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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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Sometimes it's about the IMF, sometimes it's about SUVs. Often it's about the Religious Right. (The raw and suppurating hatred of Christianity revealed in many of these poems is breathtaking; the title of Maxine Kumin's entry, "Heaven as Anus," forms a relatively gentle example.) The Israeli oppression of Palestinians is a constant theme, as the protesters play on the edges of 1930s-style anti-Semitism. Bush is brainless, Cheney heartless, and Powell gutless--while the entire administration is really being run by imperialists and Nazis, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz a particular target.

Much of this translates into straightforward anti-Americanism--although that's probably better put the other way around: Anti-Americanism translates straightforwardly into these befuddled and mutually contradictory protest slogans. You have to go to the English press to find this in its purest form. "The Attack of the Bad British Poets," the critic Ron Rosenbaum called the barrage of verse issuing from London. First the Guardian published the royal poet laureate Andrew Motion's "Causa Belli," a widely parodied quatrain that blamed looming war on elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

Then, in the London Review of Books, came "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card" by Tom Paulin, the Northern Irish poet who was invited, disinvited, and then reinvited to read at Harvard when news surfaced he had told an Egyptian interviewer that Brooklyn-born Israelis in the occupied territories "should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them." ("The kids, too, Tom, or just the adults?" David Aaronovitch asked quietly in the Independent.)

Finally, again in the Guardian, Harold Pinter brought out "God Bless America." In trimeter, mostly dactylic, Pinter describes the Yanks in their armoured parade, who sing hymns of joy to God while they slaughter and the gutters are clogged with the dead. About all three of these British publications I have written at length for The Weekly Standard's website--with rapidly diminishing humor. Andrew Motion seemed merely mockable. Tom Paulin grew more vicious. And Harold Pinter appears disturbingly mad. It was "his ear for the latent madness in ordinary speech" that made his plays interesting back in the 1950s and 1960s, one critic suggested to me. Now that he has deteriorated, "his head is full of these scabrous echoes, but he doesn't know where they are coming from."

Unfortunately, where they are coming from is the English and Irish literary culture that surrounds him, rejoicing in its virulent anti-Americanism. Roddy Doyle, Will Self, Jeanette Winterson, Iain Sinclair, Lucy Irvine, Adrian Searle, Brian Friel, Adrian Mitchell: The names go on and on, all of them signed to petitions, letters, and manifestos that object to war essentially because it is "U.S. led." The lack of sufficiently pure motives for the descent upon Iraq proves that America is evil, just as (in the perfect circularity of all question-begging arguments) America's evil means that it can never have motives sufficiently pure for anything.

One can find worse examples of this sort of thing, of course: the Canadian television interviewer, for instance, who asked science-fiction writer Robert Sawyer on air to agree that American arrogance in the Middle East caused the space shuttle's disintegration over Texas. But there's something peculiar echoing in even the mildest of these anti-American tropes, as there is, for that matter, in the anti-religious, anti-business, and anti-imperialist rhetoric of the protesting American poets. Christianity, capitalism, and colonialism, with the United States their flagship: all the old whipping boys of the Soviet-era Communists--except that the Soviet Union is no more. Lenin and Stalin may be gone, but their stalking horses go galloping on.

In one way, the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe snatched even the pretense of coherence from much of the hard leftist complaint. There no longer exists the horizon--the eschaton of a socialist workers' paradise--at which to gesture as the positive alternative to the evils of the West. But in another way, the end of the Soviet Union set protest free to be, well, protest: not for anything, not pinned down by having to defend the indefensibility of the gulag, but a pure and absolute againstness.

It's adolescent and irresponsible, of course; indeed, the word "gleeful" comes constantly to mind while listening to Sam Hamill and Todd Swift. But it also springs from some genuine human desire simply to reject things as they are and to taunt every last one of the powers that be, even Mrs. Bush, merely for having power. There may be serious arguments against war with Iraq, but the antiwar poets have proved thus far unwilling to make them--for the very idea of seriousness means growing up: turning back and taking responsibility, as adults, for this world we never made.

How much easier for Hamill to gather up Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Galway Kinnell, Ursula K. Le Guin, Adrienne Rich, and W.S. Merwin to help him indulge the fantasy that the United States is about to submit Baghdad to "saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden." How much easier to mock Laura Bush for daring to suggest a tea party.

