American Ink

Why Poetry? Why Now?

All poets have the consolations pretty well memorized: "the unacknowledged legislators of the World," and "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." Maybe we take comfort in the knowledge that one of the French Revolution's leaders, Saint-Just, was a poet and got right in the mix; he's the one who said, "those who make revolutions by halves only dig their own graves." Such maxims, and such moments of boldness, are particularly useful in the face of most poets' lifetimes of evidence suggesting near universal indifference. Indeed, consolations aside, that's poetry's thing: Profitless and strange, it's what nobody really gives a damn about.

But of late, damns are being given right and left—though, so often these days, left and right are more like up and down in zero gravity, liable to flip-flop if you tilt your head. Earlier this month, under threat that invitees would deliver a stack of poems protesting whatever it is the military's about to do in Iraq, first lady Laura Bush aborted her salon celebrating "Poetry and the American Voice." The story went international.

One might argue that all poetry is a form of protest, kind of like purposefully lying in the gutter is a protest; the American sin, after all, is refusing your rightful spot in the parade of the commodity. So Lennie Garment couldn't help but remind us in his February 8 Times op-ed about the White House cancellation: The poets in question were ill-mannered, noted Nixon's art czar; even worse, such obstreperousness was a bad strategy for poets in search of wider markets and higher Q ratings. We all know you want to sing in our limelight,he winked. You'll know what song when we hand you the sheet music.

Speaking poetry to power at the New York public library
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Speaking poetry to power at the New York public library

What Garment missed (aside from the concept of "conscience") is that poetry is having its moment on the national stage, with or without the White House lawn. In January, a Harvard kerfuffle over the invitation to campus of Tom Paulin, whose polemical poems are certainly anti-Zionist and perhaps anti-Semitic, was picked up as a New Yorker feature. Meanwhile, the great state of New Jersey was busily trying to fire its own poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, for views expressed in a poem. These stories follow the same inevitable form: Some institutional grande—a congressman, university prez, or the Reader of the Free World—really likes poetry and all, but would prefer some versifier to please shut up please, or take the message elsewhere. Story makes big news.

Why poetry, why now? The answers might not be particularly mysterious. We are now into the second year of a period when words are being policed with particular vigor, hemmed in by off-the-record advisories as much as by Patriot Acts and Total Information Awareness. But such measures can't help but suggest that words themselves matter, now more than ever. Poets have been saying that all along.

On February 12, the day of the aborted Bushfest, readings went on coast-to-coast; in San Francisco, the ironically titled "The American Voice Has Been Cancelled" overflowed the venue, with news cameras pushed to the back. On President's Day the irony continues as Lincoln Center hosts "Poems Not Fit for the White House," arranged by the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience. The readers range from laureates to hip-hoppers; the wait to see Robert Pinsky pass the mic to Mos Def is apparently over. Participant and fiercely intelligent poet Ann Lauterbach suggests that the chance "to speak to a public outside the small eddies and circles of poets" is a kind of metaphor for a popular sense that the time to be heard beyond one's small community is now. "Perhaps poets come to the fore at such times," she ponders, "because we already live at the margins, we represent a kind of powerless power, and maybe people become interested in this; the idea that persons can devote a life to something that will not bring the usual rewards. . . . This is a kind of identification, especially when people feel they have so little say in the matter."

The danger of the newfound media attention on poetry, and its political role, is that the big stories will seem to be the whole story. But spectacular flowers always have grass roots: Organizations from Artist Action Network to Poets for Peace are active and open. A new Web site, Circulars, designed to serve as a poetry 'n' politics clearinghouse, recently went up at arras.net/circulars. The founder, Brian Kim Stefans, recently earned his very own cease-and-desist letter from The New York Times for hacking their site and replacing quotations with sly, incendiary passages from a favorite political philosopher. He envisions Circulars as being "like an indie media site mixed in with poets' writings, structured to allow multiple authors, and meant to encourage poets to particularly investigate a form of writing that could be circulated through e-mail: pithy, rhetorically persuasive, angry, radical kinds of things that are not just talking to the poetry community."

Next up? On February 20, famed independent publisher O Books hosts a San Francisco reading at City Lights bookshop, coinciding with the release of enough—an anthology of writings from the period after September 11 and before the invasion of Iraq. That's the moment we're in, fluid and terrifying; if only American ink were the only rising tide.


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