Seeking Poetic Justice
March 3, 2003
By Alex Tizon
PORT TOWNSEND, Washington – The poet needs another cigarette. He’d worked himself down to eight smokes a day, on pace to quit before his 60th birthday, but now he’s back up to a pack and not sleeping very much besides.
Sam Hamill — author of 13 volumes of poetry, pacifist ex-Marine, Buddhist, craggy white-haired introvert — once had a life he liked. It was lived in private. Then First Lady Laura Bush, in mid-January, invited him to take part in a White House symposium called “Poetry and the American Voice.”
Hamill, so opposed to war with Iraq that he trembles with anger when discussing it, says the invitation created in him “a kind of nausea.” He ran to the store and bought a carton of Parliaments, then got online and invited a few friends to submit antiwar poems to a new Web site he set up, www.poetsagainstthewar.org.
The collection of poems was to be Hamill’s response to the first lady’s invitation. But when word got out about the poems, the White House canceled the event. That’s when one part of the story ended, and another began: The uprising of poets took on its own life.
Within days, there were 2,000 poems on the site. By the start of February, there were 9,000, and by last week, more than 13,000 and counting. The contributors, some of the most highly esteemed poets in the land, got organized and held antiwar readings coast to coast.
In short, Hamill sent an e-mail and started a movement. He says he had no idea he’d be tapping into such a deep and fiercely coursing vein, and that he’d be reviving the literary debate on whether poets and poetry still have relevance in 21st century America.
The culmination of the e-mail campaign, Hamill says, will take place Wednesday, when he and a group of fellow poets are to present the anthology to select members of Congress. The presentation will be followed by another wave of poetry readings across the country, and then, down the road, the anthology will be culled for a book.
“That will be the end,” says Hamill, his voice coarsened by fatigue and smoke. “It will be the period at the end of the paragraph, and then I want to be done with it.
“I want to go back to my life.”
The life to which he’d like to return is spent mostly in seclusion in a room full of books, abiding by some private vow to the poetic word. He’s arranged his home as a bulwark against interruption. His house, built one plank at a time with his own hands, is a two-level cedar cabin, which he shares with his wife, poet and artist Gray Foster. A few dozen feet down a wooded path sits a smaller cabin, his writing hut, where he spends most of his days. Inside the hut is a picture of a daughter, his only child, now a 38-year-old nurse in Vancouver, Canada.
Both house and hut hide in a grove of towering cedars and Douglas firs in a forest just outside this mossy port town at the northeast edge of the Olympic Peninsula. A life farther removed from the rat race would be hard to find.
Some mornings he spends at his other office, four miles down the road at Copper Canyon Press, which operates inside what used to be a blacksmith barn. It’s nonprofit, and one of the oldest and most respected of the small poetry presses.
Hamill co-founded the press three decades ago and essentially ran it without pay for nearly 20 years. Nobody gets rich in the business of poetry. Nearly all poets need day jobs. For Hamill, it was teaching poetry to convicts.
For 14 years, in Alaska and Washington prisons, he taught the refinements of the poetic word to thieves, rapists, gang members and murderers. He knew them well, because, as he put it, “I used to be one of them.”
His story in brief: battered as a child, homeless at 14, in and out of jail by 15 (for vagrancy and car theft), a street thug and heroin addict for the rest of his teen years. Then he joined the Marines. In the military, a doctor surgically removed some of the most visible of his blue jailhouse tattoos, namely the ones on his knuckles. One tattoo, “MOM,” still peeks out from under his shirt cuff.
While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Hamill became first a Buddhist and then a pacifist, neither of which made the Marines very happy. He squeaked through with an honorable discharge and a changed outlook.
His passion for Japanese and Chinese cultures profoundly affected him, his poems reflecting the spare and precise manner of Asian poetry. His topics alternate between the mystical and the mundane, the political and the self-deprecating.
From his last book, “Dumb Luck” (Boa Editions, 2002), he writes:
Now that I’ve squandered
Almost a lifetime going
To school on those old
Dead poets who rabble-roused
Or retreated into a
Kind of solitude
Few can understand….
How astonishing it is,
How embarrassing, to wake up some days and feel —
Well — almost respectable.
Sitting at his desk at Copper Canyon, Hamill looks like a cowboy, wearing blue jeans and western shirt and vest. He is a trim, compact man with blue eyes that seem simultaneously sleep-deprived and mischievous. His hair is as white as the cigarette butts in the ashtray.
“This is what it’s become,” he says, swiveling his chair and gesturing at three knee-high stacks of unopened mail. “I get up in the morning and there’re 200 e-mails at home, another 120 at work, a stack of phone messages, the answering machine, and this.”
He says he’s been functioning on three hours of sleep a night. Hamill and his colleagues have been roundly criticized by pundits and other poets for mixing poetry and politics, for grandstanding and, as one critic put it, “simply making noise.” Critics say the first lady, a former librarian, was merely following her agenda of promoting literature and the arts, and look how rudely those poets responded. (The White House offered no explanation for canceling the event.)
By coincidence, the White House symposium that spurred the movement was also to be the occasion of introducing Dana Gioia, new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia, who lives in Sonoma County, is a literary critic and poet of some renown, though he is probably best known among fellow poets for his widely circulated 1992 book, “Can Poetry Matter?”
