Statement of Conscience
Below is an open letter that Emily Warn wrote to Laura Bush on responding to an invitation to participate in a White House symposium on Poetry and the American Voice. To learn more of the invitation read the interview with Sam Hamill in this module.
Mrs. Laura Bush
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Dear Laura Bush,
Thank you for inviting me to the White House symposium on Poetry and the American Voice. Your call to better understand and celebrate the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes led me and many thousands of American poets to find their voices of dissent.
Since January 30th poets in many countries have joined in an upsurge of conscience and compassion, submitting over [15,000] poems to the Poets Against the War web site (www.poetsagainstthewar.org), organizing hundreds of anti-war poetry readings around the world, and joining with millions of others in vigils, processions, prayers and intercessions, lobbying and rallying for peace.
You have inadvertently presented a gift to the American people and to the world by providing poets an opportunity to express their most passionately held beliefs about their vision for the world’s future. Your gesture has revealed the very relationship it was meant to deny: the connection between poetry and politics, between literature and reality. Another great American poet, Wallace Stevens, presented this relationship succinctly:
“In life what is most important is the truth as it is, while in arts and letters what is most important is the truth as we see it.”
This wisdom is excerpted from “Imagination as Value,” an essay in the long tradition of poets puzzling over the power of poetry and asserting its place in a world primarily shaped by the machinations of politics and money.
What is poetry’s power? Why should you, vested with the power of the White House as First Lady, pay attention to such a rush of words at this late hour?
Poetry’s power lies in its perceptive ability to describe both inner and outer realities. In reading a poem we experience the paradoxical delight and anguish of human life. Poetry holds a mirror to the reality that our political systems and values create and in doing so reveals both the limitations of our current state and life’s endless possibilities. In its refracted light we see our intangible connections, the irrefutable unity of all people and beings on the planet.
We invite you to read this selection of poems which represents some of the most powerful in the Poetry Against the War Anthology. These poems were written by Pulitzer Prize winners, former U.S. poets laureate, and poets who work as professors, business people, homemakers and veterans. Those who have submitted poems or personal statements to register their opposition to ill-considered military action, including a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, honor a long and rich tradition of thoughtful and moral opposition by poets and other artists to senseless and murderous policies, including those of our own government.
We believe that the world is poised on the knife-edge of a decision between war and peace. It is our hope and conviction that peaceful American voices, conveyed in part and without historical precedent by the poets of this country, may help to avert a disaster of tragic proportions.
We call upon the Bush administration to halt the headlong rush toward war, to heed the voices of the people of the world, and to seek peaceful means of resolving conflicts in company with the world community.
Never before in history have so many poets gathered to speak in a single voice.
Poets Against the War
February 12, 2003
Discussion Questions: Statement of Conscience
- What is your opinion of Emily Warn’s letter to Mrs. Bush? How would you describe the tone? How does she state her points?
- Comment on the quote that Warn used of Wallace Stevens: “In life what is most important is the truth as it is, while in arts and letters what is most important is the truth as we see it.” How does this quote support the work of Poets Against the War?
- Why is it important to express your thoughts, hesitations, questions and concern in a democracy?
- How does your opinion of poetry measure up to Warn’s? How would you explain, in your own words, the power of poetry?