Versus Verse: Poets against War

By Clark, J. Elizabeth | Radical Teacher, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Versus Verse: Poets against War

Clark, J. Elizabeth, Radical Teacher

It [language] recovers its simplest function and is again an instrument serving a purpose; no one doubts that the language must name reality which exists objectively, massive, tangible, and terrifying in its concreteness. (1)

--Czeslaw Milosz

In February of 2003, Laura Bush planned a Poetry and the American Voice" session to honor the literary legacies of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman. She invited prominent American poets to come and read at the White House. When Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press, received his invitation, he decided to use the forum as a place to express his opposition to the upcoming war against Iraq. He vehemently opposed President Bush's proposed use of "saturation bombing" of Iraq which would result in the deaths of countless civilians. He invited poets, via e-mail, to send him antiwar poems which he would collect into an anthology and present to Mrs. Bush at the reading. He wrote: "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. I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war." (2)

Hamill received 13,000 poems by early February--and the promise of poets around the country to organize readings for "A Day of Poetry Against the War" on 12 February 2003. As a result, Laura Bush cancelled her event, commenting, "It would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." (3) Unwilling to be silenced, Hamill and the Poets Against War volunteers compiled a paper anthology of the 13,000 poems submitted to the site (along with a smaller, in-print edition of selected poems from the site, also called Poets Against War) which was presented to the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration on 5 March 2003. Still active in 2005, now with 18,256 poems archived on the site, Poets Against War actively publishes critiques of current U.S. global policies. (4)


In many ways, this article serves as a companion piece to Leonard Vogt's "Teaching in a Time of War" from issue #72 of Radical Teacher, since we both teach at LaGuardia Community College; this article provides another snapshot of teaching about the war within the same institution, calling on different material but using similar pedagogical approaches. In the classroom, I situate myself as a materialist feminist teacher, working to help students understand the ways in which ideology and history are powerfully connected forces in their own lives. This lesson is particularly important at a community college where many of our students live their lives on the edge of "have to." Their complicated lives often leave little room for anything other than work, family life, and study. Often, the combination of those three proves overwhelming because they simply do not have the time to be full-time parents, full-time students, and full-time workers. Accordingly, I believe the classroom is a crucial activist space in my students' lives, opening up time where they can make the connections their busy lives sometimes eschew.

I begin this particular class by sharing with students that our class is based on four premises: everyday life is political; our individual, governmental, and collective actions impact society; art and literature play a crucial role in the history and conscience of a nation by recording "alternative" histories and imagining different possibilities; and that the very best writing comes from a context where students are generative and not reiterative in responding to the ideas presented by texts in the course.

My own work with the Poets Against War website is also situated in a Liberal Arts Cluster, LaGuardia's innovative learning community structure for incoming liberal arts majors. While Leonard Vogt's course focuses on "Truth, Lies and Videotape," I am teaching the Poets Against War website as one of the texts for my "Fighting for Our Rights: Students, Workers, Citizens and the Promise of American Democracy" Liberal Arts Cluster. …

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