Sunday, February 10, 2008

Maxwell Wheat: Anti-War Poems Lead to Rejection as County Laureate

photos courtesy of Darlene Cunnip

Monday, June 4, 2007, I was supposed to be approved by the Nassau County (New York) Legislature as the County’s first Poet Laureate, having been unanimously endorsed by the Legislature’s six-member Nassau County Poet Laureate Panel. Instead, I sat in the chamber hearing myself attacked by Republican members of the Government Services & Operations Committee for having "condemned" the troops with my poetry. They rejected me 6-1, the Democrats, except for Legislator Wayne Wink, toppling over.

June 24, a sunny afternoon, poets gathered at Cedarmere, home of the famous 19th Century poet, William Cullen Bryant, and made me Poet Laureate by acclamation. House count (I call it the "lawn count" because people were assembled on the spacious lawn overlooking lovely Roslyn Harbor) was 173 -- poets, naturalists (I am a birder), activists, teachers, friends and family.

I had "condemned the troops and their efforts in Iraq," Republican Legislator Francis Becker charged at the legislative meeting. "Earlier today," he continued, "we on the Republican side started to do our research and came up with this book [Iraq and Other Killing Fields: Poetry for Peace, which I published in 2004] and some other pieces that are on the Internet, all very, very damning to our troops overseas. This is not the time for that in a time of war."

Thirteen poets who had come for a celebratory event, found themselves signing up to speak in my defense. Evelyn Kandel, declaring that she had served as a U. S. Marine as I also had done, stated "That one book (the only one of my five books about war and peace, others being about nature) was the words of someone broken-hearted over what happens in war." "You know what?" snapped Legislator Dennis Dunne, also a former Marine, "he might have written a hundred books. This is the book I heard. You know what? You ain’t getting my vote."

While I stood speaking at the podium I found myself summoning up my techniques as an eight-grade English teacher to halt disturbances. I would stop talking, silently stared at the young culprits and always they stopped. Tallish Mr. Dunne had risen from his seat, walked over to Mr. Becker and looming over him carried on a conversation. I stopped, stood facing and staring at them. In this adult situation, however, it required Chairwoman Diane Yaturo to ask Mr. Dunne to sit down. He did.

I was trying to describe my mission as Poet Laureate which was to "make Nassau County an open classroom for poetry," to bring to residents the awareness that everybody has the ability to enjoy poetry. To show concern for the troops, I read "American Mourning Poem," in which I take the generic out of the word "troops" with short biographical stanzas of four service men and a service woman flown to Dover Air Force Base in flag-draped caskets. (The scene the Government does not want the press to photograph). The legislators were not an attentive audience.

My lone supporter, Legislator Wayne Wink, declared "I’m loss, quite frankly, as to what a Poet Laureate should be, if not someone who is actually going to bring attention to and perhaps stir things up in the name of poetry."

Three poems in the book were cited by my detractors: "The Colonel Will Know When the Troops Can Go Home," "Torture," and "Iraq." All three were based on news stories. The poem "Iraq" was given prominent display the next day in Long Island’s major newspaper, Newsday. Later, the paper’s right-wing columnist, Raymond J. Keating, said of my poems, "there's a good deal of infantile, leftist tripe. How else could one possibly read lines like ‘Less-than-Elected-Vice-President Cheney evolves the Plan, the Empire of the United States of America, or comparing the Oklahoma City bombing to the Iraq War?'"

Afterwards I had the eerie experience of watching the roll call vote, hearing the parade of "no’s" across the rostrum, including that of Democratic Chairwoman Yaturo. "Once I saw," she explained, "that he had picked an elected official -- the President -- to write about, it made me uncomfortable."

The media recognized this as a blatant example of an artist disciplined for speaking against a critical governmental policy. It sped across the nation via The New York Times and the Associated Press. My daughters, Dede in California, Emilie in Virginia and Nell in Maryland sat by their computers monitoring the Internet. "Here comes one!" Nell would shout that Wednesday evening when I sat in telephone contact with her and her daughter, Juliane, for an hour-and-a-half. "Here’s another one!" I would hear as new story came up. "You’re in Canada!" Nell calls out. The story was run by the Montreal Telegram, Toronto Star and a paper in Vancouver.

On June 11, the Boston Globe editorialized:

The hearing on Wheat’s appointment erupted into an argument about
supporting the troops. Nuance was lost. Tossing out this unruly poet, the
unanimous choice of the nominating panel, came to seem like an act of valor.

Voted down by county legislators 6 to 1, Wheat nonetheless stands in
the proud tradition of poets who write about war, an unflinching group who dip their pens into the worst of battle.
Here are the poems cited by Wheat's detractors:


Males and one woman
sip coffee mornings in the White House,
talk of desires about Iraq.
For ten years
Less-than-Elected-Vice-President Cheney
evolves The Plan,
the Empire of the United States of America.

Empire building requires "pre-emptive strikes."
When is the strategic time to promote a strike against Iraq?
Not summer,
not with Less-than-Elected-President Bush vacationing in Crawford,
ensconced in his golf cart,
quipping "crawfished" about Saddam Hussein.

