I was surprised this week to discover that there exists a World Congress of Poets, and even more surprised to learn that it's been around for more than 40 years. It got my mind spinning. I wondered: is there a domed building in Geneva where poets argue under statues of the muses? Do they cut backroom deals on acceptable variations to the sonnet and jockey for positions on the metaphor committee?
After my daydreaming, their website was a little disappointing. The Congress has no stately facilities -- it doesn't even seem to have facilities -- and it makes no real attempt to govern anything. And while its members include the well-known Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, membership seems to be open to anyone willing to pay $400. The Congress is very good at dreaming up impressive names for itself, like the United Poets Laureate International (UPLI) and the World Poetry Society.
This year's session in Taipei, Taiwan promises to be a "special and profound cultural feast of body, mind and spirit," and it sounds a lot like a vacation. Congressional members travel to scenic spots around Taiwan to recite poetry, and they finish up with a trip to the International Flora Exposition. This all made more sense once I read the group's charter, which details a purpose, which, while noble, is far more humble than I'd imagined:
We, the poets of various nations of the world, have decided to mobilize and organize our kind into a World Congress of Poets to substitute peace for war in the minds of men, by educating mankind with love of peace and of fellowmen, that is, the promotion of world brotherhood and peace through poetry and by means of their encounters an interchange of culture and reciprocal comprehension.
Peace and brotherhood through poetry -- we can all admire that. But it's a bit awkward that the featured speaker at this year's event is Abdul Kalam, a former President of India whom the Taiwanese media is introducing as "the father of India's missile program." In his remarks to the Congress, Kalam said of poetry, "The whole world can be connected through the words of poets." He continued:
Poets can be at the place of peace, poets can be at the place of poverty. Poets can be at the place of suffering, poets can be at the place of prosperity. Poets' minds can live in a clean planet earth, poets can connect the rivers, scale difficult mountains and they can even bind ailing hearts.
Things got awkward when he went on to explain what missiles can do (ok, not really).
Living up to the designation "congress," this year's session has even featured some political infighting: the Chinese delegation is boycotting the event. We can assume that this has something to do with its being held in Taiwan, but congressional organizers state that there has simply been a "misunderstanding."
One thing, at least, can't be misunderstood. While its members may be reciting poetry and smelling flowers instead of debating an extension of the Bush tax cuts, this year's Congress of Poets will be more popular, and perhaps even more effective, than the one in Washington.