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Poetry and the White House

02/11/03 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(Host) Commentator Jay Parini reflects on the White House, poetry and the threat of war.

(Parini) A thick, beautifully printed card from Laura Bush arrived in my mailbox in Weybridge, Vermont a couple of weeks ago. A similar card went out to a number of poets around the country, inviting them to a discussion of "Poetry and the American Voice" at the White House on February 12th. Like others, I wondered if I should accept. My own view of the Bush Administration is anything but admiring. I believe that war with Iraq is not only a bad idea; it is immoral as well as dangerously self-destructive.

I nevertheless called to accept, believing that I might make a very small difference by offering my view of things to Mrs. Bush, face to face. That same day, an email began to circulate in literary circles from Sam Hamill, a poet who refused the invitation. He asked poets to write something against the war, to be presented to the White House as a sign of how poets felt. A few thousand or so poets responded, which didn't surprise me. I was sympathetic to Hamill's cause, and got to work on something myself. The prospect of Mrs. Bush listening to the voice of poetry seemed like a decent notion.

It's quite a voice. "I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions," cried Walt Whitman in a fierce poem, "But really I am neither for nor against institutions." He supported only one institution: "The institution of the dear love of comrades." In poem after poem, our national bard upheld the democratic voice against slavery, war, and poverty. He had no interest in pretty poems that would merely entertain his listeners: He said, "The words of true poems do not merely please."

American poets have often confronted the harsh truths of their time, including the destructiveness and futility of wars, the arrogance of leaders, the sorrow of those who have no voice to speak. In his sad, magnificent poem "September 1, 1939," W.H. Auden -- a recent emigr o these shores -- sat in a dive on 42nd Street in New York City and contemplated the approaching devastation of the Second World War, concluding: "All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie /...... "

I think it's this voice, with its eerie freedom, that poets have always cherished, and for which we cherish them. In a deep way, poetry allows us -- readers and writers -- to think about things that matter and to feel them precisely. The voice of American poetry has been and remains strong and various, by turns soothing or scolding. I accepted the invitation to the White House because I thought it would do some good to have poets raising their voices, probably many in anger, in this house of the people.

As it happened, the White House social secretary left a message on my answering machine the next night. She said the symposium was indefinitely postponed. They didn't want to see poetry getting "politicized." That would have been too bad, huh....

I'm Jay Parini from Weybridge.

Jay Parini is a poet and novelist who teaches at Middlebury College.
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