The Night of the Armies of the Poets; Poets of Today Wear Their Politics 'As Ashes on the Brow'

Article excerpt

Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Poets and politicians go together like ham and lox, like teachers and truants. They simply don't see the world from the same perspective. That's why it was brave - if a bit naive - for Laura Bush to invite poets to the White House and expect them to act like poets. They wanted to be politicians.

The first lady was interested in "Poetry and the American Voice." The poets were interested only in making noise.

When the poets mixed their metaphors and abused their pentameters in an attempt at statecraft, the first lady cancelled her poetry symposium and told the poets to stay home. Not since Robert Lowell turned down an invitation to Lyndon Johnson's White House four decades ago to protest the Vietnam War had a poet gotten such an easy 15 minutes of pop fame.

What Norman Mailer observed of novelists is also true for poets: "If one was going to take part in a literary demonstration, it had better work, since novelists like movie stars like to keep their politics in their pocket rather than wear them as ashes on the brow," he wrote in "Armies of the Night," long before Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand and Madonna put on ashes (if not sackcloth). "If it is hard for people in the literary world to applaud any act braver or more self-sacrificing than their own, it is impossible for them to forgive any gallant move which is by consensus unsuccessful."

The consensus on this occasion rendered the poets mute, which might or might not have been a blessing for the rest of us. But the poets lost an opportunity to heighten public appreciation for poetry. They were invited to the White House to discuss Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, all of whom would have upstaged the current company, reminding one and all of how fine the English language can be made to sound. Poets can be rebels or they can be traditionalists; we don't have to like their character (if any) to enjoy their poetry.

But there was something especially nasty about the poet Sam Hamill, who never intended to accept the First Lady's invitation to the White House in the first place, but used the invitation to draw attention to himself, to make an anti-war protest and to spoil the party for everybody else.

The poetry symposium was also meant to be the occasion to introduce and swear in Dana Gioia, a poet, as the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts with a mission to revive public interest in poetry. …