Free Verse

The pen challenges the sword as some of America's finest poets take an anti-war message to Washington

March 06, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - One of them came from the wilderness of Washington state, where he lives in a wooden house he built with his own hands. The other came from the lush forests of Hawaii, where all he can see from his home are the trees and the sea. Both of them left their peaceful, quiet lives and traveled here to the nation's capital to hand-deliver the most poetic protestation of war in Iraq to date.

Sam Hamill, of Port Townsend, Wash., and W.S. Merwin, of Hawaii, two of the country's most esteemed poets, arrived at the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill late yesterday morning to present members of Congress with an anthology of more than 13,000 anti-war poems.

The poems are the result of a grassroots e-mail campaign Hamill launched six weeks ago to rally poets - both established and aspiring - to speak out against military action in Iraq.

The poems in the anthology come from Hamill's Web site, www.poets againstthewar, and include works by many of the country's most renowned poets: Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, to name a few.

In front of an audience of about three dozen, including members of Congress and the press, Hamill and Merwin, joined by poet Terry Tempest Williams, spoke strongly and eloquently about what they see as their role as poets: giving a voice to those opposed to the war. They did not wear buttons, wave banners or shout slogans. Instead, they delivered their message in the language they know best.

The highlight of the short presentation came from Merwin, a distinguished-looking man with snow-white hair and watery blue eyes, who read a poem he wrote one night while lying in bed, listening to the wind and the heavy breathing of his dog. Lying there, he wondered about "The frauds in office devising their massacre ... What part of me could they have come from?"

Yesterday's presentation marked the culmination of Hamill's e-mail campaign, one that began the day after he received an invitation from Laura Bush to a Feb. 12 literary symposium at the White House. Called "Poetry and the American Voice," the first lady's event was supposed to join together all of the nation's leading poets to talk literature and sip tea. What she didn't realize was that their voices, for the most part, are angry.

When Hamill, a former Marine turned Zen Buddhist, opened his invitation, he said he was "overcome by a kind of nausea." So he sent an e-mail to several poet friends asking them to write about their objection to the war and bring their work to the White House. When Bush heard about this plan, she postponed the event - indefinitely.

Hamill launched his Web site, which was filled with more than 2,000 poems in just a few days. He declared Feb. 12 a national day of poetry against the war, calling for contributors to the Web site to organize readings across the country.

Since then, Hamill has been living out of a suitcase and sleeping just three to four hours a night, traveling around the country to rally his fellow bards against the war.

Yesterday morning was the last stop on Hamill's campaign trail, and perhaps the most important. Poetry, after all, isn't often heard in the halls of Congress, and according to several of the representatives, it brings a powerful message.

"The words of these poets are piercing enough to cut through some of the Washingtonese, or language of policy, and address the fundamentals," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, who was a host of the event with Democrat Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Jim McDermott of Washington state. "They're giving us a very sober message, one that needs to be heard."

After the presentation to Congress, Hamill, 60, and Merwin, 75, took a short walk over to the Capitol while their "handlers," or press coordinators, furiously made cell phone calls to schedule the remainder of the day.

All the poets wanted was some lunch.

"I barely have time for a meal these days," said Hamill, looking exasperated, but at the same time, exhilarated.

The poets are angry, but they're excited. They dislike Laura Bush, but they want to thank her for creating what they call the largest groundswell of interest in poetry since the Vietnam War, when poets like Robert Lowell and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who contributed to Hamill's anthology) were some of the most outspoken artists against the war.

The anti-war campaign has given life to an age-old debate about poets. Are they, as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, the "legislators of the world?" Or, in the words of W.H. Auden, is it true that poetry "makes nothing happen?"

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