TCS Daily

A Poet Dissents

By Frederick Turner - February 20, 2003 12:00 AM

When the petitions came round on the Internet, asking me to join a nationwide list of poets opposed to the apparently imminent war with Iraq, I erased them at once, but gave them little thought. Perhaps I should have replied, stating that I disagreed with the premises, logic, and conclusions of their position. But now the whole affair has turned into brutal blow against the good name of poetry in this country, and an insult to a person-Laura Bush-who is, according to mutual acquaintances, a good, gentle, and well-intentioned person, I feel I can no longer remain silent.

Perhaps in this age of suspicion I should establish that I am indeed a poet, have no personal interests at stake, and have not been encouraged to write this by anyone else. I have published eight books of poetry, some with respectable presses such as Wesleyan University Press, the University Press of Virginia, Story Line Press, and Princeton University Press. I am a winner of the Levinson Prize, awarded by Poetry magazine, and (with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth) The Milan Fust Prize (Hungary's highest literary honor) for our translations of the great Hungarian-Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti-as well as the recipient of several other literary honors. As for my personal stake, I have no political affiliations other than my American citizenship, do not belong to either major party, and indeed to the contrary stand to lose a very great deal by writing this letter-of this more later. Nobody has asked me to write this letter.

As an ordinary citizen, a reader of a wide variety of newspapers and public affairs periodicals, and an occasional viewer of TV news, it seems to my own limited vision that the invasion of Iraq and deposition of Saddam Hussein (with or without a clear directive from the UN Security Council) would be a wise and humane political and military move. The principle that it is the duty of responsible nations to intervene in the affairs of other nations in cases of mass atrocity and the threat of more has been clearly established by its default in Rwanda-Burundi and its success in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and in a previous generation by the Second World War. The atrocities daily committed by Saddam Hussein and the far worse ones threatened by his regime in the future make it clear that he should be removed and his people liberated, as France was from Hitler and as Eastern Europe was from the Soviet Union. I may be wrong in these opinions, but I find it very strange that upwards of 3,600 so-called poets should be so unanimous and so certain to the contrary, and that not one poet has spoken up for the other side of the argument.

There is, as the promulgators of these petitions insist, a "poetry community", to which I obviously do not belong. It consists of a network composed mostly of creative writing professors and their students who invite each other to their campuses to give poetry readings for a fee of around $500 plus expenses, usually attended by about 30 people (who are also taking creative writing classes). I have never participated in this system, and though I have given hundreds of poetry readings, they have usually been at such venues as philosophical conferences, coffee-shops, bars, future-technology groups, space science conferences, psychological associations, salons, humanities institutes, and the like. Thus I owe little to any of the 3,600 signers except to those of them, like their leader, my former student Sam Hamill, with whom I have ties of old friendship. Those ties will now surely be broken, not on my own side-though I must admit to a deep disappointment with Mr. Hamill for having, in my opinion, sold out his poetic voice for a cheap political gesture-but certainly on theirs. Indeed, if anyone in the "poetry community" reads this, I have virtually assured my own disappearance from the official organs of the poetry world.

But I felt that it ought to be said to the American public that there are poets who do not share the views of such Laureates as Amiri Baraka, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and the rest of that herd of independent minds. The dissenters are silent, perhaps because they have not yet prepared a response, perhaps out of contempt for the whole disgusting affair-and this may be a wiser approach-or perhaps for fear of reprisals. Though I know who some of the dissenters are, I shall not "out" them here. But it might be a good idea to put out an appeal, like the one that garnered the 3,600 names, that would give those opposed to them a voice too. Then the American people would be able to judge which of their poets speak for them, and which do not.

Here is my own personal response as a poet to the protest (by the time I wrote it the organizers were claiming that they now had 5,000 supporters from the "poetry community.")

Reply to the Five Thousand

Never till now was I shamed by the name of poet.
What could it even mean, if five thousand "poets"
Sign the same misspelled and malicious manifesto?
Is not a poet a truth-teller, a seer of inner visions?
Why do they make this smell, like the back seat of a taxi?

How can they slander the honest officers of the State?
What is this rage, this stink of outraged vanity,
This resentment that finds at last its lusted-for target,
This thick warm glow of the narcissist's solidarity?
Why do they always adore the strongman with the mustache
(The strongman who takes great care of his personal hygiene
And always leaves behind him a sweetness at meetings)?
Why do they gnaw and slaver at the hand that feeds them?
Why do they hate so this dear dear America
That ploddingly over the decades hauls the world into decency?

Were they not given at poetry readings all that they wanted-
The jus primae noctis with the prettiest budding poet,
The right to be rude to the quivering faculty host,
The right to get drunk and spew all over the carpet,
The great claim to stand in the footsteps of giants?
What is this unslaked vanity, this desire to roll over
And over in the stink of each other's selfrighteousness?
What can the young men and women who guard them from harm
-Who seek to destroy the poisons designed to kill poets-
What can they think when their danger and grief and devotion
And loneliness, losses and pains are counted a crime?

And what can I call myself now that "poet" is murdered,
That the word cannot mean any more the inner glow
Of the vision, the inner voice of the truth that commands me?
Who can my friends be, where are my fellow-eccentrics,
When all that's called "poet" is just a chewing and chewing
On the same miserable piece of cheap cardboard?
Where can I go, but with the soldiers to battle,
To place my spirit in the bright eye of the bomb,
To feel with my wounded belly the pain of the wounded,
To stand near my son so my soul will deflect the bullet,
To find words for the ancient cities of Uruk
Who grope half-blinded into the light of freedom?

And so perhaps I must give up the name of poet
And leave it to those who have wiped themselves with its paper,
And find some name to call myself, now I'm reborn
At fifty-nine, having lost the word for my life,
Or go nameless at last, where I may serve my people,
A spirit who still says Yes to America, Yes
To the world of free citizens, Yes to courage,
Yes to the hope of a world that is rich and growing,
Yes to the fresh wind that blows in the dark of the dawn.

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