Poets and politicians go together like ham and lox, like teachers and truants. They simply don't see the world from the same perspective. That's why it was brave - if a bit naïve - for Laura Bush to invite poets to the White House and expect them to act like poets. They wanted to be politicians.
The first lady was interested in "Poetry and the American Voice." The poets were interested only in making noise.
When the poets mixed metaphors and abused their pentameters in an attempt at statecraft, the first lady cancelled her poetry symposium and told the poets to stay home. Not since Robert Lowell turned down an invitation to Lyndon Johnson's White House four decades ago to protest the Vietnam War had a poet got such an easy 15 minutes of pop fame.
What Norman Mailer observed of novelists is also true for poets: "If one was going to take part in a literary demonstration, it had better work, since novelists like movie stars like to keep their politics in their pocket rather than wear them as ashes on the brow," he wrote in "Armies of the Night," long before Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand and Madonna put on ashes (if not sackcloth). "If it is hard for people in the literary world to applaud any act braver or more self-sacrificing than their own, it is impossible for them to forgive any gallant move which is by consensus unsuccessful."
The consensus on this occasion rendered the poets mute, which might or might not have been a blessing for the rest of us. The poets lost an opportunity to heighten public appreciation for poetry. They were invited to the White House to discuss Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, all of whom would have upstaged the current company, reminding one and all of how fine the English language can be made to sound. Poets can be rebels or they can be traditionalists; we don't have to like their character (if any) to enjoy their poetry.
But there was something especially nasty about the poet Sam Hamill, who never intended to accept the First Lady's invitation to the White House in the first place, but used the invitation to bring attention to himself, to make an antiwar protest and to spoil the party for everybody else.
The poetry symposium was also meant to be the occasion to introduce and swear in Dana Gioia, a poet, as the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts with a mission is to revive public interest in poetry. A previous column of mine, about how Gioia thinks poetry can be made to matter again in our culture, provoked dozens of letters bemoaning the sad state of poetry and the disdain for poetry in general.
Some of my letter writers blamed the vulgarity of the culture and the lazy lyrics of rap and hip-hop, "something we once would have ridiculed as doggerel;" others were enraged by a cultural inability to elevate eloquence in any form. Wrote one reader: "Certainly our culture cannot survive without establishing a love of language and its royal place in our lives."
Good poetry unites the imagination and the intellect within a common frame of reference appealing to universal experience. Part of the problem for poetry today is the isolation of poets and the academic narrowness of their life's experience, which is often limited to the campus. Wallace Stevens was a businessman, William Carlos Williams a physician, T.S. Eliot a banker. Both Chaucer and Milton were public servants.
Poetry can cross the spectrum of ideologies and some of our best poets have been political in the most expansive use of that word (think Walt Whitman), but we are entitled to question the motives of a poet such as Sam Hamill, who chose to substitute political protest for a discussion of the poetic craft among his peers. He might have enhanced public appreciation for poetic expression, but his sniggering protest merely reflected the narrowness of the audience he presumably cares about.
Poetry at its best refines, polishes and pushes the limits of language, what Ezra Pound called "the most concentrated form of verbal expression." The printed word is constantly challenged by visual images in delivering both information and entertainment, and it's unlikely that modern poets can do much to counter that challenge. But it's a pity that Laura Bush was not allowed to remind us of the exquisite glory in poetry that once reached a larger audience, as in Walt Whitman's "One's-Self I Sing":