Two former U.S. poet laureates criticized the White House today for postponing a literary symposium it believed would be politicized. Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove characterized the decision as an example of the Bush administration's hostility to dissenting or creative voices.
The Feb. 12 symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" was to have featured the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. The postponement was announced Wednesday and no future date has been set for the event, which was to be hosted by first lady Laura Bush.
"It came to the attention of the first lady's office that some invited guests want to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum," said a statement from Bush's press office. "While Mrs. Bush understands the right of all Americans to express their political views, this event was designed to celebrate poetry."
"I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse," Kunitz, the 2000-01 poet laureate, said today.
In a statement, Dove, who served as poet laureate from 1993 to '95, said the postponement confirmed her suspicion that "this White House does not wish to open its doors to an 'American voice' that does not echo the administration's misguided policies."
Mrs. Bush, a former librarian who has made teaching and early childhood development her signature issues, has held a series of White House events to salute America's authors. The gatherings are usually lively affairs with discussions of literature and its effect on society. But the poetry symposium soon inspired a nationwide protest, including Kunitz, Dove and others.
Sam Hamill, a poet and editor of the highly regarded Copper Canyon Press, e-mailed friends asking for poems or statements opposing military action against Iraq.
"Make Feb. 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon," the e-mail reads.
He had expected about 50 responses; he's gotten about 2,000, including contributions from W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose poem "Coda" includes the lines "And America turns the attack on the World Trade Center / Into the beginning of the Third World War."
White House invitations have inspired protests before. In 1965, poet Robert Lowell refused to attend a White House arts festival, citing opposition to the Vietnam War.
Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate, said Wednesday that she had accepted her invitation to the poetry symposium because she felt her "presence would promote peace."
"I had commissioned a fabric artist for a silk scarf with peace signs painted on it," she said. "I thought just by going there and shaking Mrs. Bush's hand and being available for the photo ops, my scarf would make a statement."