Anti-War Poems Cost Would-Be Laureate

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A poet's writings on the war in Iraq cost him a chance to become the first poet laureate of Nassau County — one of the wealthiest counties in the nation — after lawmakers denounced his work as an affront to Americans in the military.

A Nassau County legislative committee voted 6-1 Monday against giving the unpaid post to Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr., who had been nominated by a six-member advisory group. Wheat, 80, has written poetry for decades and is known for writing about Long Island's natural attributes.

The 2004 U.S. Census listed Nassau as the richest county in New York State — and sixth-richest in the nation — with multimillion-dollar homes along its shore on the Long Island Sound, known as the Gold Coast.

It was Wheat's 2004 book, "Iraq and Other Killing Fields: Poetry for Peace," that became a point of contention for the county Legislature's Government Services Committee.

The book includes a poem called "Torture," with the subtitles "Saddam Hussein Regime" and "George W. Bush Administration." A poem Wheat read at the committee meeting describes a "gunner aboard tank bearing barrel legend 'Bush & Co"' firing cannon shells that kill two men "in an explosion of blood and steel."

To the leader of the Legislature's Republican minority, Peter J. Schmitt, Wheat's poems "condemn the troops fighting for America in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that's absolutely tragic."

Wheat urged the legislators not to "let concerns for the meaning of the poems stop you from enjoying the poems." The only committee member who voted in Wheat's favor, Democrat Wayne Wink, said he didn't entirely agree with the poet, but he had been duly nominated.

It was unclear after the vote whether the county would keep looking for a poet laureate. The two-year appointment involves giving two readings a year and otherwise promoting poetry in Nassau County.
  • Lindsay Goldwert

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