The Magazine

The Poets vs. The First Lady

From the February 17, 2003 issue: The appalling manners and adolescent partisanship of our antiwar poets.

Feb 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 22 • By J. BOTTUM
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I THOUGHT PERHAPS I was invited to the White House because Laura Bush likes my poetry. Maybe not--in fact, probably not, since there are much better poets around. Still, for one reason or another, a nicely printed invitation came, asking me to join Mrs. Bush on February 12 for a reception and symposium, called "Poetry and the American Voice," about Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman.

Sam Hamill, a poet and publisher in Port Townsend, Washington, "felt no joy" when he received his own invitation. "Rather," he wrote in a widely circulated e-mail, he "was overcome by a kind of nausea." As he later told the New York Times, he never had any intention of accepting. But he took what newsworthiness there was in receiving the invitation, and he used it to gain an instant notoriety for his opposition to war with Iraq.

"I'm putting in eighteen-hour days. I'm sixty and I'm tired, but it's pretty wonderful," Hamill told the Associated Press, and in response to all his work, thirty-six hundred poets have sent him "poetic statements" against the war. His plans to have someone at the reception deliver this pile of paper to the first lady led quickly to the event's indefinite postponement--in effect, its cancellation. "While Mrs. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions," her press secretary announced, "she, too, has opinions and believes that it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum."

"I don't think this is the hour when people should be polite for the sake of politeness," a poet named Mary Oliver told the Boston Globe, explaining her support for Hamill's campaign. At least she recognizes there are bad manners involved. Mrs. Bush's invitation could have been quietly declined by those whose opposition to her husband's policies is too strong to allow them to enter her home. Instead, they chose the other route. "What idiot thought Sam Hamill would be a good candidate for Laura Bush's tea party?" Hamill laughed. "Someone's going to get fired over this."

The wonder is that something similar didn't blow up months ago. The White House book parties have been a tempest waiting to happen, and Mrs. Bush got away with her apolitical literary events for an astonishingly long time, given the art community's disdain for her husband. As private a first lady as we've had in decades, she seems nonetheless to have taken to her book promotions for their own sake and not merely as public relations for the administration. At a festival celebrating the Harlem Renaissance, she read and discussed a poem by Langston Hughes. At meetings of librarians, publishers, and booksellers, she has talked with interest and--well, with what looks surprisingly like joy.

She's always been a book-reader, and her invitations have been politically inclusive to a degree unknown during the Clinton years. After one event, a bestselling mystery writer (and lifelong anti-Republican) told me in wonder how charming and ingenuous Mrs. Bush had been: happy to chat about books, happy to have the chance to meet their authors. Sam Hamill got his invitation the same way dozens of people have received such invitations: The first lady's staff consulted the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, and various experts to compile a list of figures thought important in a particular field, and Mrs. Bush invited them to come talk, without inquiring about their politics.

"I think it tells you a lot about White House intelligence, doesn't it?" Hamill sneered. And it does tell us something, although not in the way Hamill means. The substance of the campaign against war with Iraq is intelligible, although, I believe, badly mistaken. But the tone of the attack on the Bush administration, and now on Mrs. Bush, is so far beyond intelligibility, it has become an object in its own right--a social fact whose causes must be sought, not in the Iraqi war that is its occasion, but down somewhere in the maelstrom of political pathology, cultural confusion, and personal disarray.

THE ATTEMPT TO SUBVERT Mrs. Bush's poetry event is not by any means the only antiwar outburst by poets. From a ritzy literary gathering in Key West this month came a manifesto signed by Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Charles Simic, James Tate, and others--all the old guard of the American poetry establishment. As such things go, the Key West statement was mild, merely denouncing "an aggressive first strike against Iraq" as "murder" and linking this in some unspecified way to the demand for "an independent Palestinian state, because only this will generate justice in the Middle East and stability in the world."