Anti-war poet re­lies on wis­dom of the East

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Barry Hill

Habi­ta­tion: Col­lected Po­ems By Sam Hamill Lost Horse Press, 604pp, $30 Sam Hamill is a sub­stan­tial fig­ure in Amer­i­can po­etry. As the founder of Cop­per Canyon Press he has put out dozens of im­por­tant and beau­ti­ful books. As a trans­la­tor, he has de­liv­ered work from an­cient Greece as well as East Asia, books that have of­ten be­come clas­sics.

He has es­sayed grandly on po­etry, much of his work pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Po­etry Re­view, and he has writ­ten pas­sion­ate, im­por­tant po­ems over 40 years, an achieve­ment marked by po­lit­i­cal grit and what he likes to call his own ‘‘av­o­ca­tion’’ of po­etry — a vo­ca­tional bent in­dis­pens­able to in­di­vid­ual souls and the soul of a na­tion, if it has one.

The ad­vo­cacy came to a head af­ter 9/11 when the US in­vaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq.

May 9-10, 2015 Hamill, hav­ing been in­vited as a pub­lisher to sup at the White House, de­clined. He started Po­ets Against the War and soon hun­dreds of po­ets were sub­mit­ting their anti-war po­ems on­line. A book fol­lowed, and Hamill be­came a leader of a po­etry move­ment thor­oughly politi­cised by the his­tor­i­cal mo­ment we are still in.

He ruggedly oc­cu­pies, then, a space well ar­tic­u­lated by sev­eral other ma­jor po­ets of his gen­er­a­tion: Adri­enne Rich, Denise Lver­tov, Ken­neth Rexroth and Gary Sny­der, to name a few. Nu­mer­ous po­ems in Habi­ta­tion, a huge col­lec­tion of his work, hon­orif­i­cally name th­ese men­tors.

Of course, there are many dif­fer­ences among th­ese po­ets; they var­i­ously rise to the task of speak­ing po­lit­i­cally, and they do not strike the same notes as Hamill, who has gone about his dif­fi­cult busi­ness in sev­eral ways. If I had to sum­marise his strat­egy — as dis­tinct from re­spond­ing to in­di­vid­ual po­ems — I would say that he has mas­tered an art of uniron­i­cally speak­ing ‘‘from the heart’’, while at the same time mak­ing po­ems that work obliquely, modestly, with a depth of cul­tural reach and so­phis­ti­ca­tion. I think of you of­ten th­ese days, old mas­ter, when some peo­ple say my po­ems aren’t po­ems at all, but merely oc­ca­sions of po­lit­i­cal provo­ca­tion, and of course they may be right. Like you, late at night, I scratch my songs on a wall by fire­light, and drink, and bow, only to begin again, some­how.

This poem, the first col­lected here, is one of his most re­cent. It’s called A Let­ter to Han Shan, re­fer­ring to the zany Chi­nese moun­tain poet of Zen fame, a poet of crags and clouds and sim­ple, soli­tary living with a sense of in­fi­nite time and the one­ness of all things. Like so many other west coast po­ets of the 1960s, Hamill in­haled Zen as eas­ily as mar­i­juana, and he car­ried Zen aus­ter­i­ties into the for­est of Port Townsend, Wash­ing­ton, when he in­stalled his press in 1974, in the days when it was hand­set.

Look­ing back, his refuge was hard-won. He had ar­rived on the coast as a mother-beaten home­less 16-year-old, a kid who lived on the streets and de­vel­oped what he calls, in his poem to Sny­der, ‘‘a lit­tle heroin habit / and a gift for self-de­struc­tion’’. His mug­gings led him to pri­son cells where he might well have scratched his own songs into the walls. The au­thor­i­ties gave the boy what they called a choice: do real time or join the army.

Off he went to the Amer­i­can base in Ok­i­nawa. There he en­coun­tered Ja­panese cul­ture for the first time, along with a clearer at the base who led him to Bud­dhist tem­ples. Back in the US, he went to col­lege, and be­gan to in­duct him­self into the an­cient po­ets of China and Ja­pan, many of them ir­rev­er­ent con­tem­pla­tives who had es­chewed public life in favour of their own com­pany and the free­dom to do what they liked, in­clud­ing drink.

So this is the first thing: Hamill’s po­lit­i­cal

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