Poems Not Fit for the White House

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #1190, March 9, 2003, posted at http://rwor.org

Before February 2003, CNN's roster of poets was probably pretty slim. So it's a sign of the tumultuous times that, as the networks fill the air with gasbag politicians preparing the populace for war, events would require CNN to book an appealing-looking man in an open-necked shirt, assuring us in verse that the sinister deeds of emperors are ultimately futile and offering advice from Walt Whitman: " Resist much, obey little ."

This little segment ran on February 18, and the poet was Sam Hamill, now famous for experiencing "a kind of nausea" when he received an invitation from Laura Bush to come to her poetry symposium on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes at the White House. When Hamill put out a call for anti-war poems to send to Laura in his place, literally thousands of poems flooded in. The White House found out, cancelled the symposium, and a poets' movement against the war was launched. On February 12, the day of the cancelled conference, hundreds of anti-war poetry readings were held across the U.S.

On February 17, during one of worst blizzards in New York City's history, over 2000 people made their way to Lincoln Center for an evening called POEMS NOT FIT FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. On the stage of Avery Fisher Hall were some of the greatest poets in America. As one observer put it, "It was an evening which will be memorable both in the history of the anti-war movement and in the history of New York City cultural life."

Sam Hamill opened the night with the beautiful "Sheepherder Coffee" and this piece of news: in answer to his call, he had received, to date, over 10,000 anti-war poems from 8,300 poets. "The largest group of poets ever to speak in a single voice in all of recorded history."

The voices heard that night on the Lincoln Center stage were breathtaking, brief, and each one different from the next.

There were poet laureates and Pulitzer-prize winners, hip hop artists and slam champions. Five generations of poets, from every school and tradition: Saul Williams, Marie Howe, Mos Def, Ann Lauterbach, Sapphire, Anne Waldman, Martín Espada, Sharon Olds, Stanley Kunitz, Suheir Hammad, Ammiel Alcalay, Lee Ann Brown, Willie Perdomo, Steve Colman, Tracie Morris, Rose Styron and Galway Kinnell. And if that wasn't enough, playwright Arthur Miller showed up with some pungent words, the legendary Odetta led us in song, and the one-of-a-kind film/theater duo of André Gregory and Wallace Shawn hosted the extraordinary evening.

* * *

When New York City awoke on the day of the reading, the place was blanketed in 2-foot drifts, there were blizzard winds, the airports were shut, and not a car was moving on most streets. Who could imagine that by 7:30 that night the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall would be teeming with hundreds of snowy people, from many neighborhoods and poetic persuasions. Every poet on the bill tried their damnedest to get there as well, and amazingly most did. Actors Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, Wallace Shawn, André Gregory and Eli Wallach read for the poets who were unable to get out their front door, or were stranded at train stations and airports.

By the time the poets took the stage that night, the event had hit the national AP wire, newspapers in Europe, Mexico and Australia, New York Post's Page Six gossip column, and (my personal favorite) the CNN crawl underneath George Bush emerging from Air Force One.

Early in the evening, booming out from the slam/hip hop world, Saul Williams delivered "Bloodletting":

the greatest americans
have not been born yet

they are waiting patiently
for the past to die...

that dummy that sits

on your lap

is no longer

a worthy spectacle

his shrunken pale face

leaves little room for imagination

we have spotted your moving lips

and pinned the voice to its proper source

it is a source of madness

a source of hunger for power

a source of weakness

a source of evil

we have exited your coliseum

and are surrounding your box office

demanding our families back

our language back

our rituals back

our gods back...

This poem, and Saul himself, seemed to come from an ancient place with a mission to cut a path to the future. The audience rejoiced. We knew we were in good hands. And what could prepare us for the appearance of Stanley Kunitz, 97 years old, a former U.S. poet laureate and someone who has lived his principles for a lifetime. He walked slowly, with a cane, to the podium to read "Night Letter"-- written some 60 years ago "when Hitler's stormtroops were blitzing through Europe, the great cities falling day after day," he said. "It seemed then that we were near the end of western civilization."

...My dear, is it too late for peace, too late
For men to gather at the wells to drink
The sweet water; too late for fellowship
And laughter at the forge; too late for us

To say, "let us be good to one another"?
The lamps go singly out; the valley sleeps;

I tend the last light shining on the farms

And keep for you the thought of love alive,

As scholars dungeoned in an ignorant age

Tended the embers of the Trojan fire.

Cities shall suffer siege and some shall fall,

But man's not taken. What the deep heart means,

Its message of the big, round, childish hand,

Its wonder, its simple lonely cry,

The bloodied envelope addressed to you,

Is history, that wide and mortal pang.

