War slam

February 12, 2003

LAURA BUSH is poetry's best friend. The most neglected and least remunerative of the arts is having a big day across the country today, thanks to the way the first lady's office mishandled what was to have been a genteel celebration of three long-dead versifiers.

Mrs. Bush wanted to hold a symposium at the White House on "Poetry and the American Voice," focusing on Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. One of the invitees began trying to persuade others who would be there to turn the event into a protest against the impending war in Iraq. The White House - horrified? terrified? stupefied? - promptly postponed the event until Iraq, if not hell, freezes over.

That brought poets out of the woodwork. Galvanized, they'll be holding antiwar poetry readings from one end of the country to the other today, and in Europe and Asia, to boot - more than 150 all told, including one at 8 p.m. at the University of Baltimore's Business School auditorium.

Here's how we handicap the whole thing:

Mrs. Bush, a former librarian, deserves praise for wanting to give the White House imprimatur to a discussion about poetry.

Sam Hamill, who tried to organize the original protest, was well within his rights to do so, but probably won't get a second invitation.

Mrs. Bush could have had the courage of her convictions and gone ahead with her plans, but chose not to, and, after all, it was her party.

People who are calling this an attack on free expression are overstating the case just a teeny little bit.

The White House reaction nevertheless demonstrates that poetry can still pack a punch, after all these years.

Neither Mr. Hamill's glee over the trouble he's stirred up, nor the haughtily self-righteous anger of many of those who have joined his cause, is exactly worthy of the ancient art.

But then again, there's an argument to be made that a pre-emptive war against Iraq isn't exactly worthy of America at its finest, either.

Hundreds of poets are going to be speaking and reading today in public, and a great many of them are worth listening to.

That poets are impertinent should come as no surprise. Many of today's participants have argued that poetry has a rich tradition of protest, though that's not an argument they should pursue too far. Would Homer have suggested that the Trojans deserved victory? Not likely. Would Shakespeare have argued that Henry V's men shouldn't go once more unto the breach? Against the French? Please.

But that's ancient history. Poets got out of the glorification business a long time ago. And yet, come to think of it, maybe on this one day they ought to be singing the praises of the president's wife. Just look at the platform she's given them.

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