Does Poetry Rhyme with Politics? ; Organizers of the First-Ever Conference of State Poets Laureate, Legislators, and Citizens Hope to Expand the Poets' Role

By Mary Wiltenburg writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Does Poetry Rhyme with Politics? ; Organizers of the First-Ever Conference of State Poets Laureate, Legislators, and Citizens Hope to Expand the Poets' Role


Mary Wiltenburg writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Maybe America is such a country that poets here can write without fear of censure or imprisonment. Maybe, unlike John Milton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, they can choose to worry more about meter than the political implications of their poems. Maybe in peacetime, as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen."

But lately, poets across the country have been trying to leverage their artistic, moral, and political clout to make their voices and verses of protest heard by precisely those in Washington with a mandate to make things happen. In February, the White House called off an American poetry forum after invitees, including former US laureates Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, refused to attend, in protest at the administration's Iraq policies. Over 13,000 submissions to www.poetsagainstthewar.org were bound and sent in their place.

Even as many poets come out publicly against the war, a smaller number are considering the question: In a time of national crisis, what political role should a state poet laureate take?

"I feel some ambivalence about that," says South Dakota laureate David Allan Evans, who contributed a statement to the antiwar collection. "I've always been a pretty private person. I spent a lot of time in my basement office, and never was given much to writing poems about politics. But being poet laureate does give my statements more resonance."

Appointed by their governors - some with quite opposite political bents - these 33 laureates have an unusual charge: To represent their states while promoting the reading, writing, and importance of poetry.

Unlike national laureates, who are selected annually by the Librarian of Congress and whose appointments cannot be jeopardized by statements critical of the government, state laureates are named by their governors. Though none is explicitly asked to fall in line with the administration, many say they weigh their public statements with unusual care.

In times of national security, poets and their states usually make for peaceful pairings.

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