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Global -- and internal -- politics clouds future of writers' group

What next for Walt Whitman's dream of ``an internationality of poems and poets''? This was a poet's phrase for International PEN -- that now-global association of writers and editors -- when it started in 1921. As PEN moves into the second half of the 1980s, the future of the dream looks somewhat turbulent but perhaps even more expansive than Whitman imagined. The reason is not only the spirited and sometimes bombastic debate on familiar political themes at the recent 48th international congress in New York, the first in the United States for 20 years. It is also the dramatic emergence of an issue that's much closer to home -- the ``underrepresentation of women'' -- in the concluding days of the conference. Several participants saw it as promising a change in the organization itself, a London-based association of poets, playwrights, essayists, and novelists.

At first, dispute simmered over the fewness of women among panel discussion members. Finally it turned into formal protest. Led by American writers Grace Paley and Betty Friedan, the protest expressed ``shock'' over the imbalance and called for ``immediate steps'' to include American and international women members in PEN's decisionmaking role -- specifically in time for next year's congress, to be held in Hamburg.

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Although roughly half of PEN's members currently are women, there were only 20 women among the 120 panel members who addressed this congress. PEN American president Norman Mailer, who had been at the center of controversy throughout the congress, acknowledged the imbalance. He noted that several prominent female writers, including Iris Murdoch, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Mavis Gallant, had been invited but were unable to attend.

It was some of Mr. Mailer's additional comments that most offended participants and prompted calls for reassessment. These comments included references to tokenism and the statement ``There are countries in the world where there are no good women writers.'' The issue is expected to be addressed at the next PEN American board meeting.

In the midst of all the politics, many conference members were still, in effect, holding to Whitman's more literary dream for PEN.

During a break between meetings, South African writer Nadine Gordimer spoke possibly for an entire congress weary of ideological infighting: ``It's so difficult to explain what writers do. Writers are trying to make sense of life. . . . If that life is imbued with politics . . . then politics is simply there.''

And the politics was indeed there -- from the initial indignation over Secretary of State George Shultz's opening address, to oratorical speeches from the star-studded panels, to heated discussions in even hotter elevators, to lively debates at glittery social gatherings.

While many members cheerfully waded through the flowing rhetoric -- ``It's more important what goes on in elevators and over breakfast,'' said Israeli novelist Amos Oz -- others were less sanguine. ``Too much bombast,'' one writer sniffed after a particularly acrimonious session.

Through all the pleasantries and unpleasantries, however, one overtly literary theme kept surfacing -- a devotion to language -- which proved that while writers disagreed about politics, they could at least concur about their craft.

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Indeed, throughout the congress came numerous and repeated exhortations to avoid the ``pollution'' of language by jargon, ``radical platitudes,'' and sheer misuse. Agreeing with art critic Robert Hughes's assertion that ``works of art are powerless to stop destruction,'' the writers nonetheless affirmed the need for ethical as well as aesthetic criteria for language.

``It is not only that we address the issues, but how we address the issues,'' said American novelist Saul Bellow.

``It's a fact that writers are an intellectual force,'' said Ms. Gordimer. ``[Without them] all the ontological questions will be solved on a managerial basis. But don't put the line so fine. The very truth of language depends upon our fidelty to craft.''

At such moments Whitman's dream seemed ready for the future.

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