Perspectives on War: poets gather in Manchester

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(Host) The threat of war with Iraq has mobilized the peace movement. While demonstrators marched in Vermont and in cities across the country last weekend, there was a different kind of protest in Manchester.

In part one of our series, Perspectives on War, Steve Zind reports on a group of poets who gathered to speak out against a war.

(Julia Alvarez) “The White House has dis-invited the poets to a cultural tea in honor of poetry after the secret service got wind of a plot to fill Mrs. Bush’s ears with anti-war verse.”

(Zind) A few weeks ago, Laura Bush invited a group of poets to the White House to celebrate the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Langston Hughes. When word got out that the poets planned to use the occasion to speak out against war with Iraq, the event was called off. Poet Julia Alvarez has turned that into a poem.

(Alvarez) “The valet sighs as he rolls the carpets up and dusts the blinds. ‘Damn, but a little Langston would be good.'” (Sound of laughter)

(Zind) The White House cancellation has inspired anti-war poetry readings around the country. Sunday night at Manchester’s First Congregational Church, 11 poets held forth for a crowd of over 500. Jamaica Kincaid was one of those who read. Kincaid says the first lady underestimated the power of poetry:

(Kincaid) “I’m sure she had this happy thought of asking some dead poets and she thought the poets she asked to come talk about the dead poets were dead too. Little did she know, they stood up and bit.

“Here’s a little poem by Walt Whitman. ‘To the states, or any one of them. Or any city of the states. Resist much, obey little. Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved.'”

(Zind) Whitman’s poems loomed large at Sunday’s event, along with work by Hughes and Dickensen. Donald Hall read a poem written by his wife, the late Jane Kenyon, during the last war with Iraq.

(Hall) “‘And of a market in Baghdad bombed by accident, where yesterday an old man carried in his basket a piece of fish wrapped in paper and tied with string and three small, hard, green oranges.'”

(Zind) Vermont State Poet Grace Paley reprised a poem she wrote during the Vietnam War. In it Vermont’s Green Mountains are juxtaposed with the mountains of Vietnam:

(Paley) “‘What mountain said the 20 ships of the 17 fleet, rolling on the warm waves, lobbing shells all the summer day into green distance.'”

(Zind) Over 500 people turning out to hear poetry must be some sort of Vermont record. Poetry readings usually draw tiny audiences. But this crowd also came to make a political point.

“Because I’m very much against the war in Iraq and the censorship that went on at the White House, so I wanted to show my support.”

“I have to be a part of some objection to what my country is doing.”

“Because we’re opposed to the war, but also to hear some poetry.”

(Zind) They sat for two hours listening to poetry. They heard poems hundreds of years old, and they heard poems freshly written.

(O’Daly)”‘C’est la vie,’ you say. Saddled up, ready to ride with your posse across oil fields just like those in Texas. It appears the one thing we cherish more than petroleum or our children is the greased machinery of destruction.'”

(Zind) These poems written for the moment may soon be out of date. It may seem odd to stand them side by side with Whitman and the others. But Julia Alvarez says there’s nothing wrong with that. She says what she’s most interested in is preventing a war.

(Alvarez) “I’m going to read an occasional poem called, ‘The White House Has Dis-invited the Poets’. I don’t think it’s a keeper. It’s a poem for the moment. That’s okay.

“‘So why be afraid of us, Mrs. Bush? You’re married to a scarier fellow. We bring you tidings of great joy. Not only peace, but poetry on Earth.'” (Sound of applause.)

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Manchester.

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Audio and transcripts from Perspectives on War are available online.

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