Hughes wrote of an America that, in his experience, never was:

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It was never America to me.)

No wonder the White House is terrified by anyone who would take Langston Hughes seriously. No wonder the White House postponed a poetry symposium — scheduled for this Wednesday — out of fear that those big mean poets would protest the pending war with Iraq.

The cowardice and the poverty of ideas exhibited by the White House is palpable. If war with Iraq is such a great idea, why not have the guts and the integrity to discuss it with a group of America’s finest poets? None of the scores of great librarians I know would ever cancel such an event for fear of public discourse. Laura Bush should stop passing herself off as a former librarian.

Thank you, Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut Poet Laureate, for your backbone. You also responded with dignity to bad manners exhibited by your would-be White House hosts.

Nelson was among the poets invited — and then disinvited — to the symposium. The event was also supposed to honor Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Nelson laughed about the White House party line: These poets were going to go political and ruin a literary event. How, then, were the president and first lady going to honor Whitman, who complained that the presidency and other offices were “bought, sold … prostituted and filled with prostitutes.”

“This indicates something very deep about the White House,” Nelson told me. “It says something about their response to dissent.”

Nelson had a silk scarf with peace signs made for the event. She hoped it might show up in some photo ops. Now, Nelson said, “I’ll wear it everywhere.”

Instead of going to the White House on Wednesday, Nelson made plans to attend a “Poets for Peace” event at West Avenue Community Center in Willimantic, Conn., to read a new anti-war poem, “Wreath for Emmett Till.”

Nationally, many poets are planning “guerilla poetry readings” in the streets wherever the president appears. Poet Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash., declared Feb. 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. He intends to publish about 3,000 anti-war poems on the site

“The problem with this imminent war,” said poet Georgia Popoff of Syracuse, N.Y., “is that the obvious profile of the majority who are opposed is being swept under the carpet by pollsters who can sway the image in any direction.”

Thank you, America, as Langston Hughes put it, for “the land that has never been yet.”