FACED WITH the poets' plans to take over the White House event, Mrs. Bush seemed restrained and dignified in response--particularly given that a second purpose of the occasion was, an administration official confirms, to have Vice President Cheney swear in the poet Dana Gioia as the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "I wouldn't go pee in the first lady's punch bowl," Hamill told the writer Rachel Donadio in a well-reported piece for the New York Sun. But he certainly managed to dampen Gioia's moment in the limelight and the administration's attempt to promote the arts endowment and poetry.

A few of the invitees have given public support to the purely literary program originally planned, particularly the poets David Lehman, J.D. McClatchy, and Daniel Mark Epstein in interviews, and the critic Roger Kimball in a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal (all of whom, it's worth noting, make a good part of their livings outside the solidly antiwar colleges and universities). A handful of others would express only privately their irritation with the protesters. But the overwhelming reaction of America's literary establishment has been to excoriate Mrs. Bush for canceling the event. "No Voice Given to Antiwar Poets," ran a typical headline in the Los Angeles Times.

"The abrupt cancellation of the symposium by the White House confirms my suspicion," pronounced former poet laureate Rita Dove, "that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to remain in the ivory tower." Another former laureate, Stanley Kunitz, added, "I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse."

Quite what Kunitz means is hard to say. The proposition that poetry equals humanitarianism is either a tautology--the proper study of man being man, and no poetry yet having been written by wolves--or, more probably, simply false. Doesn't some poetry celebrate war, or direct its attention to the Divine, or take a sour view of human nature? It seems a stretch to call Homer, St. John of the Cross, and Philip Larkin impartially humanitarian.

In comments quoted by Donadio, the New Republic's literary editor Leon Wieseltier went even further, directly accusing Mrs. Bush of cowardice: "Canceling the event was the cowardly thing to do. It's the role of the poets to suggest that war is a bad idea, the role of the president to say war is a bad idea but necessary. It's the role of the poets to speak truth to power, and the role of power to welcome truth."

The notion that bad ideas can be both necessary and untrue leaves the reader a little at sea. So, too, the claim that a poet's job is merely to say that war is bad. And is it really the case that poetry always--in that phrase we will probably never be rid of--speaks truth to power? Has no kept poet, from Virgil to Tennyson, ever courteously tempered the wind to his master? (I am His Highness' dog at Kew, Alexander Pope wrote for the collar of a royal pet. Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?)

Much of the poets' attack, of course, is merely political partisanship. "I was lucky when I was poet laureate," Robert Pinsky told the Boston Globe. "We had an event in which President and Mrs. Clinton joined...former poets laureate Rita Dove and Robert Hass, and we read poems by Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. But that was at a time when a lot of poets were happy to be supporting the president, because they thought he was being attacked unfairly."

The current laureate Billy Collins has similarly turned on President Bush. Protest at the first lady's event "should be as disruptive as it wants to be," he wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. New Jersey's poet laureate Amiri Baraka, working on a poem about impeaching the president, told the New York Times, "Of course I see it as part of my job." In a prose statement on Hamill's website, W.S. Merwin gives full expression to this view--indeed, the fullest expression of pure partisanship imaginable:

It would not have been possible for me ever to trust someone who acquired office by the shameful means Mr. Bush and his abettors resorted to. . . . The perpetuation of [his] role of "wartime leader" is the primary reason--more important even than the greed for oil fields and the wish to blot out his father's failure--for the present determination to visit war upon Iraq. . . . To arrange a war in order to be re-elected outdoes even the means employed in the last presidential election. Mr. Bush and his plans are a greater danger to the United States than Saddam Hussein.

Though anti-Zionism, anti-globalism, and anti-Americanism were building through the 1990s, America's poets showed nothing approaching this level of protest when President Clinton spoke to the nation from the Pentagon in February 1998 and brought the United States to the edge of all-out war with Iraq.

STILL, Wieseltier is right that poets are notoriously difficult to manage. For John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Robert Frost composed a poem called "Dedication," but the sun's glare off the January snow prevented the elderly poet from reading it. So he recited instead from memory the much-better, but only tangentially appropriate, poem "The Gift Outright": The land was ours before we were the land's. (Such as we were we gave ourselves outright, the poem later claims, adding, The deed of gift was many deeds of war.)

The story is also occasionally told of the bevy of poets who arrived at the Carter White House without any identification except their invitations and copies of their poetry collections--leaving the bewildered Secret Service to try either to get them to vouch for one another or to identify them from outdated and over-flattering photographs on their book jackets.

