When hundreds of poets gathered this past weekend to protest the impending war with Iraq, all of them were risking their reputation but only one of them was risking his job. His name is Bill Collins and he's the current U.S. Poet Laureate.
Though he's not the founder of the "Poets Against the War" movement nor is his job directly controlled by the President (rather, he's appointed by the Librarian of Congress), it still takes a lot of courage to stand up to a regime as Hell-bent on war as the Bush's. Of course, it doesn't help any when first lady Laura Bush is on record saying she "did not believe poetry should be used for political purposes," when explaining why she cancelled a White House symposium to be attended by Poets Against the War founder, Sam Hamill.
However, the irony and the brutality of Mrs. Bush's statement isn't in the fact that it's a backhanded threat to poets all across the nation, but that it's extremely historically inaccurate. After all, anyone that was awake in History 101 can tell you that poetry and politics have always been joined at the hip.
Ever since the idea of poetry was created, poets, who tend to be a politically active bunch anyway, have always written about what's important to them and they've usually had the mindset that the actions of political leaders do have an impact on them and that the plight of others, even people they might never have met, have an impact on their lives. Anyone who has read the meditations of John Donne knows exactly of what I speak.
This is why many of history's greatest moments of political upheaval have also been moments of great poetic upheaval as well. Both the French and the American revolutions were ripe periods for poets resulting in many great works of literature on both sides of the conflicts. In fact, if you're in the United States, you regularly recite or at least listen to a piece of politically motivated poetry that was written during the War of 1812, "The Star Spangled Banner", or our national anthem.
However, governments have not been keen on just letting poets write what they've pleased. They've frequently taken a much more proactive role in getting the literature they want, often directly paying to get the piece they feel they need.
Though this practice was most common in the Renaissance Era when wealthy and powerful families would support poets so the poet could produce works solely for the family, a more recent case of this was Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade". Though an admirable poem, Tennyson was commissioned by the crown to write the piece honoring the brigade largely because their deaths were the result of a colossal blunder in military strategy.
This practice continues to this day and takes the form of government grants and stipends given to poets for producing work in certain genres. In fact, even the position of Poet Laureate itself is a sign of politics and poetry mixing. The position, which is supposed to "raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry," also has a strong reflection on the United States itself and as such the list of past Poet Laureates is populated almost exclusively by "accessible" authors that are usually very upbeat and keep their controversy to a bare minimum.
If Mrs. Bush were serious in saying that poetry should not be mixed with politics, she'd have to cut all government funding for poets (and the arts for that matter), terminate the position of Poet Laureate, change our National Anthem (perhaps something instrumental) and never hold a White House poetry symposium again. Needless to say, this would be a tremendous loss to the nation as a whole, poets and non-poets alike.
However, I think we all realize that Mrs. Bush did not mean what she said. Instead, a quote more apt to describe her true position would go something like, "I don't believe poetry should be used for political purposes that go against our own agenda," which, in turn, is just as dangerous. While this approach doesn't eliminate the poetic voice altogether, it just makes the government the gatekeeper for what is and is not acceptable, which is the very definition of censorship.
Indeed, what Mrs. Bush has done and obviously intends to do, that is, based upon her words and her actions, is use the government's vast monetary resources to promote exclusively the literature that they (meaning the government) feel is appropriate for whatever political agenda they're advancing. Clearly, this crosses the line between selective support for literature (I've never seen a government grant for any gothic or dark literature) and outright propaganda. What Mrs. Bush is talking about isn't separating politics and poetry, but wielding poetry exclusively as a weapon of politics.
This is why "Poets Against the War" might want to stop focusing on the war with Iraq and turn their attention to a much different kind of war on the home front. As creators of modern culture, poets should see Mrs. Bush's words and the actions of the current administration as fighting words, a direct threat against their very stock and trade.
Because even though lives aren't in danger in the struggle for control over poetry's future, the impact of this struggle could be just as drastic as any conflict fought with bullets. Poetry can't survive under the thumb of the government and it can't flourish without its support. As such, the government, including Mrs. Bush, has an obligation to support and promote poetry of all kinds, even when it or the people who write it are opposed to the current political agenda.
After all, the whole idea of freedom of speech is the protection of unpopular ideas and the right to express them without fear of reprisal. A fact Mrs. Bush has clearly forgotten in her rush to protect her husband's agenda, but one that I hope poets across the nation never let slip. Not only for my sake, but for the sake of the nation…