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Poets Admonish White House for 'Disinvitation'

Poets collected Sunday at a Vermont church to continue to express anger over last week's White House decision to put the kibosh on dissent within its own walls.

The White House indefinitely postponed a library symposium to be sponsored by first lady Laura Bush last Wednesday because a bulk of the guests planned to get up and protest a possible war with Iraq.

"Why be afraid of us, Mrs. Bush?" asked Julia Alvarez, reciting a poem about the "disinvitation" to a crowd of 600. "You're married to a scarier fellow."

"For poets to remain silent at a time of national crisis is unconscionable," said Jay Parini, a Middlebury College professor who had planned to read an anti-war poem at the White House event. "Poets from the time of ancient Athens have raised voices in protest."

A White House spokeswoman said that although Laura Bush "respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn the literary event into a political forum."

On Sunday, the poets responded it was naive for the first lady to think poets would not express their politics.

At the "Poetry Reading In Honor of the Right of Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition," several of the poets who were to be featured at the White House event spoke only of their politics.

Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell, who was invited to the White House event but declined, and Grace Paley, Vermont's incoming state poet laureate, both expressed joy about recent peace protests around the world and added that the true patriots -- like Walt Whitman, who was to be a featured author at the symposium -- are those who can continue to love America even as they disagree with policy-making at the top.

"What happened in the last few days has really been so encouraging, so hope-making," Paley told the audience, referring to peace protests across the globe on Saturday. "And I really feel that the rise of the poets had a lot to do with it happening everywhere in the world."

That's just what Joseph Bottum, books and arts editor for The Weekly Standard, suggested in an article last week that the poets are trying to achieve -- the perception that they have an elevated status in the debate.

"If poetry becomes again middlebrow art, what identity remains for the leftitst poets? They defined themselves as adversarial to everything in the culture, politics and lives of the middlebrow and literary cachet is all they have left," Bottum wrote.

"In our poets against the war, you can perceive Vietnam envy, gleeful adolescent ill manners, and straightforward political partisanship. But none of that entirely explains the desperation to make themselves matter as poets -- even if the cost is writing what they must know doesn't matter as poetry..."

The poetry reading, which also included "Lesson," a poem by National Book Award Winner Ruth Stone about a University of Wisconsin student who was jailed for protesting the Vietnam War, will be published and proceeds will go to charity.

Organizers said the Bushes were invited to the Vermont poetry reading, but did not respond.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.