Posted on Wed, Feb. 05, 2003
U.S. poet laureate opposes war with Iraq
Associated Press - 5 Feb:
NEW YORK - The threatened war with Iraq has politicized the nation's poets, starting at the very top.
In comments rarely heard from a sitting U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins has publicly declared his opposition to war and says he finds it increasingly difficult to keep politics out of his official job as literary advocate.
While at least three of Collins' predecessors also have stated their opposition to war, an incumbent laureate usually sticks to art for art's sake. Poets laureate are not political appointees; the selection is made by the Librarian of Congress, a post currently held by James H. Billington. Collins, who receives an annual stipend of $35,000, is serving his second one-year term.
A spokeswoman for the Library of Congress said Tuesday that "Mr. Collins is free to express his own opinions on any subject."
Collins, whose books include "Questions About Angels" and "Nine Horses," is a mostly introspective poet who doesn't have a history of political activism. But he defended anti-war poets who last week caused the White House to postpone a symposium sponsored by first lady Laura Bush.
"If political protest is urgent, I don't think it needs to wait for an appropriate scene and setting and should be as disruptive as it wants to be," Collins said in a recent e-mail to The Associated Press .
"I have tried to keep the West Wing and the East Wing of the White House as separate as possible because I support what Mrs. Bush has done for the causes of literacy and reading. But as this country is being pushed into a violent confrontation, I find it increasingly difficult to maintain that separation."
Collins, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, former U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur and about 40 other writers and artists signed an anti-war petition last month.
In England, meanwhile, poet laureate Andrew Motion has written an anti-war poem that cites "elections, money, empire, oil" as the motivation for war.
Concern about a possible war has also changed what had been a relatively positive relationship between Mrs. Bush and the literary community. A former librarian who has made teaching and early childhood development her signature issues, she has held a series of symposiums to salute America's authors.
She planned a Feb. 12 forum on "Poetry and the American Voice," featuring the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Through her spokeswoman, Noelia Rodriguez, Mrs. Bush said last Wednesday that it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum" and postponed the forum. It has not been rescheduled.
Former poets laureate Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove were among those who refused to attend and Sam Hamill, a poet and editor of the highly regarded Copper Canyon Press, organized a protest to send anti-war poems and statements to the White House. So far, he has received more than 3,600, to be posted on a Web site. Contributors include Pulitzer Prize winners W.S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell and at least two state poet laureates: Connecticut's Marilyn Nelson and South Dakota's David Allen Evans.
"I'm not speaking as a representative of the state, I'm speaking as ... a poet and private individual," Evans said. "I know it's an ambivalent situation and I hesitated to contribute to the project, but I felt that I needed to say I wanted peace instead of war."
New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka said he will send a statement to Hamill and is also working on a poem about impeaching President Bush.
"Of course, I see it as part of my job. The main task right now is stopping the war," said Baraka, whose poem implying Israel had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks led critics to call for his resignation.