In a surprise vote during a rare Sunday night hearing, the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Other Agencies that has jurisdiction over the amount of funding provided to the National Endowment for the Arts voted yesterday to banish all poets from the United States.
The Banish Poets from the Republic resolution passed Sunday night is certain to pass the full House, sending to the Senate a blueprint that would transform poetry in the United States. The bill calls on American poets to self-deport to Canada, South America, North Africa, the English Lake District, as well as to neighborhoods surrounding the Piazza Navona in Rome, the Left Bank in Paris and, for poets predisposed to surrealism and symbolism, to downtown Amsterdam. Russia, which still enjoys a Golden Age of poetry where readings are held in stadiums of 750,000 people, offered to accept a few American poets as well. Poets would be ordered out of the country by July 4, 2013.
The 7-6 subcommittee vote split strictly along party lines. Every Democrat voted against Republican chairman Michael Simpson’s (Idaho-2) plan, while all seven Republicans backed it. Simpson’s banishment blueprint is almost certainly dead on arrival in the upper chamber. But just weeks after a bloc of Republican senators, led by Kentucky’s Rand Paul, filibustered the nomination of John O. Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, the bill’s presumed failure in the Senate is now in doubt and passage is possible. President Obama has vowed to veto any legislation that fails to exempt Elizabeth Alexander or Richard Blanco, the two poets who wrote poems in honor of his 2008 and 2012 presidential inaugurations.
The House subcommittee vote hands House Republicans a symbolic victory as members who have long attacked the National Endowment for the Arts look for ways to defund the agency one poet and one poem at a time. The day’s exchanges were heated, with moments of rancor and dashes of levity. 19 protesters were ejected from the hearing for interrupting the debate by loudly breaking into a recitation of the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot which begins, “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Though one protestor was heard to alter the lines to “Let us go then, you and I, / When the GOP is spread out against the sky / Like elephants etherized upon a table” to the consternation of his fellow protestors who then resorted to a what amounted to a panel discussion on whether it was appropriate to bastardize T. S. Eliot’s poem or whether it was okay since all texts are dead anyway and because a coherent set of signs is simultaneously always and also never transmitting an informative message. All 19 protestors were escorted from the hearing room and arrested. “Sometimes it’s hard to know the dancer from the dance,” the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, Democrat James Moran (Virginia-8), was heard to say with bitter irony, quoting W. B. Yeats, as he glared in the direction of one of the authors of the bill on the Republican side.
During closing arguments, subcommittee Democrats booed Simpson when the chairman blasted President Obama for failing to lead. “Will we be remembered as the Congress that did nothing about the poets?” Simpson said. “This is our defining moment.” Before walking out of the hearing in protest, all six Democrats stood and, one by one, spoke in their special poetry voices lines from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Democrats are betting the moment will haunt Republicans, who run the risk of alienating poets who will most certainly stockpile sonnets, pantoums, epics, and other 21st century hybrid forms to combat their banishment. “The subcommittee’s bill breaks the promise that this country has made to poets,” Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said. “It ends poetry as we know it.”
At a morning press conference, National Endowment for the Arts Director of Literature, Ira Silverberg, derided the House’s Banish the Poets from the Republic resolution as a “Banishment to Ruin,” hoisting a red-and-black sign reading “HANDS OFF MY CLOSING COUPLET” and chanting slogans along with his staff and hundreds of poets gathered on the Capitol steps. “The Republican plan places the burden of poetry reduction on those who can least afford it, ends poetry as we know it and eliminates poems for students and seniors in order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires and fan the flames of a national bigotry against poetry,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that closely echoed the denunciations pouring forth from the Democratic side of the floor.
Republicans used the debate to set the tone for skirmishes on the horizon. “The nation wants better poetry, poetry it can read and fall in love with, a poetry worthy of its people. The American people will not tolerate bad poetry and we must clean the stables today,” House Speaker John Boehner said, before borrowing one of Obama’s favorite rhetorical flourishes: “Now let me be clear: there will be no increase in the number of poets allowed to return to these shores unless they begin writing poems accompanied by meaningful spending cuts and budget reforms.”
