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307 West 5th Street Austin, Texas intimate and immediate experience I’d ever had, and I wanted to bring that sense of it to people. We are hungry for soul-to-soul contact…. I wish the fear of poetry were eliminated in this country bringing it more and more into the school curriculum is crucial.” Robert Hass said, “When you’re young, the words come to you as if they’re telegrams from angels.” Robert Pinsky said, “It’s great poetry that’s particularly in danger of being lost for our children we’re supposed to keep those voices alive.” The First Lady delivered a particularly warm welcome. “To you who speak the great speech of the world,” she said, “who silence the wide noise around us, we are honored to welcome you to the White House.” This seemed particularly touching, considering the wide noise Hillary Clinton must filter all the time. She called poets “the first great listeners,” and said she didn’t believe there had ever been more poets gathered in the White House at any one time. She noted that that day, the National Endowment for the Arts had announced it would donate $500,000 to support Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project,” currently underway, and The invocation was an Iroquois poem, and then the poets presented selections by Whitman, Langston Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, Emily Dickinson, Robert Hayden, Anne Bradstreet \(the first English colonist “The Turtle,” a wonderful poem by William Carlos Williams, originally “commissioned” by Williams’ grandson. Pinsky described the “cultural blendings, collidings, and crazy mixings” so much a part of American life, speech and poetry. The reading of a superb tribute to John Keats by Countee Cullen surprised us all no one in my row was familiar with it. There were poems by Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens. I was sitting in a perfect position to watch President Clinton respond to the poems. He laughed roundly at Stevens’ title, “The Pleasures of Merely Circulating”; pursed his lips and made notes; raised an eyebrow more than once; nodded vigorously a couple of times; and placed his chin in his hand when Robert Hass spoke a poem beautifully from mem ory. It made me think again how much an animated response is a part of any true poetry experience. The finale was a shared reading by all three poets of Robert Frost’s “Directive,” which concludes, “Drink and be whole again, beyond confusion.” Then the President spoke, beginning with a moving tribute to Octavio Paz. He referred to a once-contro versial Atlantic Monthly article, which questioned whether poetry could or does matter. \(I remember skimming it, having little patience with such articles. Does breathing matter? Does a walk down the street show us anything The President seemed similarly annoyed. “Does poetry have any value? Of course it does! Lis-. tening tonight made me sad it made us all wiser … happier … nostalgic….” He referred to “this crazy world we live in, in which everything’s running around so fast,” and described poetry as a calming, focusing experience. He also said, “Some presidents have thought they were poets or wanted to be poets. George Washington tried writing poems. So did John Quincy Adams. Luckily for you, I haven’t written any poetry in twenty years.” Following some additional recitations by community participants, and an internet conversation about poetry \(amazing how normal closed the program by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.” We adjourned to the dining room for a buffet supper, and a generous evening of talk. I found myself speaking to Hillary Clinton about how hard it is to be away from one’s child, and how much the stories of Chelsea’s going off to college had touched me. The mood, all around, was general gratitude and pleasure: thank you for acknowledging poetry, for inviting us here, for caring to spread these words. A clump of listeners gathered tightly in one corner around the President. \(Later, I heard that a poet had given him advice about the Middle East, and I was sad to have managed to be so gracious to so many people in quick claustrophobic succession amazed me in the hours that followed, not once did either manage a moment to themselves. They remained utterly hospitable, listening kindly, shaking hands, and responding. A number of poets were heard to say to one another, “Take it all in! This will likely never happen again!” But I kept considering what poetry does it allows us to carry images, relive experiences, remember clearly. Maybe now that this had happened once, it would never stop happening! As the crowd dwindled, Edward Hirsch, of the University of Houston \(leading canto me. Our sons are friends, about the same age. “So, are you going to get the President’s autograph for your son?” he asked. “Absolutely not!” I huffed. “He asked for one and I said, No way.” Ed said, “Come on, if we do it together, it won’t be so bad. Otherwise how can we face those boys?” We edged up to the President, and Ed spoke. “Sir, just moments ago we were sophisticated poets, but we have rapidly degenerated into autograph-seeking parents. ” He held out a page. The President didn’t even flinch. He asked the boys’ names and ages, and kindly signed, and then stayed with those of us who remained, until nearly midnight. The notion that politics and poetry might have many ways to inform and engage one another is something, as poets, we have all held close for longer than we can say. For one evening perhaps for longer it was more than a marginal fantasy. Politics and poetry came together, and politics was quieter. Naomi Shihab Nye is poetry editor for the Observer. Her novel for teens, Habibi, has won five “Best Book” awards, including one from the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award from the Women’ s National Book Association. 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 5, 1998