A movement is brewing that owes as much to Thomas Paine as it does to Allen Ginsberg. Poets are coming out of the universities and into the bright light of the real world, to confront the failing and crass culture that on the one hand promotes a concept of pre-emptive war and on the other accepts public debasement as a form of entertainment.
When incoming NEA Chair Dana Gioia penned his book Can Poetry Matter back in 1992, the clear subtext of the title itself was that poets had become so preoccupied with poetics, professionalism, and white-tower provincialism, that their connection with real people and their actual lives had been severed. Could poets reconnect with real life? Could they write about the world around them, and not only the world within them? Could what they say matter to the daily lives of so many as it had during the Romantic period, and indeed from the time of Blake through Ginsberg?
Poetry in the Western world risks its relevance to the extent that it allows itself to become hermetic. In the Soviet Union, because there was something serious that poets needed to confront, Yevtushenko and Vozneshevsky drew audiences in the tens of thousands. Their books sold out within hours. They wrote about Soviet history which was, to their audiences, an all-too-real present as well. Their engagement with real life, real horrors, and with the lives of others, expanded the historically large Russian audience for literature.
During the Vietnam War, some American poets created work that was political, engaged, and subtle, yet direct. Since then, poetry and the poetic community has fragmented into a series of academic movements that have little connection with one another and less connection with the broader public. Deconstruction fosters a self-referential, you could even say a self-reverential, literature that is off-putting to the general public even as it risks descending into what poet and critic Robert Peters has called ‘catatonic surrealism.’
Since September 11, 2001, many poets have returned to writing about public if not political life. The war on terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have provoked additional responses. Earlier this year, First Lady Mrs. Bush invited a number of well-known poets to the White House for a tea and discussion of “Poetry and the American Voice,” focusing on the works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes. The event was to occur on February 12th. One of the poets invited was Sam Hamill, the editor of Copper Canyon Press. The absurdity of being invited to a genteel tea at the White House while elsewhere in the building the President was planning a war drove Hamill to suggest to his fellow poets that they compile an anthology of poems of protest that they would deliver when they arrived at the event. Hamill sent this suggestion out to about 50 friends and poets. Because of the ease of forwarding e-mail, this message went to hundreds, even thousands of poets.
When someone in the First Lady’s office heard that the poets would be staging a protest, the White House “postponed” the event. Meanwhile, poems continued to arrive for inclusion in the anthology. Hamill and his crew rushed to set up a website to deal with the flood of 13,000 poems. This site, www.poetsagainstthewar.org, still posts all of these poems and functions as an aide in setting up poetry readings against the war. While the site no longer accepts submissions, it shows that poets were willing to take a stand for what they believed in.
The White House’s canceling of the “Poetry and the American Voice” event made news in America and abroad. The poets who contributed to this site were not able to stop the war, but they bore witness to the fact that as members of the poetic tradition and artistic conscience of the country, they opposed the rush to war. On March 5th, Hamill, W. S. Merwin, Terry Tempest Williams, and Cornelius Eady delivered a manuscript of the poems to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, for inclusion in the Library of Congress Archives of the Congress. Currently, Sam Hamill is editing a print anthology of some of these poems to be published by The Nation.
But this is not the only effort to bring relevance to poetry. The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in Manhattan staged an event called “Poetry Is News” on February 1, 2003. Poets Michael Palmer, Anne Waldman, and Eliot Weinberger, as well as several other artists and aid workers, addressed the issue of the upcoming war and what could be done about it. Weinberger said that, “After thirty years of self-absorption in MFA and MLA career-mongering and knee-jerk demography and the personal as political and the impersonal as poetical, American writers now have the government we deserve.” The event was standing room only, and went on for eight hours without a break. Try to find a literary event that generated comparable interest on such short notice. I wager you can’t.
In Paris, Todd Swift, at virtually the same time as Sam Hamill, made a call for poets to contribute to an anthology of poems against the war. The submissions came in quickly, and Todd Swift compiled three free web chapbooks: “100 Poets Against the War.” “100 Poets Against the War Redux,” and “100 Poets Against the War 3.0.” The speed with which the project came together was blistering. From the initial call to submissions to the publication of the first web chapbook took one week. Collections were also put out in French, German, and Portuguese with poems by authors who write in those languages. A printed edition of the anthology is now available from Salt Publishing. All proceeds are being donated to Amnesty International.
The 365 Project, of which I am a founding director and editor, offers another approach to poetic engagement. This collaborative multimedia arts project, on the web at www.the365project.org, facilitates political and cultural criticism on the part of poets and other artists. Each day of the year, The 365 Project selects a single short (one- or two-sentence) clip from non-fiction television and posts it on the web. Artists are encouraged to submit their responses to these clips, as well as to each other's work. The site includes material about the march to war, the war itself, as well as cultural material such as clips from reality television. Submissions posted already include photography, environmental art installations, painting, cartoons, poetry, fiction, prose poetry, mail art, found poetry, song lyrics, film, and drama. The site is posting new clips through the middle of January 2004, and will accept submissions at least until March of 2004.
Artists should confront the assumptions, absurdities, and dangers of their times, as they see them. We will always want to read poems about private and internal subjects. However, the extent to which artists ignore public events defines the extent of their abdication of their role as the “unacknowledged legislators of the race.” As a nation, we cannot get through these difficult times without the artwork by artists who insist on being engaged in public discourse, who refuse to be relegated to the academy or to the limits of their personal lives, who insist on living in the moment, and connected to the lives around them.
Jones, Jordan. “Picketing the Zeitgeist: News, Poetry, Protest, and Making It Matter.” American Book Review. 24.5 (July/August 2003): 3.