Dulce et Decorum Est

Separating poetry from war politics


The apparently imminent war against Iraq has already claimed one casualty: a White House celebration of "Poetry and the American Voice." The event, which was to be hosted by first lady Laura Bush on Feb. 12 and was to include readings from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, was first postponed and then canceled after one of the invited poets, Sam Hamill, decided to use it as a platform for a protest against the war.

While Hamill did not plan to attend, he wanted to compile and send in a book of antiwar poems and statements he solicited by e-mail. Several other invitees reportedly planned to participate in the protest.

A statement from the first lady's office noted that "some invited guests want[ed] to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum." In response, Hamill scoffed, "It tells you how little they understand poetry and poets." Other critics, too, have criticized the White House and Laura Bush for failing to see that questioning authority and social injustice is an essential role of poetry.

Of course poetry has never existed in an ivory tower, though the belief that poets are naturally rebellious and "progressive" is a fairly recent one; Rudyard Kipling, to take just one example, was an unabashed champion of British imperialism. It is equally naive to think that poetic talent confers on its bearer some special grasp of political wisdom. Just in the past hundred years, renowned poets have supported some very bad causes, including communism and fascism.

Today, the literary community is overwhelmingly left of center. Former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky has said that he was "lucky" to attend a poetry reading organized by the first couple during the Clinton presidency: "That was at a time when a lot of poets were happy to be supporting the president, because they thought he was being attacked unfairly." (For other poets, even Clinton was too far to the right: the well-known radical author Adrienne Rich turned down an invitation to the Clinton White House.)

The current poet laureate, Billy Collins, has applauded the first lady's crusade on behalf of literacy and reading but has also spoken out against the war and expressed sympathy with Hamill and the other would-be protesters. The poets' antiwar effort has been joined by the poet laureates of several states as well—including New Jersey's Amiri Baraka, recently under fire over a poem which regurgitated the anti-Semitic canard that Israel knew about the Sept. 11 attack and warned 4,000 of its citizens to stay away from the World Trade Center.

Is this groundswell of antiwar sentiment among poets driven by well-considered opposition to the war, or is it a knee-jerk reaction? There are compelling arguments both for and against going to war with Iraq; in the journalistic community, for example, opinion on the issue is divided, with some leading liberal commentators and publications taking the administration's side. The seeming unanimity among poets makes them look suspiciously like a herd of independent minds.

Would the poets whose work was to be celebrated at the White House event have joined in the protest? Hughes, a man of the left, probably would have. Whitman wrote movingly about the horrors of human suffering and death in the Civil War, but one can be fully aware of war's evils and still believe that there are just wars. Dickinson, who wrote about nature and the inner life of the soul, was about as apolitical as anyone could be.

Of course poets, like anyone else, are entitled to political opinions. But poetic truth is not political truth, and politics is not what poetry does best. At its best, poetry expresses far deeper truths about human beings and the world—which is why, in the 21st century, people still read the poets of ancient Greece and Renaissance England, even if they know next to nothing about the politics of those days. Somehow, I doubt that such lines as, "while claiming they're 'defending democracy,' our homespun junta exports the war machine" (from one of the poems in Hamill's anthology) will stand the test of time.

Hamill openly derided the presumed stupidity and ignorance of those who would have invited him, a lifelong activist for leftist causes, to an event at the Republican-controlled White House. But maybe this "oversight" was due to a sincere belief that poetry transcends politics. In that case, Laura Bush just might be the one with the better understanding of poetry.