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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It's a little sad to see the former American poet laureate Richard Wilbur's name on this statement. Once upon a time, he took considerable abuse from his fellow Vietnam opponents for suggesting the National Guardsmen at Kent State were not necessarily monsters. In a 1990 interview, quoting Yeats's dictum, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry," he derided the endless stream of Vietnam-era protest poetry as unreadable and deservedly forgotten.

But there's something in the air at this moment--some scent of a long-vanished dawn among the old, some hunger for a heaven they never knew among the young--that lures from political retirement even Richard Wilbur. At a recent march in Colorado, Hunter S. Thompson drew ecstatic cheers with the line: "I've become almost homesick for the smell of tear gas." The fact that they are not actually being tear-gassed only makes the nostalgia easier.

AT LEAST WILBUR was merely signing a manifesto and not issuing poetry. For that, one has to go to "100 Poets Against the War" and "100 Poets Against the War Redux," Internet-published anthologies organized by Todd Swift, a Canadian living in Europe. It's almost unfair to quote any of these extempore effusions. "This kind of effort, regardless of how valuable each poem is on its own, as a collection represents a step forward for the kind of activism that poets need to be part of," a contributor named George Murray told the Toronto Globe and Mail--and that was in defense of the antiwar verse.

Individually, the poems show all the elements you might expect. Jay Parini, who accepted the White House invitation "because I thought I could have said something about the war directly to Mrs. Bush," told the New York Times that poets are important now "because our language is pure." That's not quite the impression one gets from the antiwar poems. There's the definition of Republicans as famous for rewriting history in the style of evil dictators Stalin and Hitler. There's the sloganeering: How Many Lives per Gallon? / Go Solar Not Ballistic / Draft SUV Drivers Now, argues one poet. War is gud 4 bizniz, adds another.

And then there's the return of 1960s feeling. Here it is, the time I waited for, promising myself / that my peers and I would change the world, one of the contributions exults. Who are the Good Guys now? demands Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate, comparing President Bush to Yosemite Sam in the mocking poem she gave "100 Poets Against the War." Nelson was one of the poets invited to Mrs. Bush's party, and she promised to attend wearing a scarf, hand-painted with 1960s peace symbols, which she commissioned from a "fabric artist" for the occasion.

It is perhaps unnecessary to observe that this was not Nelson's normal wear while she was poet-in-residence at West Point a few years ago. Her essay about her visit to the military academy, "Aborigine in the Citadel," was written for the Hudson Review just before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and it contains passages that are mildly embarrassing in a post-September 11 world. But the essay was, in some part, sensible about how teaching at West Point had finally brought her to understand America's need to maintain an army. It is this modified sensibility that Nelson was willing to trade for the nostalgic joy of wearing a "peace scarf" to discomfit her hostess.

"We're trying to create something that is like the Vietnam-war protest," Swift explains about the poets he has gathered. And no difference between 1969 and 2003 will stand in their way--not even the difference in themselves.

AND YET, even pure Vietnam envy doesn't seem sufficient to explain the spirit with which the poets have taken to opposing war with Iraq. To read the entries published in "100 Poets Against the War," or posted by Sam Hamill on his anti-Mrs. Bush website, is to see the same muddle of causes--personal, cultural, and political--that made so confusing this January's A.N.S.W.E.R. rally in Washington and other recent protest marches. It's all about oil, except when it's all about racism, or the Bush administration's failure to fund international abortions, or Republicans' hatred of the poor, or the Kyoto accords, or the male hierarchy's suppression of female voices. Have you noticed / The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? asks Robert Bly.