Earlier this month, a group of poets managed to disrupt the White House. Laura Bush had planned a Feb. 12 symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” to celebrate the works of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. Washington-based poet Sam Hamill responded to the invitation by collecting anti-war poems from people across the country to present to the first lady. She in turn responded by postponing the event. It seems she didn’t like what the voices of American poets were saying.
“It came to the attention of the First Lady’s Office that some invited guests want to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum,” read the official statement from her office. “While Mrs. Bush understands the right of all Americans to express their political views, this event was designed to celebrate poetry.”
But Feb. 12 is still a big day for Hamill. He has organized a National Day of Poetry Against the War, on which he hopes poets will gather for small group readings across the country. His Web site, poetsagainstthewar.org, has collected peace poems from the likes of Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker and Cary-based poet John Balaban.
“It’s not surprising,” Balaban said of the White House’s decision to postpone the event. “And it’s kind of smart on their part, but in a way disappointing.”
Balaban’s book, Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New & Selected Poems, was published by Copper Canyon Press, which Hamill founded. Balaban contributed three poems to the protest after Hamill put out the call. He says he’s surprised that the White House didn’t anticipate that the writers it invited would use the opportunity to make a statement.
“Given the seriousness of the times, I can’t imagine what else they thought would happen. There’s a kind of naiveté in thinking that literature and politics can be so easily separated.”
The first lady’s decision to nix the February event wasn’t the only thing that raised the ire of the literary crowd. Equally controversial was her statement to the press that literature isn’t political.
“I am troubled by the claim that she’s making that American literature is not political,” says Priscilla Wald, associate professor of English at Duke.
Even before the poetry symposium flap, Wald was troubled by the nature of the events. “All of the work that has been done in the last several decades in the academy has shown us that all literature is invariably political, that everything is political,” she says. “What the White House is doing with these events is to co-opt the work and the reputations of scholars who have dedicated their careers to demonstrating that.”
It is difficult to interpret the first lady’s comment. Is this her conviction? Or a politically motivated statement in itself?
“Without speculating on Mrs. Bush’s motives or intentions, it does seem to be a disingenuous comment,” says Marilee Lindemann, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland.
In September, Lindemann attended the third White House symposium, an event celebrating the writings of “Women of the West,” including Willa Cather, Edna Ferber and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Lindemann, who studies the writing of Cather, says she had decided not to let her opinion of the Bush administration prevent her from accepting the invitation. “For English professors, it’s very flattering to be invited to the White House. It makes it seem that your work is being taken very seriously.”
She was impressed to meet dozens of scholars who had come to the White House in the middle of the week, some flying across the country at their own expense. A panel of eight invitees spoke, including Sharon O’Brien and Patricia Nelson Limerick, who Lindemann says are known for “radical” scholarship. Also on the panel was Melissa Gilbert, the actress who played Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. A set of film clips interspersed parts of the TV show with pictures of women from the West–including Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney, who sat together on the front row.
“Aside from the people who were actually on the panel, none of us was ever allowed to say a word,” Lindemann says. “There was no question and answer period, no invitation for the people in the audience to comment. There wasn’t even a receiving line.”
And that was it. “After two hours we were all sort of sent on our way. I was astonished that they had set up this whole thing, bringing in scholars from all over the country, and literally not letting them open their mouths.”
Given the way the symposium was organized, Lindemann says she wasn’t surprised that the February poetry event was canceled in response to Hamill’s effort. “It’s so indicative of this administration’s determination to quash any kind of dissent and to try to score cheap points in the culture wars by trying to de-politicize literature.”
Coincidentally, Lindemann’s partner Martha Nell Smith, also a professor of English at the University of Maryland, was invited to the poetry symposium. She planned to go, despite her partner’s impression of the event. “I thought it was an important thing to attend,” she said. “I was shocked to receive a call last Wednesday telling me they were postponing it. And they did not tell me why. “That put all sorts of questions in my mind,” she says.
The White House insists that the poetry event wasn’t canceled, merely postponed. But given the recent flap, what will future events be like?
“One of the things I’ve found myself saying to my students is, ‘I’m surprised by the fear that this seems to signal,’” says Smith. “I don’t know if it’s the fear of the difference of opinion, the fear of an argument–I’m not sure. But whatever’s intended, it certainly communicates fear. And that really surprises me.”
Lindemann says she hopes the current administration will embrace the political aspects of literature and open up discussion. “You try to separate your feelings about any administration from the institution itself, and part of me wants to say that it’s really terrific that the White House is getting behind the work of the humanities in this way. What’s sad is that they’re making so little of the opportunity they’re creating. They should be celebrating not just the authors but the scholarship on the authors, and creating a real symposium.”
Of the Poets Against the War protest, Lindemann says, “I think it’s terrific. We always rely on poets to speak [out] in situations like this.”