The White House's postponement of a literary symposium it believed was becoming politicized led two former U.S. poets laureate to characterize the decision as an example of the Bush administration's hostility to dissenting or creative voices.
"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," Stanley Kunitz, the 2000-2001 poet laureate, said Thursday.
In a statement, Rita 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."
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, to be held by first lady Laura Bush.
"While Mrs. Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum," Noelia Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the first lady, said Wednesday.
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.
Hughes and Whitman themselves were frequent social commentators. Whitman once complained that the presidency and other offices were "bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes." Hughes' political writings and left-wing sympathies led to FBI surveillance and harassment from Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Kunitz, Dove and others had refused to attend the symposium and a nationwide protest was soon organized.
Sam Hamill, a poet and editor of the highly regarded Copper Canyon Press, based in Port Townsend, Wash., 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."
Hamill will post all the submissions on a Web site that began running Thursday.
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 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."
By Hillel Italie