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CORRESPONDENCE

How to describe poet James Merrill?

December 01, 2002

Only a serious misreading could allow Caroline Fraser -- in her review of "Collected Novels and Plays" by James Merrill (Book Review, Nov. 10) -- to suggest that, in writing about Merrill in the New Republic, I "dismissed" his poetry or "defamed" his "homosexuality and wealth." In fact, I wrote that "there was no American poet more artistically serious than Merrill" and that he was "one of the finest American poets of the last half-century." The point of my essay, which was a lengthy and detailed study of his work (and not, like Fraser's review, a summary of his life), was that Merrill's aestheticism, his concern with surfaces, was the key to his accomplishment, and therefore also to its limits. I do not see how words like "aesthete" could be avoided in discussing Merrill's poetry. Above all, I reject with indignation Fraser's offensive and ludicrous suggestion that this was a coded slur directed at a poet whom I admire very much.

Adam Kirsch

New York

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Caroline Fraser replies:

Adam Kirsch can't have it both ways. Whether he admires Merrill or not, his descriptions -- which certainly are lengthy -- trivialize and dismiss Merrill's work as that of "a serious poet whose language outstrips what he has to say" and one whose "major work was left unwritten." The fact that Kirsch contradicts himself -- praising Merrill's achievement while criticizing his "superficiality" -- is not my fault; it's his. As for those slurs, Merrill possessed an uncanny ear for nuances of language, and he deserves better than to be denigrated by critics tone-deaf to the implications of the diction they have chosen to employ.

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Andrew Cockburn's usually perceptive article about the impending war with Iraq (Book Review, Nov. 3) is marred by two erroneous details about the company I work for, Hill & Knowlton. We had no hand in thinking up the congressional hearing to which he referred, at which a witness testified to seeing Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital where she worked and remove an incubator after first leaving the baby in it on the floor. That Iraqi soldiers did indeed take babies from incubators and then pack up the incubators to go to Iraq has since been verified by, among others, the world's leading investigative agency, three major wire services and the U.S. Army. The witness was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., who asked that her identity not be revealed publicly, although it was readily available from the committee's witness list.

Frank Mankiewicz

Vice chairman

Hill & Knowlton

Washington, D.C.

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Andrew Cockburn replies:

Frank Mankiewicz would apparently have us believe that his firm had nothing to do with the myth of Kuwaiti babies tossed out of their hospital incubators by fiendish Iraqis, and even that this legend had some basis in fact. History indicates otherwise.

In 1990 Hill & Knowlton was on retainer from Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a front for the Kuwaiti government, to win U.S. public support for war with Iraq. In this capacity the firm, according to "Second Front," John MacArthur's authoritative book on propaganda in the Gulf War, arranged for the Kuwaiti ambassador's 15-year-old daughter, Nayirah, to testify in front of a congressional panel in October 1990 that she had personally seen Iraqi soldiers decant at least 15 babies from their incubators in a Kuwait hospital, leaving them "on the cold floor to die." Nayirah's full name and family connections were certainly unknown to observers at the hearing, including co-chairman Congressman John Porter, not to mention the many media organizations to whom Hill & Knowlton speedily relayed her colorful and, as it subsequently emerged, fictitious testimony.

The "world's leading investigative agency" cited as having confirmed the story would be Kroll and Associates, paid by the government of Kuwait to prepare its report. Kroll claimed to have found witnesses to one incident in which babies were removed from incubators but produced no evidence to this effect. So far as I can establish, the U.S. Army and wire service reports cited by Mankiewicz were drawing on the fruits of Kroll's labors.

Following the Gulf War the alleged atrocity was thoroughly investigated by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as various news organizations. Eyewitnesses interviewed by ABC News, including the director of Kuwait's primary health-care system and the chief of obstetrics at the maternity hospital, stated that the story was not true. Human Rights Watch called it a "complete hoax."

Several senators cited the tale of the incubator atrocity as the decisive factor influencing their vote in favor of war with Iraq. A powerful myth indeed.

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