Baltimore's poets took to the stage last night to protest a possible war with Iraq - delivering an implicit reprimand to those, including first lady Laura Bush, who claim that the arts and politics don't mix.
The gatherings in the University of Baltimore's Thumel Business Center and at Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot in Highlandtown were among about 140 readings nationwide from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Kalamazoo, Mich. Their purpose: to vent in verse antiwar sentiment sparked by the brewing conflict in the Middle East. Readings also were scheduled in Canada, Mexico, England, Norway and Sweden.
"Poetry and politics have never been divorced," said Lee Gould, 65, of Towson, in the university audience. "Poetry is about how people live on this planet, and one of the ways we live is politically."
About 110 people turned out for the reading there - a huge crowd by the standards of poetry readings - despite frigid weather, and its timing in the middle of the work and school week. Some came from as far as Pennsylvania for the skirmish of pen against sword.
Among the 15 poets participating at UB were Michael Collier, Maryland's poet laureate; Linda Joy Burke; and Dave Beaudouin.
As might be expected, the poems selected were dark - a graphic description of the slaughter at the Alamo, or a young soldier's dying spasms after swallowing gas. But a few focused on the fragility of human existence. Collier recited from "In the Middle of My Life" by Tadeusz Rozewicz, a Polish poet born in 1921:
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly.
The readings across the nation were planned after the first lady indefinitely postponed a "Poetry and the American Voice" symposium that was to have been held yesterday at the White House. After learning that some of the invited poets intended to protest potential American military involvement in Iraq, Bush decided it would be "inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum," according to her press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez.
In response, West Coast poet Sam Hamill circulated an open letter Jan. 28 calling for a national day of poetry against the war. He has since collected pacifist poetry from more than 5,300 people on his Web site, www.poetsagainstthewar.org.
"Poets try to make sense of the madness," said Kendra Kopelke, who organized the reading at the University of Baltimore. "Poetry gives shape to our suffering, our fears, our angers, our joys. And the more terrifying the news, the more the soul cries out."
The readings won't be the poets' parting shot. Other events, including staged readings of Lysistrata, the famed anti-war comedy by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, are planned for coming weeks at locations around the Baltimore area.