Anti-war poet relies on wisdom of the East
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