On Sunday, February 16, more than 700 people attended a two-hour poetry reading at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village, Vt., organized by Northshire Bookstore. The event was held to replace a reading that was scheduled at the White House earlier this month but was cancelled after some of the invited poets began to collect writings protesting war against Iraq.
The reading drew more people than the church's sanctuary could accommodate; some 150 gathered in a basement meeting room and watched the proceedings via closed-circuit TV.
It was a dramatic setting for a poetry protest: the white spire of the church was brightly lit against the clear Vermont night and stood in stark contrast to the background of surrounding mountains and town, a resort destination best known for its luxury outlet shopping and skiing.
The event, called "A Poetry Reading in Honor of the Right of Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition," featured an impressive array of Vermont poets, including Jay Parini, Jamaica Kincaid, David Budbill, Greg Delanty, Julia Alvarez and Jody Gladding, as well as former Vermont poet laureate Galway Kinnell and current Vermont poet laureate Grace Paley. National Book Award winner and SUNY Binghamton professor Ruth Stone, New Hampshire's Donald Hall and Copper Canyon Press co-founder William O'Daly, a resident of California, also joined the group.
Welcoming the crowd, Rev. Steve Barry, pastor of the First Congregational Church, which is descended from the Puritan church, spoke of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop moved with his family to the New World, Barry observed, to protest the corruption and abuses of the Church of England and in pursuit of his famous "City on a Hill."
The original White House event was intended as a reflection on the works of Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Accordingly, a number of poets in Manchester quoted verses by the trio; two read Langston Hughes's "A Dream Deferred."
Ruth Stone opened the proceedings with a halting reading of Dickinson's poem that begins "Are you somebody" and then offered her own, entitled "Lesson," about a young man at the University of Wisconsin who learns about the savagery of the Vietnam War. Donald Hall followed with a reading of Jane Kenyon's Gulf War poem "Three Small Oranges." (The full poem is available at http://snurl.com/snq.)
Poetry protesting war with Iraq proved most popular with the audience. Julia Alvarez got a standing ovation for her poem describing the dread she felt learning that the poetry reading at the White House was cancelled. Her comment before her reading, "Why be afraid of us, Mrs. Bush? You're married to a scarier fellow," elicited a loud cheer. William O'Daly also received a standing ovation after reading a piece he penned for the Web site Poetsagainstthewar.org entitled "To the Forty-third President of the United States of America." It begins, "Today, our solemn duty is to defy your willful aggression/ to parse provocative words and habits, your heroic battle/ to distract us" and contains the line, "What 'urge and rage'/ thrives in the American heart, that so many cheer/ this obsessive, unilateral madness?" (The complete poem is available at www.poetsagainstthewar.org/displaypoem.asp?AuthorID=4528#453061715.)
One of the organizers of the event, Northshire Bookstore marketing director Zachary Marcus, was so moved that he took the microphone and, noting that his wife was pregnant, said he would accept O'Daly's poem "in the name of my unborn child."
Grace Paley said she was amazed by the speed at which the event was organized, comparing it to those that she helped organize in the '60s against the Vietnam War, which would take "lots of writing letters and waiting."
For his part, Marcus attributed the event's success to Galway Kinnell, who, Marcus joked, "should be listed in Publishers Weekly" as a resource for finding authors and writers. He pointed out that Kinnell had chided him for an earlier comment that "Poetry hasn't had this much attention in America for 100 years." Kinnell corrected Marcus, saying, "Poetry has never had this much attention in America."
Indeed, the high-profile group of authors drew media, including a camera crew from 60 Minutes II and journalists from the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Los Angeles Times.
Ed Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore, told PW, "We're just glad the town could finally attract some attention for its culture rather than its outlets." Morrow described the audience as "probably self-selected," adding, "We have a lot of very conservative neighbors and we didn't see many of them." (One attending poet had a different experience: a "staunch Republican" friend of William O'Daly heard about the event, which "he thought sounded like a very good idea" and so he paid the poet's airfare.)
Morrow added that while poetry may not "change policy," it is "a very effective means of peaceful protest." He was also proud to announce the poems recited at the event will be collected and published as a volume in April by George Braziller, who was also in attendance.
Of all the thoughts expressed at the reading, the one that probably best summarized the sentiments of the group was Galway Kinnell's citation of Walt Whitman's exhortation to all citizens of the U.S. in times of crisis to "Resist much, obey little."
Kinnell pointed out that Whitman was "not bitter because he was a bitter person" or because he was "anti-American or unpatriotic." Instead, "it was because he loved America so much that he was continually disappointed."