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Don’t Mess With the Poets


It started in 2003, with a refused invitation.

February 12, 2003 was supposed to have been a symposium at the White House on "Poetry and the American Voice," featuring the works of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Poet and pacifist Sam Hamill decided he could not in good conscience attend. Instead of simply declining politely and quietly, he emailed about fifty other poets, asking them to send him an anti-war poem and to sign on to a project "Poets Against War," echoing an earlier group railing against an earlier war – Vietnam. The poems, he said, would be sent to the White House.

Within days, he had not fifty but fifteen hundred positive responses. 

Laura Bush and her political advisors, seeing the writing on the wall, postponed the event, saying it had been turned from a literary event into a political one. Roger Sutton, writing in The Horn Book Magazine, a magazine that reviews and discusses books published for children and young adults, said in March 2003,

Mrs. Bush — oddly for a librarian — seems not to remember that poets are troublemakers. Surely she hasn’t forgotten her Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Eve Merriam so quickly. Making trouble is part of the job description. Through stealth and surprise, poems change the way we think. To invite a bunch of poets to come to the White House and talk about Hughes, Dickinson, and Whitman is, quite literally and in the best of ways, asking for trouble.

In other words, don't mess with the poets.

Poets Against War has grown into a powerful website, with a fuller account of this story and the subsequent actions of the anti-war community of poets. They have received over 22,000 poems, a fair sampling of which they post to the site on a regular basis. There are poems by folks you've heard of, and poems by otherwise unknown writers. There are links galore, and oppotunities to get involved yourself. There is a quarterly newsletter of articles – the current issue has a great piece by Sarah Zale on Poetry and Peace in the Middle East, which fits nicely with Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Commitment.

Speaking of Adrienne Rich, in an older essay on poetry she says that

Poetry . . . begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might otherwise not have known simultaneity.  When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time. (What Is Found There, NY: WW Norton, 1993, p. 8)

Part of what drew me and kept me coming back to FDL is the powerful, poetic writing found here, in the words of frontpagers and commenters alike. People, events, and other things come together here that "might otherwise not have known simultaneity," to borrow from Rich. I never cease to come away from here changed by what I've read – sometimes in ways I recognize, and other times in ways that only belatedly make themselves known.

Go poke around the PAW website, and see if you don't recognize some kindred spirits. Here's one sample, to whet your appetite. It comes from the pen of San Francisco's own poet laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Speak Out

And a vast paranoia sweeps across the land
And America turns the attack on its Twin Towers
Into the beginning of the Third World War
The war with the Third World

And the terrorists in Washington
Are drafting all the young men

And no one speaks

And they are rousting out
All the ones with turbans
And they are flushing out
All the strange immigrants

And they are shipping all the young men
To the killing fields again

And no one speaks

And when they come to round up
All the great writers and poets and painters
The National Endowment of the Arts of Complacency
Will not speak

While all the young men
Will be killing all the young men
In the killing fields again

So now is the time for you to speak
All you lovers of liberty
All you lovers of the pursuit of happiness
All you lovers and sleepers
Deep in your private dreams

Now is the time for you to speak
O silent majority
Before they come for you

That, I think, is why many of us are here at Firedoglake: to see the world not through the lenses of paranoia, but through clear eyes, and to learn to speak and act fearlessly despite a national atmosphere of fear.

This is a poetic place, filled with words and images and emotion and compassion and hope that comes bubbling out of a thousand sets of fingers. 

Let's face it: this is a powerful place, filled with poetic lovers of liberty. And we're speaking up, along with thousands of others. The House of Representatives is listening, as today they have begun taking up the resolution opposing the escalation of troops in Iraq, and that's apparently only the first step. From the Washington Post this morning:

Waiting in the wings is binding legislation that would fully fund Bush's $100 billion request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but add four conditions: Soldiers and Marines could be deployed to Iraq only after being certified as fully trained and equipped. National Guardsmen and reservists could be subject to no more than two deployments, or roughly 12 months of combat duty. The administration could use none of the money for permanent bases in Iraq. And additional funding for the National Guard and reserves must be spent to retool operations at home, such as emergency response. 

Don't mess with the poets.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.