Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poetry Is Not Political

A few years ago, just before the war began, just before Colin Powell went to the the U.N. to make his case for going into Iraq, Mrs. Bush canceled a day of poetry at the White House. Several noted American poets had been invited to come for lunch with the First Lady and read for her and illustrious guests, but word got around that the poets were planning to read Protest Poems . . . they were going to make a statement against going to war with their art, and so, the luncheon got the kibosh. The First Lady's spokeswoman came on the radio and said "The First Lady believes that poetry is not political, and she regrets that certain people planned to use a day intended to honor literary art to polarize public opinion." I turned off the radio and repeated the words in my head, Poetry is not Political, Poetry is not Political and then I grumbled to myself, "Poetry is not Political my ass. Who does she think she's kidding?" This was early on in that administration, and it wouldn't be long before I knew better than to expect their statements to make sense. The more I thought about it, the more it ate me up. And so, I came up with a plan. If the First Lady wouldn't let poets read war protest poems in the White House, I would send one war protest poem, the most poignant one I knew of, to every Senator in Washington, and to all members of the President's cabinet, and to the First Lady herself, along with a hand written note expressing my humble opposition to military action in Iraq. Colin Powell was scheduled to speak on the floor of the U.N. on Valentine's Day, so I made my statement on Crane's fine pink stationery. I burned the midnight oil for ten nights hand writing each one of my respectful protest notes -- Dear Senator So & So . . .
My days working with fundraisers taught me that personalization was the most effective way to catch someone's eye, to reach their heart strings, and nothing was more personal than a hand-written note on good paper stock. Into each small petal pink note card, I tucked a five-line poem typed on a piece of pink paper and slightly larger than what these politicians might pull from a fortune cookie at their favorite Chinese restaurant. I asked that they carry the poem with them, perhaps in their wallet or in a vest pocket so they might be inclined to read it occasionally and remind themselves of the consequences of going to battle. My hope was that if just one or two of them carried out my wish, something might change. Of course this was idealistic, but behind every protest is a pipe dream, no? I knew the dye had already been cast with the vote of congress to support the President's desire to go to war the previous fall, but I had to raise my voice just in the slight chance that it would combine with other voices to reverse the inevitable. And, besides, my real beef was with the First Lady's assertion that Poetry Is Not Political -- I wanted to drive it home that Poetry had every right to be political.
A few days prior to Powell's appearance at the U.N., my satchel of pink was posted -- over 120 letters carrying the poem danced into Washington and I would receive only one response letter in return. It came from my N.C. Senator several months after operations in Iraq had commenced; she thanked me for my letter of support for the troops and asked me to pray for the United States. I wasn't surprised by her slightly incoherent dismissal.
So what was the poem you ask? It was the poem of a poet who had taught in the English department of my alma mater UNC-Greensboro. I never had the pleasure of taking one of his classes, as he was long since dead by the time I went to school there, but he haunted those halls, and we were ever conscious of his powerful literary presence. 

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Randall Jarrell (1914 - 1965)

1 comment:

Robert said...

I was thinking about Randall Jarrell's poem as soon as you brought up war and poetry. That may be the most devastating closing line written in English.

And thank you for trying.