Poetic License
Republicans need not apply.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 25, 2008

At the poetry reading in New York
  a guy in Armani shouts:
  I came for poetry, not your politics--

She says--
  Global warming, this green morning . . .

She spells out the scientist's name.

I am the "guy in Armani," and I feel I must respond.

The passage above is from a recently published poem, "A Fissure in the World" by Joan Bauer. It describes an incident that occurred at an October 2005 reading from "Only the Sea Keeps: Poetry of the Tsunami," a collection edited by Judith Robinson.

It was not a love of verse that brought me to the Bowery Poetry Club. I was the guest of Heather Robinson, Judy's lovely daughter. Heather and I had recently begun seeing each other again after a long absence. I was eager for everything to go well, and I especially wanted to make a good impression on her mother.

Heather and I sat down near the back of the small hall, and things soon took what I feared was a disastrous turn. The mistress of ceremonies, poet Daniela Gioseffi, opened the proceedings with a vulgar rant about Beltway politics--specifically, her glee over the "fall" of Tom DeLay and Bill Frist, then the Republican congressional leaders. (Rep. DeLay had just been indicted, and Sen. Frist was under investigation for insider trading.)

It was then that I said I came to hear poetry, not politics--although according to a contemporaneous account I emailed to a friend, I said it in a mutter rather than a shout. Evidently I muttered loudly enough to get Ms. Gioseffi's attention, because she replied, expressing incredulity that not everyone at the Bowery Poetry Club would share the same political outlook. I believe I repeated that I came for poetry and not politics--possibly shouting, as Ms. Bauer reported. Ms. Gioseffi said, "You can't be politically disengaged and be human."

At this point I definitely shouted: "Oh, so people who disagree with you aren't human?" She answered that this was neither the time nor the place for such contention. "I agree," I said. If only she had thought of that before opening her mouth.

The poets got on with their poetry. Midway through, however, Ms. Gioseffi returned to politics, this time in a zanier vein. She blamed global warming for the recent Asian tsunami, whose cause actually was geologic, not climatic. Then she claimed the government was "fussing with the weather" and blowing up "neutron bombs" in order to use the Earth as a weapon. "This isn't paranoid," she assured the crowd, citing a book by someone she kept emphasizing was a doctor.

Heather begged me not to say anything more: "Just laugh." I did, and again Ms. Gioseffi heard me: "To the man who's giggling, Doctor [so-and-so] says this is true." I do not remember if she spelled out the name. I am certain I did not take it down.

To answer the most important question first: My date with Heather turned out fine. In fact, Mrs. Robinson not only was not upset with me, but apologized to me for the incident.

At the reception after the reading, Heather wisely tried to steer us clear of Ms. Gioseffi, but this proved impossible. The peremptory poet confronted me and demanded: "Are you the man who was laughing rudely while I was talking?"

"I'm the man you said was subhuman."

"There has never been a Republican in here before," she informed me. It seems I had broken a barrier.

"Well," I asked, "if there had never been a Jew in here, would that make it OK for you to say anti-Semitic things?" She told me she was Jewish, which rather missed the point.

Then she said, "You have to be politically engaged if you know the truth, like I do." I started to reply, but she interrupted me, declaring triumphantly: "I won two American Book Awards for writing about these topics!" Case closed. She walked away.

In 1991, poet Dana Gioia, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote an essay for The Atlantic Monthly called "Can Poetry Matter?" Mr. Gioia observed that American poetry "has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group."

He lamented that "most contemporary poets, knowing that they are virtually invisible in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative verse" at the expense of social or political commentary. But perhaps the problem is the opposite: that the world of poetry is so politicized as to exclude from its audience anyone with a distaste for tendentious left-wing ideology.

Actually, I doubt that Ms. Gioseffi was right when she said there had never been a Republican in the Bowery Poetry Club. Probably there are a few Republicans with a love for poetry and a high threshold for abuse who endure the latter in order to enjoy the former.

But no more than a few, and you don't have to be a Republican to be put off by crude and hateful political rhetoric. Sure, there is a market for it, or Keith Olbermann and Michael Savage would be out of their jobs. But why must one who seeks elevation from verse be subjected to the degradation of the adverse?

And just for the record, I was not wearing Armani on that day in 2005. My tastes run more to sport jackets from the Syms discount chain and slacks from the Gap. But I suppose "Armani" better fits Ms. Bauer's political stereotype. That's what they call poetic license.

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