I'll have you know I am a published poet. My poem was printed years ago in an obscure journal after a call went out for "Banana Poems" following a poetry reading I had attended. I produced a ribald parody of the United Fruit jingle ("I'm Chiquita Banana . . ."), which not only was published but won an award. I quit at the top of my game.
Therefore, I am duly credentialed to comment on the implied authority of poets to be the nation's conscience and to speak out on the morality of the coming war with Iraq. That the poets themselves feel they have this authority seems beyond doubt. A great many of them were prepared to interrupt a White House literary event chaired by Laura Bush to make their point. They managed to get the event indefinitely postponed. In the mind of the poet, bad poetry trumps good manners any day.
But it seems the public shares the poets' view of themselves -- or at least journalists do, because a lot of attention was paid to the poets' protest. Partly this was because it harked back to the days of the Vietnam War, when a similar White House event was boycotted by Robert Lowell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and later one of the leaders of the Oct. 21, 1967, march on the Pentagon. Lowell, who died in 1977, was without a doubt a great poet, and the personification of the unbending Yankee conscience -- he had even been a conscientious objector in World War II.
None of the current antiwar poets have anything like his stature. This includes the poet who organized the White House protest, Sam Hamill. He had been invited to the Feb. 12 White House event and, instead of RSVP-ing in the usual fashion, indignantly asked his colleagues to dedicate the day to "Poetry Against the War." In a flash, his request generated 9,000 poems and statements and in some way foreshadowed the massive antiwar marches of the past weekend. The poets were in the vanguard.
Poets were not always on the political left. Some of them -- Tennyson, Kipling -- had celebrated war or colonialism. Ezra Pound, a great poet, was a fascist. But beginning with World War I and its unimaginable carnage, poets generally moved left. Some of them, such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, fought at the front (Owen was killed seven days before the armistice). Their poems were a sort of journalism, widely read and enormously influential. No poet today can make that claim.
So why does the reverence for poets persist? Partly it's because what they do is rarefied, esoteric and almost entirely removed from commercial considerations. (Almost no poet can make a living writing poetry.) They have become a sort of secular clergy, as fixated with "the word" as some preachers and just as likely to confuse metaphor with truth. Because they are not exactly of this world, they are thought to see it better.
Mostly, though, contemporary poets are thought to practice what the critic and essayist Roger Rosenblatt calls "the compression of wisdom." When this is done well -- and it hardly ever is -- it can be immensely powerful. "We dig a grave in the breezes," Paul Celan wrote in "Death Fugue." It's the Holocaust in a breath.
Too often, though, compression becomes simplification. Thus we get references to colonialism, oil and militarism and a naive admiration for the Palestinian struggle. George W. Bush is caricatured as a simpleton out to avenge Saddam Hussein's attempt to assassinate his father or doing the bidding of Big Oil. This is not the compression of wisdom, nor, for that matter, is it art. Art demands that we see something familiar in a new way. This poetry makes no demands at all. It simply repeats slogans, presenting the familiar as new -- the brittle dogmatism of Bush recited back to him in iambic pentameter.
Those of us who were against the Vietnam War but who now find ourselves enlisted in Bush's Brigade are always looking over our shoulder, fearing history doing a reprise. (I have been re-reading Norman Mailer's wonderful "Armies of the Night.") I scan the new poetry, as I do the placards at the peace marches, alert to the cathartic nugget of wisdom that would avert war while dealing realistically with Hussein. What I find, instead, is yesterday's wisdom about Vietnam misapplied to today's challenge of Iraq.
My career as a poet was brief -- and not entirely serious. But it turns out to have been as serious as the current antiwar braying of poets who confuse making a statement with revealing a truth. Their wisdom is not compressed. It is simply missing.