"The state of poets is probably better than the state of the nation," said former senator Eugene McCarthy, luncheon speaker Saturday at the first annual Washington Poetry Conference. "For one thing, there's no unemployment. They can never call you a former poet. We poets don't suffer inflation, either. Some poets inflate the language, of course, but all in all, we're okay."

McCarthy, a poet himself, spoke Saturday to about 50 published and aspiring poets. "I think this is the first time poets have dared to have a meeting at the Shoreham," McCarthy said. "You're acting just like the chamber of commerce -- meeting in the open, renting rooms in hotels."The two-day conference was organized by Washington poet John Pauker and property manager/poet Melinda Yalom to give area poets a chance to be heard. "We wanted to reintroduce Washington to the world of poetry," Yalom said, "and introduce Washington poets to each other."

On poetry and politics, McCarthy said, "We all know Auden said poetry makes nothing happen, and Shelley said it makes everthing happen politically . . . I think politicians should be more attentive to it. There's an ancient Irish tradition that poets had great power over politicians."

"I remember a poet wrote one about Nixon: 'His eyes clicked and rolled like the fruit in a slot machine,' " said McCarthy. "I remember it was very difficult to look at Nixon after that."

Lunch was preceded by workshops focused primarily on the business of being a poet in Washington. The audience was heterogeneous and vocal, frequently interrupting the speakers with questions, opinions on favorite poets and asides from their own experiences.

Jean Nordhaus, poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library, spoke on poetry in public. "Coming out as a poet must be like coming out as a homosexual," Nordhaus told the group. "There's a lot of euphoria at first -- all of a sudden they read once, and they want to read everywhere."

"Everyone knows there's no money in poetry," Parry said. Laughed Nordhaus, "I'm one of the few people in the city who actually has a job relating to poetry." Nearly all the assembled poets were otherwise employed, and occupations included translators, lawyers, professors and several government employes, including a technical editor for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

After lunch, poets settled in for an afternoon of readings by new talent; and while some were received with grimaces, others brought warm applause. After a break, the veterans got their chance. Published poets Reed Whittemore, May Miller, Elisavietta Ritchie and Roland Flint each gave 30-minute readings of their work.

"If people don't pay attention to poets these days, maybe it's because we're not giving them anything they can use," said Lane Jennings, a new poet from Columbia, Md., in a prologue to his reading. "Here's a charm that I'm giving to you as a free sample," he said, and launched into an incantation called "On Getting a Parking Space Downtown."