“I can tell you, our caucus is united,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters this morning. Democrats put that unity to the test with a procedural gambit that nearly worked. During a vote over an alternate blueprint regarding poets on the House floor, one that would require every poet in America to write an inaugural poem for their members of Congress every two years, proposed by the Bipartisan Poetry Study Committee — a group helmed by Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Oregon-3) and Republican Rep. Michelle Bachman (Minnesota-6), whose poem, “Let’s Make Barack Obama a One Term President,” electrified Iowa Republicans during the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, and that includes some 175 of the conference’s most poetical members — Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer instructed his side to vote not just “present” but “we are decent / we are present / we real cool,” a tercet he hoped would forestall a vote on the Simpson plan. The tactic touched off a chaotic few minutes, with members shouting across the chamber to corral colleagues. (Poetry Wire could not hear through the din so well but it sounded like Republicans were shouting, “We strike straight” and Democrats were shouting, “We jazz June.”) The BPSC plan, which wielded an even stranger mandate for poets than Simpson’s, split the GOP members in the house with 120 Republicans voting against the bill and 119 Republicans, somewhat attracted to receiving inaugural poems of their own, voting for it. So much for unity.
In a floor speech today, Moran scoffed at Republicans’ lofty praise for Simpson’s poetry banishment plan, calling it “the same old ideological agenda on iambic hexameter steroids.” That’s partly true. But as Congress heads off on its spring hiatus, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the GOP’s anti-poetry lurch that has now been formally endorsed by both the GOP leadership and its rank-and-file. “I put this out there to get the debate going and show a different vision,” Simpson told a press conference. “I don’t expect it to be the platform of the party. I expect it to launch a debate about what America is to become. Let’s hope it becomes a place, as Plato tells us, without the poets. If they can’t get along, let them have their cute little debates in some other country.” Observers were surprised that Simpson, a former subscriber to American Poetry Review, was leading this debate. He has been a reliable supporter of the NEA in fact. Conspiracy theories have already sprung up on twitter and on the Internet, accusing Simpson of being tricked into leading this fight. These advocates, dubbed Beauty-Is-Truthers, vowed to win Simpson back over to the pro-poetry side.
Other Republicans were digging in for a fight. This morning on FOX and Friends, Republican Rep. Steve King (Iowa-4) said, “We cannot abide the damage that atheist MFA poets in Iowa City have done to God-loving people of the State of Iowa. They are the illegal immigrants of literature.” On ABC’s Good Morning America, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (Texas-1) was in full conspiratorial ire, saying, “I’m not saying we know for sure whether the efforts by American poets aren’t some secret plot launched by al Qaeda radicals or not. You’d have to ask them. But American poets seem bent on destroying the very language our Founding Fathers gave us at this nation’s birth.” Gohmert added that he was considering introducing legislation that would replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” “Now that’s poetry,” he said.
Dissent outside the halls of Congress was swift. Silverberg swore to convene his NEA poetry fellowship panel later this year despite no actual poets being present in America. “We will not become a nation of Ovids. We’ll Skype in if we have to, or whatever that Google chat plus thing is,” he said in a statement. Poetry activist Sam Hamill was roused to rechristen his Poets Against the War website as Poets Against Our Banishment and to march on the White House to present First Lady Michelle Obama with over 100,000 ballads, limericks, and odes in favor of America’s poets staying on America’s shores. Outgoing Poetry Foundation president John Barr was defiant. “We shall fight this,” he said in a shaky YouTube video made from an undisclosed location presumably inside the city limits of Chicago where he has reportedly gone into hiding, adding, ‘We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in the coffee houses, we shall fight on our college campuses, we shall defend our poetry island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the blogs, we shall fight in the workshops, we shall fight in little magazines and in the streets, we shall fight in the Letters section of Poetry; we shall never surrender.”
Some poets, however, took the prospect of banishment in stride. MacArthur recipient, National Book Critics Circle award winner, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and alleged elliptical poet C. D. Wright said to a hushed pro-poetry rally in Providence, Rhode Island last night on the campus of Brown University, “Rome’s not so bad. We had worse heat in Baxter County, Arkansas, when I was a girl.”
A final vote in the House on the Banish the Poets from the Republic bill has yet to be scheduled.