Poets Against War continues the tradition of socially engaged poetry by creating venues for poetry as a voice against war, tyranny and oppression.
New Year's Letter 2004 - Sam Hamill
“You didn't really believe poets could stop a war, did you?” The reporter's tone was dripping with condescension. I believed in that possibility. Expectations are another matter entirely. Expectations are what lie beneath the surface of a very destructive, very human search for immediate self-gratification. It was in fact George W. Bush who put poets in the position of having to protest. In his January, 2003, State of the Union speech, Bush told us that we were either with him or “on the side of the terrorists.” No middle ground and no place for debate. Since Bush and his appointees reserved the exclusive right to define what a terrorist is, his statement makes a terrorist of every pacifist, every conscientious objector, and every citizen who questions the intelligence or morality of the United States engaging in “pre-emptive war.” Another Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, said that placing any president [or administration] above criticism or argument was “morally treasonable.”
Poets Against the War was officially born when Laura Bush invited me to attend a White House symposium on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, scheduled for February 12, 2003. But it was truly born in the hearts of each of us long before the naively planned and quickly “postponed” symposium. The “postponement” continues today, the White House having faced its only public humiliation when we rose in unison to defend not only our nation's conscience, but poetry itself.
Today, Bush's war continues. The American public hears very little about the mounting civilian body count in Iraq. Bush's popularity rose in the polls when Saddam Hussein was captured. The administration declared the world safer while on this Christmas morning, the U.S. is under “orange alert,” signifying a “high possibility” that we'll be attacked. There were bombs in Baghdad, a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.
Questions about the administration's lies and deceptions “justifying” the reasons for attacking Iraq go unanswered while Bush resists revealing memos about what was known before the U. S. was attacked on September 11, 2001. American soldiers continue to die day by day, and Bush continues to refuse to attend their services. People are held without charges or counsel and librarians are turned into de facto FBI agents, required to reveal records of what citizens read. A significant part of this unelected administration's war is its war on our Constitution, especially the First Amendment, which provides for our unassailable right to dissent. To fail to question this nation's leadership, especially in an age of pre-emptive war, is morally treasonable.
In the coming months, Poets Against the War will encourage its members to collaborate, wherever possible, with other groups working to achieve a change of regime in the United States, to establish an administration that is prepared to join the community of nations rather than dictating to it. As long as this administration's war-making includes attacks on our civil rights, threats against other nations, and its continued assault on labor and environmental laws, it is our duty as citizens of the world to resist. Whitman himself advised us to “resist much, obey little.”
Adrienne Rich and W. S. Merwin have agreed to serve as official advisors to Poets Against the War, and in the coming weeks, several other poets will be added; we will post their statements or mini-essays as we plan strategies throughout this election year. We will also begin a Poets Against the War Recommended Reading section that will focus primarily, but not exclusively, on books that will keep us all better informed politically, better prepared to make our appeals to our friends and neighbors at home and abroad.
Perhaps our greatest success in the past year was in initiating the most prominent public discussion of the role of poetry in this nation's history. Time and again, journalists asked me, “Why can't you poets just leave the politics out of it?” Answer: Because we are human beings, citizens of this nation and this world, politics touches us directly and indeed shapes our daily lives. As Philip Levine told an NPR reporter, “It is nearly impossible to write an apolitical poem.” We poets write not for money or for fame, but out of necessity, out of the deep conviction that the struggle to make a poem is of itself a worthy undertaking, and with full knowledge that most of what any of us writes is of little lasting consequence. The effort, the possibility, is our necessity; expectations only get in the way.
It remains for us to imagine a government grounded in compassionate policies toward its citizenry and toward the community of nations, a country that clings to democratic principles and counts every vote. It is for us to claim a great tradition of American poetry, to reinvigorate those democratic vistas and self-revelations Whitman and Dickinson bequeathed us, the social conscience Langston Hughes embodied. Our real work has only just begun.