The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz , W.W. Norton & Co. 2000

The next night Bush was on TV declaring that if he paid any attention to the millions of anti-war protesters who had marched over the past weekend, this would be like "deciding foreign policy based on a focus group." It was hard to imagine a more profound contrast between the elegant and searing words of the people's poets and the deathlike pollster-talk of the country's politicians.

* * *

Okay, how could Laura Bush have known, considering her background--but it was clearly unwise to make the poets mad. In doing so, she provided the great service of bringing onto the national political stage a burst of creative resistance.

Poet Ann Lauterbach offered a thoughtful opinion in a Village Voice article about this new poets' movement: "Perhaps poets come to the fore at such times because we already live at the margins, we represent a kind of powerless power, and maybe people become interested in this; the idea that persons can devote a life to something that will not bring the usual rewards... This is a kind of identification, especially when people feel they have so little say in the matter."

We live in an extreme moment: a time when it feels like the whole world could explode, this government is pressing everyone's last nerve, and many people are confronting the responsibility to make their relentless war machine stop. Before that evening, I did not fully comprehend how much we need our conscious poets now, these artists who have a special way of connecting the individual life, the personal thought and fear and determination, with the great rush of history.

W.S. Merwin wrote "Ogres" especially for the evening. It was read by André Gregory:

All night waking to the sound
of light rain falling softly

through the leaves in the quiet
valley below the window

and to Paula lying here

asleep beside me and to

the murmur beside the bed

of the dogs' snoring like small

waves coming ashore I

am amazed at the fortune

of this moment in the whole

of the dark this unspoken

favor while it is with us

this breathing peace and then I

think of the frauds in office

at this instant devising

their massacres in my name

what part of me could they have

come from were they made of my

loathing itself and dredged from

the bitter depths of my shame

Perhaps only in a poem could one express with such economy the agony of the conflict between a life of bounty and peace and the criminality of what this government is doing in our name... How did this happen and how am I responsible?

The White House did us another favor by offering this stunning explanation of their cancellation: "While Ms. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she too has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum."

Most remarkable is the plain stupidity exhibited in the White House censorship on the basis of "politics," given the three poets chosen for their own literary event. Katha Pollitt wrote: "Whitman's epic of radical democracy, Leaves of Grass , was so scandalous it got him fired from his government job; [Langston] Hughes, a Communist sympathizer hounded by McCarthy, wrote constantly and indelibly about racism, injustice, power; Dickinson might seem the least political, but in some ways she was the most lastingly so--every line she wrote is an attack on complacency and conformity of manners, mores, religion, language, gender, thought." ( The Nation )

We all know that when the authorities start worrying that the art (or the conversation) is getting "too political," the artists and works under fire are likely to be radical. But I always love it when this errant concept hits the popular airwaves. At least we're talking about something important. As a matter of fact, isn't art always about something -- ideas, people, places, and the relations between them? Personally, I agree with RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, that "all art has a political character to it; it's either going to serve one kind of politics or another.. "[it] represents the point of view ultimately of one class or another and one way or another of viewing how society is and how it ought to be."

Ann Lauterbach put it this way on a local NPR show the day of the reading: "That art should be some kind of décor or entertainment and that politics is separate from it is one of the most specious and dangerous arguments there is...politics is part of thinking and feeling and responding to the world."

To make it simple, are poets like any other citizen of the world? Should they find every way possible to express, through their art and their public voice, their conscience? I say yes, and these particular poets were at a distinct advantage because they actually have one (unlike the mass murderer in the White House who, Laura reports, has never lost a wink of sleep).

Some of the poets that night read the words of Palestinian and Iraqi poets whose voices the U.S. public rarely if ever hears. When Ammiel Alcalay read "New Year" by the Iraqi poet Nazik al- Malaika, an 80-year-old woman now living in Baghdad, we experienced, in a chilling new way, what it must be like for the people in Iraq now awaiting the lethal package of "Shock and Awe" (e.g., 700 cruise missiles in the first two days of war) promised by this White House.

...If only we could measure time by the years.
If only we knew what it is to belong to a place

If only we were afraid of madness
If only travelling could disrupt our lives

If only we could die like other people.

Willie Perdomo read "The Book of Genesis According to San Miguelito," by the late great Miguel Pinero--a shocking, hilarious, and dead-on description of the grotesque "democratic way of life," which is the very gift the U.S. government is now preparing to bestow on the Iraqi people.

Before the beginning,
God created God

In the beginning
God created the ghettos & slums

And God saw this was good.

So God said,

"Let there be more ghettos & slums"

and there were more ghettos & slums.

But God saw this was plain


to decorate it

God created lead-based paint

and then

God created the rivers of garbage & filth

to flow gracefully through the ghettos.

