Sharon Olds's decision not to break bread with first lady Laura Bush might seem insignificant to some, but to me it was an act of strength and decency.
One of the nation's most important poetic voices, Olds could have gone along to get along, attended the National Book Festival and a breakfast with the first lady and avoided the kind of scrutiny that comes with taking a political stand.
But Olds, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, not only refused, she made her refusal public, publishing her letter to Laura Bush in The Nation before the book festival was to occur.
In her letter, Olds explained that deciding not to attend the festival was not an easy decision. She sees festivals like this as valuable for creating a community of readers and she even considered attending the festival and breakfast "to bear witness -- as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing -- against this undeclared and devastating war."
But doing so "would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration."
And so she stayed away, following in a long line of poets that have used their command of the language to rise above the cant and hyperbole that have come to infect the political idiom. It is true, as W.H. Auden once wrote, that poetry "makes nothing happen." But it is also true, as Auden wrote in that same poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," that the poet through his poems can transform feeling and that through this transformation effect an alteration in the social consciousness. He writes that William Butler Yeats was "now scattered among a hundred cities," his songs of joy and anger internalized by his readers, made a part of them: "The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living."
Poetry, Auden is saying, is the voice of our collective conscience and "survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper, flows on South/From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth."
The mouth, the word: Language. It is language, Auden is saying, that connects us, that allows us to rise above the harshness and brutality -- even in a world in which the forces of reaction march on, a world in which violence grows more and more commonplace and acceptable.
Some would say that poets should stay out of politics, that we should leave the politicking to the professionals. But isn't that how we've gotten into the mess we're in? And doesn't this view turn poetry into an elitist art form, separate it from the world it seeks to depict and explore?
What our political friends fail to realize is that poetry is not some ornamental and frivolous knickknack but a living, breathing expression of our deepest emotions and beliefs. Poetry exists in the gray areas where politicians fear to tread, bears witness to the degradations of our world, to the devastating effects of materialism, over-industrialization, imperialism and militarism. Poetry is emotion laid bare, a political act so menacing that writers have been killed, imprisoned and forced into exile by governments around the world. Unlike politics, which thrives on obfuscation, poetry thrives on clarity and honesty. It is truth stripped bare.
This is what links poetry and politics. Even a poem as seemingly apolitical as William Blake's "The Tyger" is a marvel of the political imagination, standing in opposition to the religious views of Blake's contemporaries, of their belief in a separation of good and evil, of god from man. The tyger and the lamb -- were both made by the same hands, he asks, and did this creator smile to see it? And if so, what does that say about the creator, about man, about the imagination?
The poet Martin Espada calls poetry an "artistry of dissent."
"The question is not whether poetry and politics can mix," he writes in the introduction to "Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination," an anthology of poems from Curbstone Press published a few years ago. "That question is a luxury for those who can afford it. The question is how best to combine poetry and politics, craft and commitment, how to find the artistic imagination equal to the intensity of the experience and the quality of ideas."
Langston Hughes found that imaginative equilibrium, crafting a new style of verse that relied on the lived experiences of Black Americans, that turned their voices into song.
Walt Whitman found it creating a poetry so large, so all-encompassing that it became itself a metaphor for democracy.
And Emily Dickinson found it, as well:
"All but Death, can be Adjusted --
Dynasties repaired --
Systems -- settled in their Sockets --
Citadels -- dissolved --
Wastes of Lives -- resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs --
Death -- unto itself -- Exception --
Is exempt from Change -- "
Organizations that mix poetry and political activism include:
PEN American Center, 588 Broadway, Suite 303, New York, N.Y. 10012; telephone, (212) 334-1660; Web, www.pen.org;
Poets Against the War, Box 1614, Port Townsend, WA 98368; www.poetsagainstthewar.org;
And my own organization, Voices of Reason, P.O. Box 293, Dayton, N.J. 08810; www.voicesofreason.net.
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.