Back to the future
Like most Americans of good conscience in the post 9/11 world, the poets at the Dodge Festival struggled to present their peace platform without appearing anti-patriotic. With the exception of Baraka -- and on Sunday night, Pinsky -- few ventured to present a sharply political opposition to the upcoming war with Iraq, and even when they issued their lukewarm statements only about half the audience clapped.
Yet as careful as these poets were, they could not shed their growing horror at the mad man they believed occupied the White House, or of the great regret they felt at America's perception that the countries we planned to attack were somehow culturally inferior to our own. As much as public propaganda makes savages of those we would fight, in fact, much of what is central to our own culture can trace its roots back to that part of the world. Many of the masterpieces from that region date from ages before Shakespeare or even The Bible.
Of The two nights we attended, Saturday proved the most radical, despite a fairly up front speech by Pinsky before his Sunday afternoon performance. Pete Cole, who took part in two segments, set the tone for Saturday night with his celebration of Middle-Eastern culture, his reading's subtext pleading with the audience to keep our nation from obliterating a culture that helped shape great poets. In his return later in the program, Cole translated for Arab poet Taha Muhhammad Ali, and even encouraged the guest from the Middle East to read a poem about "a simple Arab leading the fight against a super power."
Robert Bly, with his scattered white hair lacked only the moustache for him to resemble later portraits of Mark Twain, read poems that encouraged "hope in a time of sadness" and selected another poet's work influenced by the Koran. Robert Hass drew significant applause for a comment in support of the poor, and then read a poem about the future on a cellular level, and another about the day the world ended -- when people walked in the fields under an umbr3ella, grew sleeping at the edge of their law and vendors shouted from the street.
Pinsky read a poem by a Greek poet about waiting for the barbarian and a new poem of his own that he would read again on Sunday in a slightly revised edition. In this, he pitted satire against the 20th Century's ultimate horror at once point claiming he thought as a kid that "a concentration camp mean a place where the scorned were admonished to concentrate."
Grace Paley furthered the theme in a poet about an Arab and a Jew divided by a valley. Rita Dove imagined the future as past moments poised on the lip of the future.
"To many of us, the future seems terrifying -- especially now," she said.
Adam Zagajewski reflected on the future with a poetic lesson about the European past and its wars. The perpetually politically correct Lucille Clifton said: "God has man names," and she wished to honor them all, giving a lecture in poetry form. The equally politically correct, Gerald Stern simply said: "There cannot be justice without love, and no love without justice."
Baraka actually received a rousing applause when he took the podium. Apparently, the purveyors of hate had not yet time to spread their point about his six painfully received lines from earlier in the day. He read two poems: his wife's and then a poem he said he original wrote for Ronald Reagan, but had adapted for the first George Bush. He said it was perfectly serviceable for George W. Bush as well. It was called "Inside the President's mind." This amounted to a chanted stream of consciousness that you might expect from the mind of a baby, full of "ma, ma, da, da, pee, pee, poo poo, KILL."
Not all the poetry read had a political edge. Indeed, Billy Collins argued love poems are a redundancy, thus claiming they are all about love. Both of those he read were about love, but he also struggled with the them. "I would think about the future if I was not so distracted by the past," he said.
Coleman Barks struggled with the future as well as he took listeners through the dark side of the boardwalk, concluding finally that the wisest course is to live in "now."
Li-Young Lee met with the assignment by copying down a poem by Frost he had memorized, but could not assure the audience was exactly correct. He seemed caught up in the image of father and open space, and his own poem talked about stealing the goblet from which souls needed to drink to obtain salvation.
Brenda Hillman, in a voice whose squeak made new chalk on black board seem bearably sweet read too poems about the movement of air -- a symbol she claimed that could represent the passage through time.
The always-invigorating Ed Hirsch contemplated an imagined meeting between Walt Whitman and Abe Lincoln, thick with political connotations, although none so obvious as to distract from his poetry's entertainment.
Heather McHugh picked up where she had left off earlier in the day (when discussing life as a poet) and refused to stop talking. She seemed bent on making certain we would and could not mistake the meaning of her poems -- the way she probably did to her poor students when lecturing them on more classical verse. In the end, her poems proved far shorter than her explanations, and a bit too stiff for my tastes.
Few moments equaled those when Stanley Kunitz came to the podium, first on Saturday night and later, as part of the Sunday afternoon concluding ceremonies. Even before he could utter a word on Saturday, applause rippled under the big top tent in acknowledge of his ninety-odd years of poetic excellence. He comes out of a generation of poets most of us now consider historic, and his style, the kind of word play we studied in school. If there was a superstar of current poetry, Kunitz was it, and the crowd made clear it appreciated him -- most of us realizing he might not live long enough for us to see him again at the next Dodge two years from now.
In explaining his selection of a Hopkins poem he was to read, Kunitz recalled when he was a student at Harvard. In seeking a subject for a thesis, he had wandered into the school's library only to stub his toe on an open book he found on the floor. This was opened to Hopkins.
"It changed my life," he said.