Censoring poetic dissent in the US

By Mary Chan

Does poetry have any place in the political arena?

Late last month, First Lady Laura Bush cancelled a Feb. 12 poetry symposium at the White House when some poets planned to turn it into an anti-war protest. Among the protesters are Washington-based poet and publisher Sam Hamill, who declined his invitation and encouraged the poets who did attend to read anti-war verses. He also e-mailed an open letter asking for anti-war poems, and has subsequently received over 5,000 submissions to date. While the original plan was to present an anthology of the verses at the symposium, Hamill has published them on a website, www.poetsagainstthewar.org, instead.

Laura Bush’s response was to cancel the event outright, leaving her vulnerable to accusations of censorship. Clearly, the First Lady is uncomfortable with events where intelligent, articulate people criticize her husband’s foreign policy. To a certain extent, she is justified in feeling this way when the event in question is billed as poetry symposium and not a political debate. As the symposium’s host, she had a reasonable expectation that the topic of discussion would be poetry, not politics.

But what about the anti-war poets who have actively engaged in left-wing politics? They certainly could not discuss American poetry at the White House and remain silent about their anti-war views in good conscience. The White House itself represents the much-abhorred Bush administration and is home to the man who can bomb Iraq whenever he pleases. Principle prevents someone from separating poetry from politics while at the White House.

This separation is exactly what the White House irrationally expects. As a spokesperson explained after the cancellation, “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.”

This intriguing statement begs two questions. First of all, is there ever an “appropriate” time to protest? The confrontational nature of protest makes it inherently inappropriate. A protest that is deemed “appropriate” by the U.S. government would be rather suspect.

Secondly, how does literature affect politics, and vice versa? Evidently, these two volatile elements do not mix on Capitol Hill. Yet poetry (the literature in question) can, has and will be used for political means. Sam Hamill is not alone. Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson planned to attend the symposium wearing a silk scarf with peace signs on it. On Jan. 27, Canadian poet Todd Swift released an e-book, 100 Poets Against the War, at www.nthposition.com/100poets.pdf.

Politics in poetry can also be more subtle and therefore subversive. Take, for instance, the three poets whom Laura Bush planned to discuss at her symposium “Poetry and the American Voice”: Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson. Whitman was gay, Hughes African American, and Dickinson eschewed the mass evangelical religion so prevalent in her time. Whitman and Hughes were also involved in left-wing politics when they were young: Whitman was a radical Democrat, and Hughes’s beliefs inspired him to spend a year in the Soviet Union.

These political positions are evident in their work. Whitman began experimenting with poetic form as a way to express political dissent, writing about slavery and even the European revolutions of 1848, while concern with race, racism, and the plight of lower class African Americans pervades Hughes’s body of work. Dickinson refused to fill the expected nineteenth-century women’s role of domestic nurturer. Instead, the unmarried Dickinson wrote poems in her room while her sister voluntarily ran the house, saying that Emily was the family member who had the thinking to do. Dickinson also penned these words which, though out of context, are relevant to the current Bush administration: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Perhaps it is best that Laura Bush cancelled after all.

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