When the White House canceled its “Poetry and the American Voice” symposium for fear of anti-warmongering, a wave of activist energy shot through the poetry community. Sam Hamill, the poet (and Copper Canyon Press editor) who started the controversy by exhorting other invited poets to “speak up for the conscience of our country,” immediately suggested a “Day of Poetry Against the War.” At 1 p.m. on February 12, at the very moment the White House event should have taken place, writers across the U.S. read poems and spoke of opposition. (Hamill maintains a Web site: poetsagainstthewar.org, with updated lists of readings and poems.)
In Manhattan, the largest reading took place at NYU’s Fales Library, where dozens of poets and novelists including Sharon Olds, former poet laureate Galway Kinnell, Paul Auster, and E.L. Doctorow sat in the front of a standing-room-only crowd. Students leaned on bookcases and crouched on spare patches of carpet throughout the 90-minute event. Several writers chose verse that directly addressed war: Auster opted for an affecting prose poem from George Oppen about a man in occupied France during World War II who chose to crash into a tree rather than be drafted into the Nazi army, and Aracelis Girmay offered a rendition of Langston Hughes’s confrontational “Negroe Speaks of War.” On a different tip, Olds intoned a work by Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, an eighth-century female poet whom she described as a celibate Iraqi mystic whose descendants live in Baghdad and its surrounds. Sara Nelson prefaced her Walt Whitman verse with an optimistic nod to the power of art: “When you’re in a state of awe, you’re less likely to drop bombs.”
Anyone who came in search of rowdy protest would’ve been sorely disappointed. The audience remained reverently silent, chuckling only once—when Marie Ponsot uttered the line, “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys.” Not much sense of political uproar, in fact, until Fales’s head librarian Marvin Taylor took the podium and called for Laura Bush—a former librarian herself—to step down from the American Library Association. Afterward Taylor said that Mrs. Bush had broken an ethical code shared by librarians, “to challenge censorship wherever it is. Someone had to say something, because what she did was clearly censorious. I wanted to get involved because I see a larger attack on the arts, from the covering up of Guernica to the cancellation of the poetry lunch.” (Taylor hasn’t decided whether he should push the idea further, since libraries would be afraid to protest for fear of losing funding.)
At the same hour, 38 blocks north on the steps of the New York Public Library, a cluster of poets stood below one of the marble lions, next to a homemade sign reading “Poets Against the War.” Fanny Howe, Honor Moore, Victoria Redel, and an assortment of fellow poets took turns reading Middle Eastern poetry to a crowd huddling in the chill wind. Howe says they chose this verse because poets are “the same everywhere. Poets across the world are connected and it would be nice to give some voice to the poets of Baghdad.” People passing by the library on their lunch break stopped to listen, and a few decided to read something themselves, choosing a poem from a packet that had been prepared for the occasion. (Howe says the idea was born at a party Moore had given the week before. Howe says, “Within five minutes we weren’t speaking to each other anymore, just yelling about the war. Within 15 minutes we had a plan to do this reading.”)
Ironically, the First Lady showed up at the same library the very next night, but she wasn’t there to listen to protest poetry. Instead she was being feted by the UN to mark her new role as UNESCO’s Honorary Ambassador for the Decade of Literacy. On the dais alongside UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mrs. Bush proclaimed that “literacy is freedom” and that “for people throughout the world, literacy is also power—the power to reshape their communities and their own destiny.”
On March 4, Grace Paley, Molly Peacock, and others read from Women on War at the CUNY Graduate Center. For more information, call 212-817-7150.
“Why Poetry? Why Now?” by Joshua Clover