But the parallel most cited in news stories about Mrs. Bush's "Poetry and the American Voice" is the "White House Festival of the Arts" on June 14, 1965. President Johnson's staff had originally planned the day-long fiasco--"the most extensive arts festival ever held in the White House," as the New York Times hailed it--to include readings from Saul Bellow and John Hersey, the poets Robert Lowell and Phyllis McGinley, and the popular biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen. But when, two weeks before the festival, Lowell announced his refusal to attend in order to mark his opposition to war in Vietnam, the literary world exploded.

Philip Roth, William Styron, Alan Dugan, and Stanley Kunitz signed a letter supporting him. John Updike chastised Lowell's ill behavior in making a public spectacle of his refusal, although Updike reserved his deepest scorn for Dwight Macdonald, who hadn't refused an invitation. Instead Macdonald went to the White House deliberately dressed down in a plaid shirt and tennis shoes, spent the day trying to collect signatures for a petition denouncing the Johnson administration, and then wrote about the whole thing as a journalist for the New York Review of Books--the perfect trifecta of bad manners.

Poets probably matter less now than they did in Robert Lowell's time. Critics matter less, as far as that goes. But something like Dwight Macdonald's day at the White House is what Sam Hamill had planned for whichever invitee was going to deliver his three thousand statements against the war. Why is it cowardly of Mrs. Bush to refuse to be used this way by her guests? Why is it unhumanitarian or uninterested in poetry? Why exactly shouldn't she say to hell with it?

IN 1967, two years after Vietnam protest had undone the White House Festival of the Arts, John Updike wrote to the New York Times, "Anyone not a rigorous pacifist must at least consider the argument that this war, evil as it is, is the lesser of available evils, intended to forestall worse wars. I am not sure that this is true, but I assume that this is the reasoning of those who prosecute it, rather than the maintenance of business prosperity or the president's crazed stubbornness."

Every such attempt at a nuanced position was routed in the literary battles over Vietnam. When Sam Hamill aims "to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam," he imagines himself once again on the 1967 march to the Pentagon, a character reborn in Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night"and Robert Lowell's "History." But Updike's warnings about tone are still worth remembering: "I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the president, . . . too much reliance upon satirical descriptions . . . and the grotesqueries of cultural superimposition. The protest seems too reflexive, too pop."

In all the recent attacks on war with Iraq, the tone derives in equal parts from apocalyptic fantasy and adolescent mockery. Even among once-serious poets, one now seeks in vain for seriousness--and finds, instead, that the capacity for it has been leached away. The Wall Street Journal's Opinionjournal.com, quoting a mockable stanza from Adrienne Rich's effort on Hamill's website, declared: "We've never heard of Adrienne Rich." Probably the web-compilers at the Journal were kidding, but there's something sad about the idea that Adrienne Rich's name might be unknown to them--for she was a real poet of real ability, once upon a time, and she stands today, like Bertolt Brecht, as a famous object lesson for poets. Her 1951 "Storm Warnings" was a genuine poem. Her 1955 "The Diamond Cutters" was a great one: Love only what you do, she wrote, and not what you have done.

The fact that, in the long years since, she has taken a dull knife to herself--howling hackneyed slogans of race, class, and gender liberation while she deliberately scraped away most of her talent--is more a reason to weep than to chortle. Great political poetry is possible for some poets, but Adrienne Rich was never one of them, however much she wanted to be. Not since Coleridge, or perhaps Pound, has there been a poet who lost the Muse so decisively, and she did it to herself. Perhaps the cruelest analysis of the death of poetry in the Richian worldview came in 1998 from Harold Bloom, who concluded, "the mock poetry of Resentment looks easy and proves easy; unlike Whitman, it lacks mind."

WHAT HAS HAPPENED to mind in poetry? Galway Kinnell had a poem on Hamill's website, an account of dozing off while holding his infant son Fergus and waking when a noise from the fireplace startles him into imagining that a bomb has exploded. It's not clear what this has to do with Iraq. One might perfectly well read it as a cry against what the attacks of September 11 and the Palestinian suicide bombers have done to the human imagination. But Kinnell's "The Olive Wood Fire"--though much of its tone and imagery parallels the stronger poem he wrote for his daughter, "Under the Maud Moon"--is not bad work; indeed, it is by far the best poem to show up on the antiwar poets' site.

