I never thought I'd see the day when poets would again be considered enemies of the state in America. During WWII, Ezra Pound's sympathies with Mussolini's brand of fascism landed him in the brig (despite the fact his Cantos made it clear he'd mistaken Muss for a neo-Medici). And who can fault the guy for holding out hope for private funding of the arts? Then there's Allen Ginsberg. But for all his politically countercultural cache in the '50s and '60s, he wound up in Gap ads.
As poetry lost almost all relevance as an art form in the '70s and '80s, it became the darling of university writing programs and ladies who lunch. The confessional tendency of the Me generation failed to make the personal political, and self-indulgence was par for the course. Nothing could be further from threatening to the power structure.
During the 1990s, hip-hop, poetry slams and spoken word reinvented poetry as a popular medium. MTV shows like Poetry In Motion re-created the possibility of a poetry superstars like Saul Williams who starred in the 1998 indie film Slam.
But the ego elements of the performative slam culture often overshadowed the content.
The U.S. government, long fond of appointing poets laureate as a kind of literary feather in its cap, kept its distance from the politics of urban poetry in the 1990s by appointing white male pablum poets Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky to the post.
But the questionable legitimacy of George W. Bush's election and the events of 9-11 have set into motion the machinations of a manufactured "Patriotism" that doesn't take kindly to criticism and is all for free speech as long as the government is free to monitor it and detain you without cause.
Take the case of poet Amiri Baraka, the former black nationalist who recently made headlines for a controversy over his poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America."
Soon after Baraka was appointed poet laureate of New Jersey in May 2002, a reading he gave of "Somebody Blew Up America" at the Dodge Poetry Festival last fall created a national media frenzy and accusations of anti-Semitism from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In question were the lines:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To say home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Baraka was questioning how it was possible that the United States didn't know about the impending terrorist attacks when many countries, including Israel, had repeatedly provided intelligence that the attacks were imminent. Citing a Wall Street Journal article that noted Zim American-Israeli Shipping had moved its offices from the World Trade Center to Norfolk, Virginia, just weeks before the attacks, and Israeli news reports that Ariel Sharon had cancelled a trip to New York City on 9-11, Baraka asked, "Why didn't the other slaughtered Americans know? I WAS NOT SAYING ISRAEL WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ATTACK, BUT THAT THEY KNEW AND OUR OWN COUNTERFEIT PRESIDENT DID TOO!"
The ADL asked for Baraka's resignation, but when he refused to resign the New Jersey Senate State Government Committee voted for a bill that eliminated the poet laureate post on Dec. 17 last year.
Since the fracas, poets including the current U.S. Poet Laureate Billie Collins, have been making headlines for coming out against the war.
On Jan. 19, for example, Sam Hamill, founder of Copper Canyon Press, sent out an e-mail to fellow poets that said he'd been invited to the White House for a symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" to be held on Feb. 12. In response, Hamill called for a reconstitution of a Poets Against the War Movement and asked any interested poets to submit anti-war poems to be given to Mrs. Bush at the symposium. When Mrs. Bush got wind of the movement, she immediately cancelled the event stating that it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum."
It was Plato who first decreed that lip-flapping poets be banned from the republic, and now that they have something to flap their lips about we're seeing why.
To read the full text of Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America" or his rebuttal to the charges of anti-Semitism go to http://www.amiribaraka.com.
To submit an anti-war poem to Sam Hamill and for more information, go to www.poetsagainstthewar.org.