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arts and culture | imperialism & war

U.S. poets organize anti-war protest

excerpt from Whitmans's: "Come up from the fields father"

The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently dressed in black,
By day her meals untouched, then at night fitfully sleeping, often waking,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - First lady Laura Bush may feel their dissenting words are unwelcome in her home, but a group of poets opposed to a war with Iraq plans to deluge the White House anyway with reams of anti-war verse in a national day of protest.

Their "Day of Poetry Against the War" is set for Feb. 12, the date Mrs. Bush had been scheduled to host a White House poetry symposium until she learned that some invited guests intended to use the event to criticize her husband's policy toward Iraq.

"While Mrs. Bush understands the right of all Americans to express their political views, this event was designed to celebrate poetry," the first lady's press office said in a statement explaining why the symposium had been indefinitely postponed.

The gathering, titled "Poetry and the American Voice," was to have spotlighted the works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, three poets known for speaking their minds.

Poet Sam Hamill, founding editor of noted poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington, and organizer of the poets' protest, said the first lady's reaction shows "they clearly know very little about poetry or the nature of poets."

"Although poetry is written in solitude, it is social language, and all poems are political in one way or another," Hamill said on Friday. "So why they thought they could have a symposium on Whitman, and Hughes and Dickinson and have no politics involved is utterly beyond me."

He noted that Whitman and Hughes, in particular, were strongly identified with their views on political and social issues of their day.

Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, who like Hamill had been invited to the symposium but did not plan to attend, said the decision to call off the event reflects a hostility toward dissent on the part of the Bush administration.

"This White House does not wish to open its doors to an 'American Voice' that does not echo the administration's misguided policies," Dove, poet laureate from 1993 to 1995, said.

3,000 POEMS

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the famed Beat poet and founder of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, said the idea of inviting a group of poets to the White House as the administration prepares for war was naive in the first place.

"The poet by definition is the bearer of freedom and love, and ... by definition he has to be an enemy of the state and everything the state does, and one of its primary activities, which is war."

Hamill and colleagues are organizing poetry readings around the country for Feb. 12 and will send the White House an "anthology of protest" compiled from anti-war poems submitted to his hastily created "Poets Against the War" Web site.

Hamill said he has received nearly 3,000 poems and other personal statements from fellow bards since e-mailing an open letter to friends last week soliciting their contributions to the project. He said the collection may represent "the largest unified voice of poets ever assembled ... all basically saying the same thing in one way or another."

"I just wanted to make my own little statement with the help of some friends, and it turns out I have thousands of friends I didn't know I had," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

In his open letter, Hamill called on "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."

Ferlinghetti submitted two poems, "History of the Airplane," a mediation on the Wright brothers' invention as an instrument of war, and a piece titled "Coda," which opens with the lines: "And a vast paranoia sweeps across the nation/And America turns the attack on the World Trade Center/Into the beginning of the Third World War/(the beginning of the war with the Third World)".