...On the fourth day

God was riding around Harlem in a gypsy cab

when he created the people

and he created these beings in ethnic proportion

but he saw the people lonely & hungry

and from his eminent rectum

he created a companion for these people

and he called this companion


who begat racism

who begat exploitation

who begat male chauvinism

who begat machismo

who begat imperialism

who begat colonialism

who begat wall street

who begat foreign wars

and God knew

and God saw

and God felt this was extra good

and God said


...On the seventh day God was tired

So he called in sick

collected his overtime pay

a paid vacation included

But before God got on that t.w.a.

for the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico,

He noticed his main man Satan

planting the learning trees of consciousness

around his ghetto edens

So God called a news conference

on a state of the heavens address

on a coast to coast national t.v. hookup

and God told the people

to be


and the people were cool

and the people kept cool

and the people are cool

and the people stayed cool

and God said


ALOUD, Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe , Henry Holt and Co., 1994

All night the challenge to think and to act was put to the people, through sly provocations, elegies, nursery rhymes, hymns, and beautiful full-throated cries.

Poet Tracie Morris told us about a young friend who was shocked at how the cops tried to frighten people with their horses at Saturday's demonstration: "I said, `welcome to African America.' Because it always starts with the people at the edge; it always starts with suspects and sympathizers and dem others, and then it ends up being everywhere and everybody and all of us. So this poem is about my ancestors, and hopefully not everybody's, later." She did a sound poem which started with the refrain from the beautiful song by Sam Cooke, "that's the sound of the men working on the chain gang" and then went directly into orbit. A rapid fire, multisyllabic, non-stop ride: "Isn't that the kid working on the... same block, same man, same plan...and you don't stop, you don't stop...on my block...tick tock, tick tock."

Arthur Miller came with prose, not a poem, and there was something especially stirring about his appearance on this stage. Fifty years ago, Miller refused to cooperate with the government during the anti-communist witch hunts. And the recent Broadway revival of Miller's play, "The Crucible," set during the time of the Salem witch trials, shocked audiences with its chilling comparison to the current political climate. When one of the judges in the witch trials declared, "You must understand, sir, a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between"--no one could miss the connection. As Miller wrote in last Sunday's New York Times : "How many times do we have to indulge the same idiocies for which we must later be ashamed?"

It was the refusal to allow this government to launch a war on the world and shred civil liberties at home that inspired artists, public intellectuals and activists to sign the Not in Our Name Statement of Conscience, a manifesto which has since been printed in 48 different publications, through contributions from signers. Many distinguished poets were among the signers of the Statement, so when Sam Hamill put out the call for readings, the NION Statement working group decided to rent Avery Fisher Hall and call them up. Thirteen days later, they were presenting POEMS NOT FIT...

Galway Kinnell -- the State Poet of Vermont, who drove through the blizzard to New York -- came to the stage late in the evening, and read a few lines from Whitman:

"... Who are they as bats and nightdogs askant in the capital,
What a filthy presidentiad,

Are those really congressmen?
Are those the great judges?

Is that the president?

Then I will sleep awhile yet.

But we shall duly awake,

South, north, east, west, inland and seaboard

We will surely awake."

Then he stopped and looked at us all and said: "I came here angry at that bunch in the White House who are running this country. I came here really ashamed at what this country is becoming under their hands. And I came here in fear at what this country may do to others and to ourselves... I feel that this is a kind of turning point in the life of this city and this country, and that we now have a resistance." As the import of his words hit the audience, they began to rise, first from the back of the hall, then down to the front, and finally the whole room was on its feet cheering with joy and determination.

* * *

At breakfast one morning after the event, one of the organizers of the evening told a story about the people of Leningrad in the Soviet Union during World War 2. It was the dead of winter, and the Nazis had laid siege to the city, reducing its inhabitants to eating wallpaper and rats. The brave people of Leningrad continued to resist the German siege, but there were three more months of winter before the ice would melt to allow in more troops and supplies. He said that the only thing the Soviet government could think of to keep the people going was to parachute in poets and musicians. So the fragile starving people of Leningrad made their way across the city to the readings and concerts. Some audience members and some of the artists would quietly perish during these performances. But Leningrad held, and the Soviet people defeated the Nazis.

A few days ago, I received an email about the event from a friend, a young filmmaker: "I was feeling that energy...and needing to have been part of something like that. It gave me a sense of hope I had not really experienced until then--that feeling of camaraderie. The breaths were deep as people spilled into aisles and exited."

NOTE: A professional sound recording of POEMS NOT FIT FOR THE WHITE HOUSE is available for non-commercial radio broadcast. Contact the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience at www.nion.us

To find out about poetry readings against the war, or to read one of the 12,000 poems that have been submitted, go to: http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org/

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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