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Editorial: The Truth’s Superb Surprise

It’s hard to figure just who is more naive: Laura Bush or America’s poets. For her part, Mrs. Bush had invited several prominent American poets to the White House to participate in a symposium celebrating the work of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. But hearing that the symposium was going to be hijacked by poets protesting the President’s policies toward Iraq, Mrs. Bush got cold feet and postponed the program indefinitely.

Mrs. Bush — oddly for a librarian — seems not to remember that poets are troublemakers. Surely she hasn’t forgotten her Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Eve Merriam so quickly. Making trouble is part of the job description. Through stealth and surprise, poems change the way we think. To invite a bunch of poets to come to the White House and talk about Hughes, Dickinson, and Whitman is, quite literally and in the best of ways, asking for trouble.

But — oddly for poets — the would-be protestors seem to have forgotten the Amherst poet’s suggestion to “tell all the Truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies.” There was little stealth, never mind subtlety, in the way these poets responded. Poet Sam Hamill, founder of Copper Canyon Press, not only (loudly) refused the invitation, he poked fun at Mrs. Bush for proffering it, asking rhetorically, “What idiot thought Sam Hamill would be a good candidate for Laura Bush’s tea party?” Hamill has put up a website (poetsagainstthewar.org) and is collecting antiwar poems to be taken to the White House on February 12, the day originally scheduled for the symposium.

This is giving up the platform for the grandstand. And it’s too bad that Mrs. Bush relinquished the high ground so quickly, because a symposium on Dickinson, Hughes, and Whitman (our most eloquent patriots of conflict within and without), at the White House, right now, presents just the kind of first-class troublemaking we need. One of the most electrifying moments I’ve experienced here at the Horn Book was hearing poet Marilyn Nelson give her Boston Globe–Horn Book acceptance speech for Carver. Speaking on October 1, 2001, she talked about George Washington Carver, she talked about poetry, and she talked about American foreign policy, all brilliantly. Her words still hold: “. . . the human world seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos. The radio news is filled with speculative questions: How far will they go? How deep is the evil in the human heart?” (Nelson was invited to Mrs. Bush’s symposium, and I’ll bet she would have been brilliant there, too.)

Laura Bush has been good about including, without prejudice, writers for children at White House literary events. But as far as the rest of the country is concerned, we merit attention only when we make money or trouble. Sam Hamill can probably relate to that, but the next time we get asked to the White House, let’s go and — like poetry — make trouble, with stealth and surprise.

From the March/April 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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