Resist much, obey little

Thursday, August 5th, 2004

Although the highbrow poetry symposium Laura Bush wanted to convene a year and a half ago, about the time her husband was launching a war, had to be “postponed,” the moral force she loosed has taken on a life of its own.

Watch out, Laura. It bites.

“… One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,
I thought I heard a scream
— a flier crying out in horror
as he dropped fire on he didn’t know what or whom,
or else a child thus set aflame —
and sat up alert. The olive wood fire
had burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,
fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.”

If you haven’t done so yet, check out — a Web site containing thousands of responses to the first lady’s genteel misperception that poetry hovers in a rarified zone somewhere between aesthetics and irrelevance, and that living poets have no more concern about the national direction, and are no more trouble, than dead ones.

Big mistake. Poets, for the most part, have working consciences. They live outside the conventions and cliches of easy patriotism and churn continually over the fate of humankind, as though it were their personal problem. Thus Galway Kinnell writes in “The Olive Wood Fire” (quoted above) about rocking his young son by the fireplace and suddenly imagining fire in service of war, bringing pain and death to some other child.

Laura Bush wanted to host a symposium at the White House in February 2003 on the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. Maybe she thought these poets were safely confined to anthologies and textbooks and could be counted on to have nothing to say that was germane to her husband’s war. Maybe she wasn’t familiar with Whitman’s line, “Resist much, obey little.” Maybe she just didn’t see the connection between yesterday’s voices of conscience and today’s.

When Sam Hamill got his invitation, however, he could think only of the pending shock-and-awe bombing campaign against Iraq, a country already devastated by a decade of U.S. sanctions. He asked 50 or so fellow poets to respond to the invitation with poems protesting the war. Within four days, he’d heard from 1,500 of them; the Bush administration was red-faced and the symposium bit the dust. By March, 13,000 poems had been submitted to the cause, and a movement was born. It’s still going strong.

For instance, this coming Sept. 11, that sacred and politically cheapened date — that justification for the USA Patriot Act and an open-ended war on Islam — Poets Against the War, in conjunction with several other organizations, will sponsor poetry readings around the world.

Thank God for this, I say. Thank God people are wresting this day back from the cynics and war profiteers who have claimed it as their own. Thank God people are kneeling in its soil and redefining it in language that has more moral complexity than George Bush’s: “axis of evil,” “with us or against us,” “mission accomplished.”

“Politicians use language to manipulate, persuade and conceal,” Hamill told me in an e-mail exchange. “Poets use language to reveal.”

And such language is what we desperately need. We don’t get it in our media: Journalists quote politicians too much, poets too little, especially in matters of deep and troubling import. We act as though we are a society without roots, without a reservoir of collective wisdom. Poets — artists — simply matter too little.

Yet consider their potency. When Colin Powell presented his tainted case for war to the United Nations in February 2003 — the same month as Laura Bush’s aborted symposium — the tapestry behind him, a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s devastating antiwar painting Guernica, had to be covered with a blue curtain. Powell didn’t want to lie about the war with Guernica in the background!

Let us, with Sam Hamill, aim our poetry at this fraudulent war — this war that cannot even bear up under public images of flag-draped caskets. This is a war that has to pretend that no one is dying, that democracy is flowing from its lethal largesse.

Too many have been fooled. Let the poets raise their voices so that even the journalists can hear.