'Unacknowledged Legislators': Poets Protest the War. (Poetry Supplement)

By Hamill, Sam; Anderson, Sally et al. | Monthly Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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'Unacknowledged Legislators': Poets Protest the War. (Poetry Supplement)


Hamill, Sam, Anderson, Sally, Simon, John J., Monthly Review


Earlier this year, Sam Hamill, poet and co-founder of the prestigious literary publisher, Copper Canyon Press, was invited to a White House literary symposium. Incensed by President Bush's war plans, Hamill wrote in an open letter to his colleagues "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." He asked "every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war." The response was extraordinary. By March 1, when poetsagainstthewar.org, the web site Hamill and friends set up to receive poems, stopped accepting submissions, more than 12,000 poems had been posted. On March 5, a day of global anti-war poetry readings, the poems were presented to Congress by Pulitzer prize winner and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets W. S. Merwin, Pulitzer prize winner Jorie Graham, and author and poet Terry Tempest Williams, as well as Hamill.

Of course First Lady Laura Bush cancelled the symposium, claiming that it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." The poets to whom Hamill e-mailed his letter begged to differ. On February 12, the scheduled date of the First Lady's forum, more than 160 "Poems Not Fit For the White House" readings were held around the country. In New York, despite one of the worst blizzards in the city's history, Avery Fischer Hall was packed to hear playwright Arthur Miller, rapper Mos Def, and several former U.S. poets laureate, including Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove.

Despite what the First Lady considers "appropriate," poets, writers, and other makers of art have always been actors in the political sphere and, more often than not, dissenters, even revolutionaries. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelly, in his In Defense of Poetry, called poets the "unacknowledged legislators." In recent times, that role has become even more critical. Writing not about poetry alone, but by implication all creative and imaginative writing, Edward Said recently wrote, "...at the dawn of the twenty-first century the writer has taken on more and more of the intellectual's adversarial attributes in such activities as speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority" (The Nation, September 17, 2001).

This is not the first time that poets, writers, and artists have taken a stand. In the 1930s, writers in this country and elsewhere mobilized their talent and their bodies in the struggle for the Spanish Republic and against fascism. Sherwood Anderson, Pearl S. Buck, Countee Cullen, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Edna Ferber, Rockwell Kent, Katherine Anne Porter, Muriel Rukeyser, Upton Sinclair, Thornton Wilder, William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, among others, published Writers Take Sides: Letters About the Wax in Spain from 418 American Authors. The book sold well and became an influential rallying cry against Franco.

In 1965, Robert Lowell voiced his opposition to Washington's adventure in Southeast Asia when he publicly refused an invitation to an arts festival at Lyndon Johnson's White House. Shortly thereafter, poet Robert Bly and others set up American Writers Against the Vietnam War, an umbrella group that organized meetings and participated in rallies and teach-ins. Poets marched in demonstrations under their own banner. Lowell even published two powerful poems about the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Adrienne Rich, one of today's voices of protest--and no stranger to MR's pages--also took a stand against that war. In the 1970s a reviewer for The New York Times asked Grace Paley, now Vermont's state poet laureate, why she hadn't published in a long time. Her response: she had a war to stop!

So today's Poets Against The War carries on in a great tradition.

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