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9/20, 9PM





Sunday, February 02, 2003
4:20 PM      

-- R.I.P. Astronauts. R.I.P. Columbia. --

Just as with Challenger, the Space Shuttle program had become so mundane and routine, that the danger and drama was no longer apparent. I'd barely had a thought that Columbia had taken off, much less that it was scheduled to land yesterday. On the morning of Challenger, we'd stopped seeing live broadcasts of the take-off.

After the initial shock of the moment, I began to think about how the Space Program has been hobbled bit by bit since President Nixon. I wondered about the future of manned space flight. We're down to three shuttles now, and there seem to be other priorities these days. If I were superstitious, I'd make something of the connection of the letters, C,l, and numbers 13 and 1.

I rather doubt that the shuttle will fly again in the next year. It will be very interesting to see what happens to the space station in the near term, too. There are people up there.


Just as I suspected:

"While Mrs. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions she, too, has opinions, and believes that it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum."

A couple of days ago, I'd received my second or third request to send an anti-war poem to be read at the White House symposium on poetry hosted by Laura Bush. I guess she thought there'd be a lot of gushy, pretty pieces or jingoistic bombast. Instead a brush fire of protest poetry was ignited. I said to Denise that the White House would probably get wind of what was afoot. In their predictable style (Much like Charleton Heston in Bowling for Columbine), the response was to shut down the conversation -- they "postponed" the event. No new date has been set. Certainly no surprise to me. They say they appreciate dissenting opinions. They just don't give audience to them.

This from the Poetz Monthly Update newsletter:

When Laura Bush invited Sam Hamill, Copper Canyon's publisher, to a symposium entitled "Poetry and the American Voice" at the White House, Sam responded by sending out this call for submissions:

I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war, and to make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon. Please submit your name and a poem or statement of conscience to:

Word got around fast, and more than 1500 submissions (some from poets as well known as W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti) arrived in a couple of days. [Over 2000 as of1/30] And the White House's response to the call was to cancel the whole shebang. Apparently, poetry has become so powerful that even the threat of it is enough to cause some of the most influential people in this country to duck and run for cover.  SO KEEP ON WRITING. USE YOUR VOICE. We are stronger than we know. is a rich source of poetry and more.

More on the matter of "Poetry and the American Voice:" Having been to a lot of open mics, slams, and workshops around this city, you'd have to be pretty out of it not to notice that the poetic voice is very often highly political. In fact, it's often at its best in illuminating the effects of injustice upon the human condition. In a climate of pre-war build-up, the least you can expect to hear at a reading would be a poem that longs for peace. More often, you're likely to hear something far more passionate. Poetry is often subversive. Set up a forum that masquerades as being non-political, and poets' natural sense of morality will reveal the little man behind the curtain.

There's backgrond for this. An interesting article in Salon speaks about how W. didn't invite a poet to speak at his innauguration, and speculates about the dynamics involved:

Is it facile to connect the fortunes of American poetry in the largest sense with the partisan nature of the federal government? Maybe, maybe not, but Clinton did set a tone or a mood in 1993, and Bush could have taken a chance on finding a poet who wouldn't use the occasion to denounce him. But I wondered whom the Republicans could have asked and who might have accepted, and then I reminded myself how closely poets tend to identify themselves with the Democratic Party -- all the more so now, after the bitterness of an election in which the candidate with the greater intellectual stature was defeated, perhaps in part because of his intellectual stature.

...I can say unequivocally that everyone seems to be operating on the assumption that the Bush administration is either hostile to poetry or simply clueless about it. Charles Simic, the Pulitzer-winning proponent of prose poems, said he found it "astonishing that anyone expected Bush to have a poet. I imagine he and most of his Cabinet have only the vaguest idea that there's such a thing as American poetry, and it has no interest for them. To be a poet or a lover of poetry is to be a traitor to the only thing they care for, money, power and the NRA." Claudia Rankine, a celebrated experimentalist who teaches at Barnard, wrote ominously, "We are the first of the many who will be made invisible by George W."

Both Billy Collins and Robert Hass wondered about another issue: Who would be willing to serve? "It's hard to think of an American poet who would be willing to read at the Inauguration," Hass wrote. "That says something fairly distinct about American culture." Hass, who succeeded Dove as poet laureate in 1995, contends that "for most writers, it's not so much their opposition to Bush's politics, or the fact of the Florida controversy, as the intellectual disgrace of the Supreme Court ruling, which bears on the issue of language, which is a writer's area of professional responsibility. Everybody understands that language is used in particular ways in partisan politics, and doesn't necessarily hold politicians responsible for it. Judicial language is another matter. The polis rests on it, which is why Dante, for example, put abusers of public language in the coldest pit of hell." Hass lifted the phrase "intellectual disgrace" from W.H. Auden's "In Memory of William Butler Yeats," a January poem (1939) that succeeds precisely as a public statement, a poem of its moment. "Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face," Auden wrote.

...Shelley called poets the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world,' the accent these days surely falling on 'unacknowledged.' The inclusion of a poet in this country's inaugural ceremony is relatively recent. Kennedy invited Frost, then 30-plus years passed before Clinton had Maya Angelou at his first and Miller Williams at his second. In America, two in a row qualifies as a tradition, so it is a shame to see it broken with George W. Bush. Then again, what poet would Bush have invited? And when you're finished thinking about that, who would have accepted?"

Suave, unflappable Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, also opted for Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators," irresistible under these circumstances. "Illegitimate chief executives should not with unacknowledged legislators consort," Wadsworth said. "It's clearly a Democratic tradition (Kennedy, Clinton) to have poets bless the new president and, for that matter, most poets are Democrats. Why would Bush want to put himself in the humiliating position of inviting poets who might very publicly refuse? What if the poet were to use the occasion to recite a much-deserved satire or jeremiad on the decline of the presidency and the corruption of the electoral process?"

You'll have to read the entire piece to savor the final punch.Then, too, is an interesting article in the Seattle Times called "Poetry Slams into the White House" which sums the whole mess up nicely:

Hamill believes [postponing the event] proves the pen is more powerful than the sword.

"There are a lot of people writing and reading poetry in this country who are feeling alienated," Hamill said. "A lot of people feel deep in their gut that first strike is not an American way of doing things.

"People have felt silenced, and we are providing a platform for poets to speak together."

He has heard from the likes of Hayden Carruth, winner of the National Book Award, and Yusef Komunyakaa, who wrote poetry while serving in the Army in Vietnam and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994....

Will it make any difference to Bush? Kevin Price, assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, says President Bush's White House doesn't have much use for the American intelligentsia.

"Because the majority of American intelligentsia is left-progressive," Price explains. "Obviously, there are important, forceful, sophisticated exceptions, but not too many of them are poets."

Given the current polarization of opinions over Iraq and the possibility of war, Price says, "Mini-showdowns over things like the poetry conference are a manifestation of the larger divisions in the political system." ...

"What idiot thought Sam Hamill would be a good candidate for Laura Bush's tea party?" [Price] asked. "Someone's going to get fired over this."

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