by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 20, 2003
POETRY ON EARTH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "I would like to thank Mrs. Bush for being so thin-skinned," the writer Jamaica Kincaid said on a cold and clear Sunday afternoon in Manchester, Vt. "To think that a woman who lies down at night and has dinner across from a man who is the lord and master of weapons of mass destruction, and plans to use them, could not listen to the words of some poets who disagree with him!"
The 500 people gathered at the First Congregational Church that afternoon to hear 11 great American poets "honor the right of protest as a patriotic and historical American tradition" could not have agreed with Kincaid more.
The reading, organized by the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, was inspired by our revered yet endangered First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The reading was one of many held across the country last weekend after First Lady Laura Bush canceled a White House gathering in honor of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman because she was afraid that the invited poets might express antiwar sentiments.
Poets against war - imagine that! I suppose that when she conceived of the forum, Mrs. Bush could not imagine that.
The gathering in Manchester was remarkable for the number of distinguished men and women who came to read, most of them having strong connections to Vermont. Grace Paley, Vermont's new state poet, read, as did Galway Kinnell, a former Vermont poet laureate and a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner. Donald Hall, from bordering New Hampshire, is a National Book Critics Circle Award. Julia Alvarez, a writer in residence at Middlebury College, has published many books. So have Jay Parini of Weybridge and the Irishman Greg Delanty, who teaches at St. Michael's College.
Ruth Stone of Goshen won the 2002 National Book Award. David Budbill is a musician and poet from Wolcott. Jody Gladding, a young poet from East Calais, displayed a wicked sense of humor; she chided the wealthy golfing class - our "forefathers" - for being devoted to "trying to get their little white balls into all 18 holes."
William O'Daly, co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, was the foreigner. He came all the way from California on an airline ticket paid for, he announced, by a Republican. He read his own poem, "To the 43rd President of the United States."
"What if Kuwait grew carrots?" he read. "What if Iraq's main exports were chick peas and cotton shawls... It appears the one thing we cherish more than petroleum or our children is the greased machinery of destruction."
O'Daly received wild applause, especially from the many people fresh from marching in Washington and New York the day before; some were wearing green t-shirts that said, "Why should Vermonters die for Texas billionaires?"
It seems especially odd that Mrs. Bush would honor Whitman, a born rebel. In "To the States" Whitman wrote that there can be no safety for America "without free tongues, and ears willing to hear the tongues." And he advised states to "resist much, obey little. Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty."
Whitman "loved America, so much he was continually disappointed," said Kinnell, who also read Pablo Neruda on the Spanish Civil War. "...and from then on blood," Neruda wrote. "Come and see the blood in the streets."
Throughout the ages, blood in the streets has inspired poets to write passionately against war. Does Mrs. Bush know of any poets who have written enthusiastically in favor of it?
These are dark days for our democracy. Our government is currently asking for the power to strip people of their citizenship so they can be held without trial and possibly be "disappeared." Last week the Justice Department filed an amicus brief in federal court supporting Mayor Bloomberg's decision to prohibit demonstrators from marching in New York City. The First Amendment is very much in peril.
W.H. Auden once said famously that "Poetry makes nothing happen," and no one in Manchester believed that President Bush would slap his forehead and say, "Oh my God, I'm making a mistake if all these great minds are arrayed against me." Certainly not after he so easily dismissed the voices of millions of antiwar protesters who had gathered in 602 cities around the world the day before.
The poetry reading and President Bush's casual dismissal of the antiwar protests brought to my mind Shelley's poem, "Ozymandias of Egypt," about an ancient statue found in pieces in a lonely desert.
When Shelley describes the ancient despot's "wrinkled lips and sneer of cold command," it was not too great a mental leap to the arrogance of President Bush. "I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair," the despot says. But, as Shelley points out, "Nothing beside remains."
Despots die and their wars are read about in history books; we cluck our tongues, shake our heads and wonder at their evil. But, as Auden says, time "worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives." Words live. Poetry lives.
Alvarez chided Mrs. Bush in her poem, "The White House Has Disinvited the Poets." "No poetry until further notice," she said. "Why be afraid of us, Mrs. Bush, when you're married to a scarier fellow? We bring you tidings of great joy - not only peace, but poetry on earth."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.