Anti-war poetry

In Goodrich last Wednesday, twenty poets and readers of poetry gathered to share poems of protest against war. The group included students and members of the community: from Richmond, Stephentown, Petersburg, Pittsfield, North Adams and Williamstown. Poems of Kipling, Yeats and Owens, and of American poets Jane Cortez, Kenneth Patchen and others were read, as were poems written only days before the reading.

One anti-war poet, an Episcopal priest who served as a chaplain in the Vietnam war, wrote to me afterward, thanking me for organizing the reading. “It was a moving experience, to find the young people expressing their rage in such lucid terms,” he wrote.

One hundred sixty readings were held across the country that day, and many more on the days preceding and following. These readings were part of the “poets against the war” response to Laura Bush’s “postponement” of the White House event planned to honor Whitman, Dickinson and Hughes. The First Lady’s spokesperson said: “It is inappropriate to turn what was intended as a literary event into a political forum.”

The chief officer of American literacy should know that poetry has been an honored form of political expression since literature began. “The United States,” Whitman wrote, “is the world’s greatest poem”; and in works like “Song of Myself” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s poetry served to shape a polity and a cast of mind larger than his own private feelings.

At the moment of this writing, 10,500 original poems and statements of conscience have been posted to the website “poetsagainstthewar.org.”

This site is worth checking out; it includes many news stories about what is now being called a “movement” of antiwar poetry from all over the world. Billy Collins, the poet laureate, has come out against the war. I too have written about the war.

One thing writers can do is to recover fear, rage and grief as legitimate forms of speech, resources to help us imagine, now, the suffering and loss that will follow from the President’s war plan. My words cannot help those who have died already, but many people are writing in the hope that what we say now may help those still alive.

Whitman wrote, “Something startles me where I thought I was safest…”Even before Bush’s policies bring actual violence upon the people of Iraq, and upon American troops, and upon the others who will be drawn into this war, he hasdone violence to our civil rights, to the idea of truth, and to our language.

The President treats the American people with the derision he offers to the world. Poised as we are on the verge of killing tens of thousands of people, and of creating (according to the latest UN estimates) 2.5 million refugees, Americans should brace themselves for violent news, and for more rage, fear and grief. As Langston Hughes wrote, “There’s liable to be confusion/when a dream gets kicked around.”