Gioia’s answer was “no,” at least not in the current state of American poetry, a world he describes as insular, esoteric and self-marginalizing, populated by elitist literary snobs writing for other elitist literary snobs. Writing poetry for political purposes, some critics say, is just another way to further alienate the public.
“I don’t feel poetry should be merely an expression of opinion. I cannot write a poem to order even if the order is a strong one,” says John Hollander, author of 17 books of poetry and a professor at Yale University. “When asked to make a political statement, I say, ‘As a citizen, I will; but as a poet, I will not.’
“My poetry is not a citizen of the United States. I am.”
Maybe it’s the Zen Buddhist ideal of living a single un-segmented life that compels Hamill to not separate his political views from his poetic expression. Hamill says the foremost reason for his protest against the war is his belief that killing is morally wrong, a belief that crystallized while he was in Japan. The documented horrors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he says, left a potent impression on him.
Many of the most influential poets of the day have not only supported Hamill, but applauded him. Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1995, says if Hamill had not rallied other poets against the war, Levine himself would have. Levine was invited to the same symposium and was preparing to decline and make his own protest statement.
“We’re talking about killing thousands of people, destroying a country and causing the entire Muslim population of the world to rise up,” Levine says. “Of course we need to speak up, and poets have always spoken up. It’s a long and powerful tradition.”
As modern examples, poets Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin and Robin Morgan became leaders in the feminist movement. Poet Robert Lowell, another Pulitzer recipient, boycotted a similar White House event to protest the Vietnam War and helped lead the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Norman Mailer, though primarily a novelist, also considers himself a philosopher-poet obligated to comment on the most vital issues of the day.
It’s generally accepted that poetry, in this sprint-paced, digital age, no longer appeals to the masses as it once did. Reading poetry requires contemplation; it is an act of stopping and reflecting, neither of which, to many Americans, holds priority over climbing the corporate ladder or developing buns of steel.
But poetry still has a following — small, scattered and diverse. According to Poets House, a poetry archive in New York City, there were from 1,300 to 1,600 poetry titles published in the United States last year.
“Poets affect society in a much greater way than, say, people who build buildings,” says Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington and a reader of poetry. Poets, he says, affect society indirectly, by instilling readers with ideas and images, and inspiring them to act, the notion behind Percy Bysshe Shelley’s statement that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
McDermott and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) have made arrangements to officially receive Hamill and his 13,000-poem anthology. The two legislators, who hope to be joined by some of their colleagues in Congress, plan to enter some of the poems into the congressional record.
Hamill’s adventure involves much irony, of course. All stories involving poets must have irony. The most obvious one has to do with why so much attention has been paid to protesting poets, and it’s because — even Hamill wouldn’t dispute this — of Laura Bush’s invitation. Without the Bush name attached to the story line, www.poetsagainstthewar.org would be just another obscure lefty Web site.
The other irony has to do with the Internet, which even poets find mesmerizing and magical. Such a compilation would not have been possible in such a tiny span without the Internet, which was most comprehensively developed by the military. It would have been difficult to solicit such quick responses, and quick works of art, from such a wide range of literary luminaries.
The list of Pulitzer contributors include W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Kizer, Galway Kinnell and Maxine Kumin. Former U.S. poet laureates include Rita Dove, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky. Hamill himself is a former Guggenheim fellow.
“I just sent a letter to a few friends, and it turns out I have 13,000 friends, most of them I’ve never met,” Hamill says, his voice scraping the air. “I didn’t set out to start a movement. I certainly didn’t set out to become the leader.”
Now Hamill finds himself at the head of something that makes him cringe — a bureaucracy. An organization with layers. With memos and meetings. He oversees 25 editors across the country who are helping him edit the online poems. Those editors have sub-editors. He has three “spokespersons” in Washington, D.C. He must deal with computer and Web site experts, with publishers, critics.
Hamill swears a lot, and when talking about bureaucracy, the four-letter words spew out. Amid it all, the sweetest irony is that Hamill is the happiest unhappy man in Port Townsend. Poets can do that — claim to feel two contradictory things at once. He’s hated the hubbub of the last six weeks, but, he says, he’s been “heartened” by the passion of his fellow poets. Levine says Hamill has also thoroughly enjoyed “goosing” the people in D.C.
Once it’s all over, when the package has been delivered, Hamill says, it’ll be time to push the mute button on all the noise, to slowly taper down his “to do” list until all that’s left is reading, writing and editing poetry. He might sleep in now and then, and maybe he can quit smoking all over again.
Excerpts of poems that appear on the Web site www.poetsagainstthewar.org:
The whole green sky is dying. The last tree flares.
With a great burst of supernatural rose
Under a canopy of poisonous airs.
Could we imagine our return to prayers
To end in time before time’s final throes,
The green sky is dying as the last tree flares? …
All rain was dust. Its granules were out of tears.
Throats burst as universal winter rose
To kill the whole green sky, the last tree bare
Beneath its canopy of poisoned air.
When they shall paint our sockets gray
And light us like a stinking fuse,
Remember that we once could say,
Yesterday we had a world to lose.
One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,
I thought I heard a scream
— a flier crying out in horror
as he dropped fire on he didn’t know what or whom,
or else a child thus set aflame — and sat up alert. The olive wood fire
had burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,
fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.
One went the way of water,
one crumpled under stone;
one climbed the air but plunged through fire,
one fought the fear alone.
Remember us, though we are gone.
I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.
The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.
Soon, the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can’t bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.