Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2003 / 9 Adar I, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Rhyme, but no reason | As if we haven't faced enough fateful deadlines lately, here comes Feb. 12: A Day of Poetry Against the War.

Tomorrow, bards throughout the land are scheduled to launch a coordinated verse-and-bongo assault on American foreign policy and the national eardrum.

We have Laura Bush to thank for this.

The First Lady, a librarian and book lover, is her husband's unofficial ambassador to the arts community. In that capacity, she invited a pack of poets to the White House for a forum Wednesday on "Poetry and the American Voice."

Ostensibly, the event was to be a high-minded discussion of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. In fact, it was conceived (as most White House cultural events are conceived) as a mutual back-scratch. The guests would lend cultural cachet to the cowboy President and his missus. In return, they would be fed a free meal and receive an ego massage.

Enter Sam Hamill, the editor of the Copper Canyon Press (last year's net income: $2,695) who began organizing a national movement to send anti-war poems to the White House.

Reportedly, no less a figure than David Allen Evans, the poet laureate of South Dakota, agreed to pen a poem of protest.

Hamill's ball began rolling. Two former national poets laureate, Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, announced that they were turning down their invitations to the White House tea party. Soon, other poets - not all of them invited - began bragging that they, too, would boycott the event. Sensing disaster, the First Lady called the whole thing off.

Instead, we will be treated to a great public caterwauling by the nation's poets on the subject of national defense. The value of this exercise was summed up neatly in an earlier day of war by William Butler Yeats - the David Allen Evans of Dublin:

"I think it better that in times like these/A poet keeps his mouth shut, for in truth/ We have no gift to set a statesman right."

The absence of a political gift is not, of course, a disqualification from making pronouncements on matters of state. Poets have as much right as anyone else to voice their opinions. The pronunciamentos issued Wednesday probably won't be more foolish than the musings of the average fashion model or professional bowler.

But if poets are no dumber than anyone else, they often seem less reliable in their moral judgments. Exhibit A is, of course, Ezra Pound, the American literary icon who spent World War II making crude propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis. The current war already is producing a new crop of Exhibit Bs.

The best known is probably Amiri Baraka, poet laureate of the New Jersey. In his "Somebody Blew Up America," Baraka made a bid for the Pound Prize by suggesting that Israel was complicit in the attack on the World Trade Center.

Tom Paulin, an Irish poet teaching at Columbia University, is another Pounder. In "Killed in Crossfire," he called Israeli soldiers "the Zionist SS" (and, in a subsequent newspaper interview, advocated the murder of "Brooklyn-born" Jewish settlers). Paulin recently was honored by the Harvard University English Department, which undoubtedly will be a cacophonous den of statecraft and morality come Wednesday.

Presumably, the First Lady will spend the day in some quiet place, far from the festival of protest she unwittingly has unleashed on the country. But she won't go unpunished. She is, after all, a poetry lover. And Wednesday, with its coffeehouse-and-Chianti declamations, will not be a good day for American poetry.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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