Unfortunately, that may be because it was written some years ago. (It also subsequently disappeared from Hamill's website--possibly for copyright reasons, since Kinnell reaffirmed his support for the antiwar poets, telling the New York Times, "Poetry's duty is to speak out.") Offering a poem like "The Olive Wood Fire" to oppose war with Iraq is easy and thoughtless, which Kinnell used not always to be. Does he mean now that he wouldn't rise to defend infants like Maud and Fergus? Does the welfare of babies now require nothing from him except a distaste for our fallen world in which violence must be met, one way or another?

This is a man who once could face the hard things of life. In his 1960 "To Christ Our Lord," Kinnell told of a boy who had hunted the bird his mother was preparing for Christmas dinner: He had not wanted to shoot. The sound / Of wings beating into the hushed morning / Had stirred his love . . . / and he wondered, / Even famishing, could he fire? Then he fired. The poem ends:

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its end

The bird on the plate

Stared at his stricken appetite.

There had been nothing to do but surrender,

To kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed, with wonder.

At night on snowshoes on the drifting field

He wondered again, for whom had love stirred?

The stars glittered on the snow and nothing answered.

Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north,

The pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.

What "To Christ Our Lord" sees is that responsibility must be taken in this world for both the use of force and the refusal to use it. All violence is crucifixion: The cross of the cold north is the pattern . . . of the acts of earth. But how are we, by that fact, relieved of either the necessity to act or the commandment to love?

In a 1932 debate in Christian Century over the possibility of American intervention against the Japanese in Manchuria--a mostly forgotten historical parallel to the current question of Iraq--the theological ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of what he called "the grace of doing nothing." In the next issue, his brother Reinhold Niebuhr replied, "I realize quite well that my brother's position both in its ethical perfectionism and its apocalyptic note is closer to the gospel." But, he added, "I find it impossible to envisage a society of pure love as long as man remains man. . . . The hope of attaining an ethical goal . . . without coercion . . . is an illusion which was spread chiefly among the comfortable classes." It is this that Galway Kinnell once understood: He ate as he had killed, with wonder.

REMEMBER the Postern of Fate? Disaster's Cavern? The Fort of Fear? That was the gate that opens on the dangerous road that leads to Baghdad in the Edwardian poet James Elroy Flecker's "The Gates of Damascus." The poem contains resources for our antiwar poets, if they had the wit to recall Flecker--particularly when the watchman at the gate curses the caravan that will not listen to his warnings against taking the desert road: Pass then, pass all! "Baghdad!" ye cry, and down the billows of blue sky / Ye beat the bell that beats to hell, and who shall thrust you back? Not I.

But maybe our contemporaries are wise not to quote "The Gates of Damascus," for--in lines that have been running through my mind all week--the watchman had first tried to warn the travelers passing under the gateway: Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard / That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird? Todd Swift's "100 Poets Against the War" and Sam Hamill's thousands of poetic statements are the place where the poetry is dead yet still something pipeth, on and on--and on and on.

About the controversy roiled up by Mrs. Bush's poetry event, several commentators have been moved to quote William Butler Yeats's "On Being Asked for a War Poem": I think it better that in times like these / A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right. Almost as common is pitting Shelley's declaration that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" against Auden's claim that poetry makes nothing happen.

And yet, in the months after the attacks of September 11, the entire poetic community of America turned to public expression. The Internet is full of it: over 35,000 poems, by the lowest count. Most of this is bad poetry, and even the better poems are almost entirely ephemeral. There was, however, a moment in it all of consensus, an instant in which both the oblivious general culture and the disdainful poetic culture were moved by shock and grief to join on the plane of high seriousness. After initially dismissing the idea of writing an official laureate's poem, even Billy Collins was drawn into the national mood and read to Congress on the attacks' anniversary a poem called "The Names."

That consensus cannot be allowed to stand, or people like Sam Hamill must fade away. If poetry becomes again middlebrow art, what identity remains for the leftist poets? They defined themselves as adversarial to everything in the culture, politics, and lives of the middlebrow. And literary cachet is all that they have left.

In our poets against the war, you can perceive Vietnam envy, gleeful adolescent ill-manners, and straightforward political partisanship. But none of that entirely explains the desperation to make themselves matter as poets--even if the cost is writing what they must know doesn't matter as poetry, even if most of the verses collected by Swift and Hamill are attempts to prevent the emergence of a world in which poetry matters. How could they allow a middlebrow Republican like Mrs. Bush to host a poetry event? Their deepest self-understanding requires that such things not be.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.