twilight, scum floating atop the waters? Who are they as bats and night dogs askant in the Capitol? What a filthy presidentiad. Oh, South, your torrid suns. Oh, North, your arctic freezings. Are these really congressmen? Are those the great judges? Is that the president? Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these states sleep for reasons while gathering murk with muttering thunder and lambent shoots. We all duly awake--South, North, East, West, inland and seaboard. We will surely awake.'

SILLMAN: Focusing on the political aspects of Whitman's poetry is wrong-headed, according to Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, a monthly review of culture and the arts. In a recent Op-Ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal, Kimball lamented Sam Hamill's e-mail and the subsequent formation of Poets Against the War. Kimball calls the effort adolescent high jinks and an ill-informed attempt to turn the clock back to 1968.

Mr. ROGER KIMBALL (Managing Editor, The New Criterion): I think that Mr. Hamill's effort to make an analogy between then and now, which he did explicitly in his widely distributed e-mail, is just misguided and actually it does a disservice to the cause of American poetry by tarring American poets with a political brush that many of them would resent. If these readings are a kind of reprise of what we saw in the '60s, with people like Allen Ginsberg and so on chanting `Make love, not war' and so on, I'd think it does a great disservice to poetry.

Mr. PHILIP LEVINE (Poet): There's no reason why a great poem can't be political, absolutely political.

SILLMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine says by its very nature, great art is political.

Mr. LEVINE: I don't think a great poem is likely to be a poem that urges you to vote for your state senator, but insofar as you champion, for example, the lives of trees and the purity of the air and water, you've already entered a political arena. It's almost impossible not to write a poem that is political if you are a person who loves.

SILLMAN: Thirty-five years ago, Levine often read his work at rallies against the Vietnam War, specifically this poem about what he says was the disproportionate number of young black men sent to die in Vietnam.

Mr. LEVINE: "They Feed They Lion." `Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter, out of black bean and wet slate bread, out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar, out of grass, out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies, They Lion grow. Out of the gray hills of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride, West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties, mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps, out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch, They Lion grow.'

SILLMAN: Philip Levine does not think that 5,000 anti-war poets reading their work tomorrow are going to change the minds of the Bush administration, but last week, US poet laureate Billy Collins publicly declared his opposition to war against Iraq. Sam Hamill hopes the National Day of Poetry Against the War will spur other Americans to take similar stands. Later this year, Hamill plans to publish a selection of the poems he received. For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman.


NEARY: I'm Lynn Neary.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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