"From a marketing point of view,"
says the White House Chief of Staff,
"you don’t introduce new products in August."

Oil waits in the Iraqi womb,
second biggest oil field in the earth.

Think of the Oklahoma bombing.
Whom did the bomber call "Collateral Damage?"
Think of bombing, invading Iraq.
Half Iraq’s population,

The Colonel Will Know When the Troops Can Go Home

"Brute force is going to prevail today."
Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy

The Colonel his men call him,
son of two-tour Vietnam veteran,
Company Commander, Persian Gulf War, 1991,
Commander, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, 2003.

He sits in front seat of armored Humvee
thirty yards from the Diyala River Bridge,
gateway to southeastern Baghdad,
encrypted radio phone nestled by his left ear.
He is Hannibal with General George Patton appreciation of words.
"Lordy," he exclaims.
"Heck of a day. Good kills."

"Their blood is up," he brags of his men.
Fifteen hundred marines
crouch, empty machine guns, M-16s,
splay mortar shells from Abrams tanks, armored assault vehicles.
"We’re killing them like it’s going out of style."
He points to black smoke other side of the 150-foot span.
Boasts his men are establishing "violent supremacy."

"We’ll drill them," he asserts,
learning suicide bombers are driving for the bridge.
Boasts his "Boys are doing good."

Twenty bullet holes through front windshield of blue van.
Bodies of two men in street clothes slumped in front seat.
Body of woman in black chador crumpled on back floor.
No cargo. No suitcases. No bombs.
"The crueler it is, the sooner it’s over," says The Colonel.

"It’s over for us when the last guy who wants to fight for Saddam
has flies crawling across his eyeballs."


Saddam Hussein Regime

Beat soles of feet with stick ("Bastinado")
whip a prisoner’s head
twist arms, legs until they break
confine in cold cells until arms, legs freeze
press hot iron all over body
sit prisoner on cold bottle-like object
forced up rectum
use machines to remove human limbs, fingers to legs
If a child, make parents watch
dump him into sack with starving cats
Perfection of one hundred seven methods of torture.
Order prisoner to choose
from the State’s Menu of Torture

George W. Bush Administration

Make naked prisoner crouch 45 minutes, stand 72 hours
Balance black-hooded prisoner
draped in make-shift poncho on narrow box
wire his outstretched hands
warn him he will be electrocuted if he falls
Pose men in pyramid of nakedness
stand (male and female soldiers) behind the "pile"
laugh, hold thumbs up, take photographs
grind shoes down on fingers, toes
Back naked man against cell door
confront him with straining, growling dogs
Unleash the Dogs of Democracy

...and the poem he read at his hearing

American Mourning Poem

American Service Men and Women Dead -3,931*

"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments
leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal
some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

George W. Bush
President of the United States
State of the Union Address
January 28, 2003

Coming HomeIn catacombs of military transports
destined for Dover Air Force Base,
loves, beliefs, ideals, plans:
Hancock Community College,
University of Miami,
New York Police Academy,
weddings, children,
barbeques, baseball, bass fishing-
All lidded down inside caskets
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

25-year-old Marine Corps Corporal
St. George, Maine.
Sailor, rock climber, stargazer.
On dance floor, ". . . like a magnet.
"Loves lobsters, mussels-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

30-year-old Army Private First Class
Tuba City, Arizona.
". . . young, a single mother and capable."
Her boy, 4 - her girl, 3.
Woman proud of her Hopi heritage-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

20-year-old Marine Corps Corporal
La Harpe, Illinois
High school football, basketball player,
lifeguard at health club pool,
lifts weights,
going to be a physical trainer.
Joins Marine Corps Reserve
to pay for studies at Southern Illinois University-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

21-year-old Marine Corps Corporal
Gallatin, Tennessee.
Nurses dying mother with his humor,
dresses in clown costume for nieces’ birthdays.
History buff, reads fat books about generals,
presidents, the Revolutionary War-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

24-year-old Coast Guard Petty Officer
Northport, New York.
Wife, three months pregnant.
Wants to be a policeman like his father.
". . . the kind of person that you fall in love with
the minute that you meet him," a friend says-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

A father, a mother grieve for their only son, an Army Specialist.
"He wanted to be an engineer," the father remembers.
"He wanted to set up his own business when he got out.
And I says, 'Amigo, I’m waiting for you to get out
so we can put up our own business.’
And all that, well, you know, is history."

The Major General carefully, caringly folds The American Flag,
places the nation’s ensign into the mother’s hands

*as of January 23. 2008

All poems ©Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr.


Anne Starnes Kingsbury said...

I enjoyed meeting you at the Walt Whitman Birthplace on Walt's 190th on May 31st, for the Poetry Awards. I believe that true poets, those willing to endure scrutiny and censure with thier words, deserve to have thier say. Carry on!

EPTteam said...

Mr. Wheat: I had the great privilege of being your student in your english class in Farmingdale, NY, in 1982. I would love to get in touch with you again.