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Rebuilding Iraq

Poets hold protest readings against looming war with Iraq

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 2/13/2003

CAMBRIDGE -- Before a small audience at WordsWorth Books near Harvard Square, seven local poets yesterday read antiwar poems in a protest against the impending war with Iraq. Jorie Graham, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Michael Franco, Ed Barrett, Fred Marchant, and David Rivard mostly read other poets' work, but several also made spirited statements against the possibility of war and other Bush administration policies.

The event was one of many yesterday around the country, sparked by the postponement of a White House poetry event, originally scheduled for yesterday, celebrating the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. When one of the invited poets, Sam Hamill of Port Townsend, Wash., angrily refused the invitation and invited poets to contribute poems to an antiwar collection to be presented at the White House, first lady Laura Bush scrubbed the event. Hamill then said Feb. 12 would be a day of poets' protest anyway, and the idea caught on.

Pinsky had also been invited to the White House event, but he read a letter yesterday that he had sent to Laura Bush declining the invitation, saying that he mistrusts President Bush's words and intentions in his determination to attack Iraq. Pinsky appeared at the WordsWorth reading, he said, because ''the president has proved himself to be untrustworthy, and he is asking us to trust him on something with enormous consequences. I am trying to do something about it.''

There were other protest readings by poets yesterday and last night at Simmons College, several Cambridge locations, and at churches, bookstores, theaters, and coffeehouses in Beverly, Worcester, Gloucester, Hyannis, Northampton, Watertown, and other locations. In Washington, D.C., poets held an antiwar reading in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.

Hamill's website ( reports that more than 5,300 poems have been contributed. Though many are amateur efforts, the list of poets who have come out against the looming war -- not all of them via Hamill's effort -- is a versifier's who's who, including Louise Gluck, Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Rosanna Warren, Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Levine, and Grace Paley. Besides Pinsky, several former poet laureates have spoken against war in Iraq, including Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, Rita Dove, and the present laureate, Billy Collins. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott has come out against the war, while British poet laureate Andrew Motion has written an antiwar poem.

Asked if he thought it important for poets to speak out against the Iraq policy, Pinsky said, ''I'm not claiming greater wisdom for us because we are artists, but we have to explain ourselves in the only way we know.''

Poet Donald Hall of New Hampshire, who plans to read at a Vermont bookstore Sunday, yesterday recalled participating in a similar poets' movement against the Vietnam War, organized by Robert Bly. ''I remember saying, `I'll bet Lyndon Johnson is trembling in the White House, knowing that the poets are ganging up on him,' '' Hall said. He says his participation does not mean that he thinks poets have any special knowledge that qualifies them to speak on foreign policy or that the Bush administration will pay any more heed than Johnson did.

''It's important that poets are doing it only if it matters to public opinion,'' Hall says. ''The act of writing and loving poetry does not give you authority. It may give you a responsibility to take stands and to speak.''

David Mehegan can be reached at

This story ran on page B17 of the Boston Globe on 2/13/2003.
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