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The Poet-Activists


By Sue Meng

Poets are the new pundits. As the debate over Iraq mounts, verse more than ever is the genre of choice. What got Tom Paulin into trouble is getting others a lot of attention: harnessing the moral power of words to mine the political significance of art.

Last month, some of the most recognizable names in poetry gathered at Lincoln Center for a reading aptly named “Poems Not Fit for the White House.” Sam Hamill, Arthur Miller, and Stanley Kunitz were among those who read; the Harvard duo—Jorie Graham and Peter Sacks—was snowed in, but both joined in readings held at Adams House and the Loeb. All across the country—in churches and bookstores and makeshift spaces, before and after the anti-war rallies of February 17th—poets combined artistic expression with political protest. The stereotype of the scholar-poet writing in dusty oblivion quickly became replaced by the media-savvy poet-activist, writing in a new wasteland where websites (i.e. are the publishing houses of choice.

Much of the flood of anti-war poetry has been in direct response to the Laura Bushism, “There is nothing political about American literature.” With anti-Americanism spreading and war stewing, the librarian-turned-First Lady has turned to poetry readings and literature symposia to revive “the crux of what America is.” Understood in these terms, poetry can feed the American soul, so long as it does not question it.

It is easy enough to point out the White House’s shortsightedness, but harder to see how these prejudices pervade our own community. At Yale two weeks ago, the controversial reading by Amiri Baraka revived many of the same debates and arguments familiar to us during the Paulin debacle: one side clamored for free speech, the other for responsible speech. Yet at the root of the controversy in both instances is a more fundamental disagreement about the role and responsibility of art—its political capital apart from its aesthetic value. Many of the students who supported the right of both poets to speak cited artistic license and linguistic elasticity as reasons for reading their poems with a grain of salt. From the mouth of a politician (witness Trent Lott’s quick demise), a poem like “Somebody blew up America” would be defamation; in the voice of a poet, it remains shielded by the nomenclature of Art. As much as our experiences might teach us otherwise, more often than not our educations keep art in the safe harbor of the apolitical.

The overtly political nature of the new poems from a familiar corps of poets, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to make big claims for what poetry can do. Sam Hamill identifies poets as the “conscience of our culture,” responsible for providing the clarity that neither the government nor the news media is capable of. Their poems are not only acts of civic protest, but also affirmations of the immediate social power of literature; understood in this manner, literature does not provide a haven from our world, but a way to cultivate the sympathies necessary to being better citizens in it. What is revolutionary about this kind of poetry is that it doesn’t discriminate between form and function: a precisely placed word invests literature with the ability to move, offend, inspire, and incite, making the act of reading and writing deeply, even deliberately, pragmatic. There is everything political about American literature.

As the country, or rather the White House, readies for a preemptive strike, what is the role of a university in a time of war? As citizens of a place in which art is studied and even created, now more than ever should we recognize the latent power of what we study rather than burrow in the safer insignificance of our ideas. The more we deny (or fail to appreciate) the political import of art, deconstructing its minutiae rather than debating its argument, the more, as Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04 put it in a recent column, we augment the mutually reinforcing powerlessness of what we learn. It doesn’t take a draft to engage a university more directly with the problems of war; it takes the audacity to make bigger claims about the purpose of a liberal arts education. As we read British war poetry to learn about life in World War I trenches, or the novels of Virginia Woolf to speak blithely about the sense of disconnect and restlessness of the era that preceded World War II, in fifty years, what will this generation of war poems and how they were read tell us about our own?

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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