TOPICS > Politics

The Art of Protest

March 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Around the nation last week, an ancient Greek play became the vehicle for protest against war with Iraq.

ACTRESS: It means just this: Greece saved by the women!

ACTRESS: By the women… ( laughs ) …its salvation hangs by a poor thread then.

ACTRESS: Our country’s fortunes depend on us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later in the week, poets came to Washington for the latest in a series of protest readings.

CORNELIUS EADY: We bombed mosques, we bombed runways, we bombed tanks, we bombed trucks, we bombed the darkness, we bombed the sunlight. None of this fits into my notion of things going very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as the Bush administration edges closer to war, many in the nation’s artistic community continue their vocal dissent.

MARTIN SHEEN: Don’t invade Iraq. Inspections work; war won’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the airwaves, actor Martin Sheen. In newspapers, full-page ads. On the Internet, where numerous Web sites spread the word. And in theaters like this, where the Black Market Theatre Group staged a reading of the play “Lysistrata,” one of more than a thousand worldwide. Written by Aristophanes in 411 B.C., the play is an over-the- top, ribald sex comedy with a serious side: The women of Athens and Sparta join together to stop the war being fought by those two city-states. Their tactic, and thus much of the low humor: No intimate relations with their soldier husbands until the fighting ends. Actors Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower came up with the idea of worldwide readings.

SHARRON BOWER, Lysistrata Project: Yes, it’s bawdy and it is funny, and that’s one of the reasons we chose it, because nothing gets people into a theater like a funny, sexy comedy.

KATHRYN BLOOM, Lysistrata Project: We don’t have money. We don’t have high-level access. What we do have are loud voices and the willingness to use them and a huge network of people, because actors change jobs every six weeks. And so it was very easy for us to e-mail our initial idea to hundreds of people, who then turned around and e-mailed it to other hundreds of people.

ACTRESS: Act 1, scene 1: Athens High School.

JEFFREY BROWN: Young actors at one school also participated. At the professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, a much toned-down version of the play was presented by eighth graders. Here, the girls vowed not to talk to the boys until the end of fighting between two high schools.

STUDENTS: No phone, no e-mail, no pager for me. STUDENTS: No matter how he whines or pouts? STUDENTS: No matter how he whines or pouts. STUDENTS: I will not let him take me out. STUDENTS: I will not let him take me out.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the performance, students debated its meaning, and the war with Iraq.

STUDENT: I really just think war should, after everything else has failed, that’s when it should happen; not first.

STUDENT: He said we should wait for an attack. Why wait to be attacked when we have already been attacked. We’re talking about 9/11.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another group, poets against the war, brought its protest to Washington last week, led by its founder Sam Hamill. An ex-marine, poet, and founder of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington, Hamill organized a Web site collecting poems from citizen poets.

SAM HAMILL, Poets against the War: Little could I have predicted 11,000 poets in the United States speaking so clearly in opposition to this administration’s policies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hamill presented the poems to several sympathetic members of Congress.

SAM HAMILL: I believe that poetry changes people’s lives. But I don’t believe that it necessarily changes their lives instantly. I believe it’s our duty as poets to look closely, to pay attention, to engage in the imagination and to speak from the heart. The politics is part of our responsibility, and speaking out puts our ideas out there in the marketplace to be discussed.

W.S. MERWIN: All night waking to the sound of light rain falling softly through the leaves…

JEFFREY BROWN: At a reading at George Washington University later that evening, prize- winning poet W.S. Merwin, read from his poem, “Ogre.”

W.S. MERWIN: …Of the dog snoring like small waves coming ashore. I am amazed at the fortune of this moment in the whole of the dark, this unspoken favor while it is with us, this breathing peace, and then I think of the frogs in office at this instant devising their massacres in my name. What part of me could they come from? Were they made of my loathing itself, and dredged from the bitter depths of my shame?

JEFFREY BROWN: But the protest movement has engendered its own protest. Poetic and critical response to the poets against the war has sometimes been humorous; sometimes blistering. Poet Frederick Turner wrote “Reply to the 5,000″ when there were that number of poems on Sam Hamill’s Web site. It begins: “Never till now was I shamed by the name of poet. What could it even mean, if 5,000 poets sign the same misspelled and malicious manifesto? Is not a poet a truth-teller, a seer of inner visions? Why do they make this smell, like the back seat of a taxi?” Roger Kimball is a literary critic and managing editor of The New Criterion.

ROGER KIMBALL, New Criterion: There are plenty of poets who, I won’t say they’re poets for the war, but they realize that their competence is in the manipulation of words, that they don’t have any greater insight into foreign policy than I do. The idea that we should turn to poets for a kind of script of how we should run our foreign policy I think is risible, and I think everyone understands that it’s risible because, after all, we elect politicians to run the country, not poets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Poet Joseph Bottum, an editor at The Weekly Standard Magazine, fears the tone of the dissent will hurt poetry’s public role, which had grown after Sept. 11, when many turned to it.

JOSEPH BOTTUM: What we’re seeing now with the protest is the breakdown of a kind of consensus that had emerged in America right after Sept. 11, a breakdown between the poetic culture and the general culture. And I had thought that they would go on together. I personally am enormously disappointed by this use of poetry, in a kind of 1970s or 1980s way, to think that poets somehow have to be in dissent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not surprisingly, Sam Hamill disagrees.

SAM HAMILL: Nothing could be better for poetry. Nothing could be better for our country that having this discussion. Some people will listen, some people will argue, some people will dismiss us. But the one voice speaking alone that finds one ear listening closely is the first step.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the nation moves ever closer to war, Hamill, the theater groups, and others, vow to continue their work.