Does poetry rhyme with politics?

Organizers of the first-ever conference of state poets laureate, legislators, and citizens hope to expand the poets' role

Maybe America is such a country that poets here can write without fear of censure or imprisonment. Maybe, unlike John Milton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, they can choose to worry more about meter than the political implications of their poems. Maybe in peacetime, as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen."

But lately, poets across the country have been trying to leverage their artistic, moral, and political clout to make their voices and verses of protest heard by precisely those in Washington with a mandate to make things happen. In February, the White House called off an American poetry forum after invitees, including former US laureates Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, refused to attend, in protest at the administration's Iraq policies. Over 13,000 submissions to were bound and sent in their place.

Even as many poets come out publicly against the war, a smaller number are considering the question: In a time of national crisis, what political role should a state poet laureate take?

"I feel some ambivalence about that," says South Dakota laureate David Allan Evans, who contributed a statement to the antiwar collection. "I've always been a pretty private person. I spent a lot of time in my basement office, and never was given much to writing poems about politics. But being poet laureate does give my statements more resonance."

Appointed by their governors - some with quite opposite political bents - these 33 laureates have an unusual charge: To represent their states while promoting the reading, writing, and importance of poetry.

Unlike national laureates, who are selected annually by the Librarian of Congress and whose appointments cannot be jeopardized by statements critical of the government, state laureates are named by their governors. Though none is explicitly asked to fall in line with the administration, many say they weigh their public statements with unusual care.

In times of national security, poets and their states usually make for peaceful pairings. Wyatt Prunty, director of the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South, says that's not because poets don't address divisive issues in their writings, but because "the language of poetry complicates things. It's meant to be contemplated on multiple levels; it leads to a kind of stillness." Poetry quiets us to make us wiser, he says, so that when we do act, we act better, "whereas the language of public debate and action simplifies to lead to action."

In the current climate of uncertainty, anything poets read or say publicly is taken more seriously. Last October, when New Jersey laureate Amiri Baraka was criticized for verses in his poem "Somebody Blew Up America" that some found anti-Semitic, the state legislature moved to strip him of his position.

Another reason state governments and state laureates tend not to quarrel, according to New Hampshire laureate Marie Harris, is that politicians don't see poets as particularly powerful.

"If the Democrats or the Republicans cared about the poet laureate's leanings, ... at least then we wouldn't be relegated to a ceremonial role," she says.

To that end, Ms. Harris has organized "Poetry and Politics," a conference of state laureates, legislators, and citizens in Concord, N.H., April 25-26. Though laureates have been appointed since the 1930s, the conference will mark the first time they've ever gathered. Harris hopes the meeting will spark discussion about a more expansive definition of "politics," and the role poets might play in it.

But Delaware laureate Fleda Brown warns a poem cannot be a political rant set to meter. "Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, didn't die in the camps because of one poem he wrote making fun of Stalin. He died because his poems told the truth about people's lives," she says. "He didn't serve the goals of the state. That's why poets are dangerous. They are 'useless,' which is the most dangerous of all, because it serves no master."

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