A poetry-free presidency

By David Lehman

Published January 23, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

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Poets have failed. Don't blame Bush. Don't blame a vast right-wing conspiracy on this one. A poet's job is to move people. Forcing people to like poetry is like forcing people to dance. If poets did a better job, more people would give a damn about their work. Until then, leave the limp poetry to limp pseudo-intellectuals.

-- Michael Collado

What a wonderful thing it would be, though! A poet satirizing our corrupt and cruel republic. It brings back memories of ancient Rome. Would great Caesar kill the poet? Or let him live? What is it about modern America that causes it to feel that skill with words is effeminate? Why is wit suspect among the solid citizens? I think what the people want is a colorful host of popular corporate cartoon symbols (Mr. Peanut, Ronald McDonald, Mrs. Butterworth, etc.) waving gaily from the inaugural platform. No counting of sins or pondering of achievements would be required.

-- Ken Davis

As a professional writer and a lover of poetry who also happens to vote mostly Republican, it's disappointing, but hardly surprising, to see David Lehman's parade of poets trashing my political brethren as near-illiterate, uncultured clods. Such self-righteous stereotyping on the part of literary academics has gone a long way toward making our collegiate English departments the blandly politicized jokes they are today. With Tom Disch openly promising the ostracism of any poet who dares to affiliate with the Bush administration, what young poet, writer or untenured professor will dare to express a contrary opinion? I'm not in the ideological popularity contest known as the tenure track, so I will. Too bad Disch and Lehman's professional peers don't have the same freedom.

-- Joshua Trevino

Perhaps it's just as well that no poets will greet the nation with their careful wordsmithing on Inauguration Day. The "vampires of the intellect" are already descending upon the capital to suck the creativity and knowledge from a city already void of depth of thought. We certainly don't need another populist poet to address the assembled masses with the equivalent of "The Heart Must Go On." It would have been nice if they could have gotten Garrison Keillor to read a short "Lake Wobegon" story that would inject some laughter and tenderness into a very somber situation.

Something needs to be said about the strength of our republic, the persistence of democracy and the determination of the American people to prosper and work together as we enter the third millennium. We do need a poet of depth to speak some challenging words, but outside of the resurrection of Frost or Sandburg from the grave, we will have to deal with the musings of George W. Bush's speechwriters.

-- Greg Rollins

In David Lehman's "A Poetry-Free Presidency," poet James Cummins says, "What's the point of reading a poem to a bunch of Republicans, anyway? I mean, it's not like they're going to get it."

It seems perfectly obvious to me that the only ones not getting it here are Cummins and Lehman. It is shameful, ignorant and harmful for a poet to align appreciation of poetry with political affiliation. The idea that Republicans are somehow incapable of appreciating and loving poetry is the most idiotic thing I have heard in a very long time.

Maybe Cummins means to suggest that all the limousine liberals out there have a greater appreciation of poetry just because they are Democrats? Maybe they sit on their outrageously expensive imported sofas and drink $500 bottles of Bordeaux and read their first editions and really get it? There is nothing more hypocritical than "high on themselves and their connection with the plight of the common man" Democrats denouncing rich Republicans when both live the same damn lifestyle. My point: Just because you are a Democrat or a Republican doesn't mean a damn thing, especially when it comes to art. You have to look at isolated cases, not make sweeping statements about party affiliation. Obviously, Cummins doesn't know the first thing about politics, and his ignorance is both painful and embarrassing.

Is Cummins aware of the fact that there have been many great poets -- indeed some of the best poets who have ever lived -- who (oh, my God!) were not Democrats and (shock of all shocks!) may have even held political beliefs that he would find far more disgusting than George W.'s? Maybe even fascist beliefs? I don't like W. either, but he isn't making radio announcements for Mussolini. Funny, though. Pound seemed to "get" poetry.

One of the most dangerously popular notions about poetry is that a poet's work should be judged by who the poet himself was. If he hated Jews, we don't want to read him. If he hated women, women's studies programs everywhere will proclaim his work slanderous, disgusting garbage. This phenomenon -- not Republicans -- is the death of art. And this is what both Lehman and Cummins contribute to when they state or insinuate that one's love of art (whether as a reader or as a creator) is linked to one's politics.

If poets are going to turn their backs on Republicans like a pack of bitchy snobs, they should learn a little bit more about the rich and complex relationship between art and politics and the present state of both conservatism and liberalism. I sincerely hope the poets Lehman tracked down are not representative of the state of American poetry. Since when does art turn its back on anyone?

-- Susan Harlan

Though many of the poets quoted in Lehman's article provide interesting observations, my favorite response to the question of a Bush inaugural poem was Robert Hass'. Because language is, as Hass modestly suggests, "the writer's area of professional responsibility," any poet would apparently realize at once that the Supreme Court decision was bogus, and that speaking at Bush's Inauguration would therefore be disgraceful. In other words, if there's one thing a poet can't stand, it's using language dishonestly in judgment. That must be why the jacket blurbs our poets write for each other are such models of integrity.

-- David Orr

Of all the adolescent, apocalyptic generalizations I've heard about Bush, few compare to those of the Bright poets, who seem as ready to speak on behalf of all writers as they are able to fathom the secret hearts of political figures. Moreover, the Brights seem old-fashioned enough to believe that certain sorts of art -- like poetry -- inevitably embody certain ideologies -- like liberalism. As our fearless poetic betters embrace such gross stereotypes for themselves and others, silly me, I'm more interested in reading good poetry than making hapless generalizations.

And, by the by, I'm a nationally published poet.

-- Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum

I am a Republican. I love poetry. The (apparently) widely held belief among self-declared Democratic poets that Republicans can neither understand nor appreciate poetry is the height of liberal arrogance. I'm not certain if the soft-headed idea that I can't appreciate a poem without being a Democrat is just silly -- or dangerous. What I am certain of is this: If we all thought alike, we wouldn't need poetry.

-- Jim Donahue

Actually W. was going to invite a poet until someone told him Edgar Guest was dead. And Gale Norton vetoed "Trees."

-- Arthur Lindley

What are you talking about? Hasn't Bush ever heard of cowboy poetry? What a phony. He's probably not even a real rancher. Maybe Louis L'Amour has something in his writings, something about the West and American self-reliance and mustangs and some Smith and Wesson imagery. Perhaps they could throw in something about the hangman. And isn't our first lady, the ex-librarian, supposed to be really into literature? Couldn't she come up with some ideas? Maybe they were afraid of some kind of minimalist, performance art, haikulike thing, such as: "Tiiimmmmbbbeerrrr!!" The feelings I have about this joke of a presidency can best be expressed to my fellow Americans by august CBS anchorman Dan Rather from his unfortunate 1980s period: "Courage."

-- Julia Douglass

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