Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

Sam Hamill: Poetry, Politics, and Zen

If only we could touch the things of this world at their center, if we could only hear tiny leaves of birch struggling toward April, then we would know.

Nothing will change until we demolish the “we-they” mentality. We are human, and therefore all human concerns are ours. And those concerns are personal.

The only thing we all agree on, virtually every poet in this country, is that this Administration is really frightening, and we want something done about it.

Poetry transcends the nation-state. Poetry transcends government. It brings the traditional concept of power to its knees. I have always believed poetry to be an eternal conversation in which the ancient poets remain contemporary, a conversation inviting us into other languages and cultures even as poetry transcends language and culture, returning us again and again to primal rhythms and sounds.

My ethics, my sense of morality, my work ethic, my sense of compassion for suffering humanity, all of that comes directly out of the practice of poetry, as does my Buddhist practice. Poetry is a very important element in the history of Buddhism in general and in Zen in particular. It was really Zen that motivated me to change the way I perceive the world.

I was a violent, self-destructive teenager, who was adopted right at the end of World War II. I was lied to and abused by my parents. I hated life in Utah. I resented the Mormon Church, its sense of superiority and its certitude. I escaped through the Beat writers and discovered poetry and have devoted my entire life to the practice of poetry in varying ways. Poetry gave me a reason for being. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that.

Poetry teaches us things that cannot be learned in prose, such as certain kinds of irony or the importance of the unsaid. The most important element of any poem is the part that is left unsaid. So the poetry frames the experience that lies beyond naming.

All I’d ever heard my entire life in my family was, “Nobody wanted you, and we took you in.” When you get that into your head at a tender age, you really feel like you are an unlovable human being, and then you behave like one. That’s exactly what I had done. It took me many years to deal with my own violence and find my own niche.

Kenneth Rexroth took me under his wing for a brief period. I was fifteen years old, and I was smoking a lot of heroin and trying to be cool, man, and I really loved poetry. And Kenneth convinced me that destroying myself was not really the best possible solution, and that I needed to look at the world’s literature, and not just my own life, in order to be hip, if you will. So he had a huge influence on what became of me thereafter.

We poets don’t tend to be certain a lot. Much of our art is made out of our own uncertainty. And there is a not-knowingness, I think, that leads us back to suffering humanity with a more compassionate vision than most of our politicians have.

I can remember, I think it was 1967, sitting in the First Unitarian Church in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, and seeing Phil Levine come out on the little stage. He sat on the edge and said, “You know, sometimes it’s hard not to hate my country for the way I feel, at times, but I won’t let that happen.” And then he read, “They Feed They Lion,” this incredibly powerful, incantatory poem that was inspired in part by the burning of Detroit in 1967 and the riots that followed.

And then Galway Kinnell came out with that wonderful big, breathy, hollow voice of his and read, for the first time in public, “The Bear.” That poem impressed me so much that I memorized it. I used it for years when I taught in prisons. It’s a powerful extended metaphor for what the writing life is really all about. It’s a uniquely powerful poem about self-transformation, and that’s what we’re asking, really, beyond even our objection to the war. We’re asking people to look at themselves and think about what might be possible with a little self-transformation.

Each of us as poets, as decent suffering human beings, has to find a way to run our lives that is compassionate toward one another and toward our environment.

We’re certainly not perfect, and we’re not probably even better than anybody else, except that perhaps we are given to certain kinds of contemplation that provide a valuable balance to the knee-jerk reactionary behavior of most of our newspapers and political leaders. Poets are great doubters.

What poetry does above all else is develop sensibility. And that’s what makes poetry so dangerous. That’s why poetry is so good at undermining governments and so bad at building them. There’s nothing harder to organize than a group of poets.


 

Copyright 2017 Sam Hamill.

These quotations were compiled by Michael Simms from various prose works by and interviews with Sam Hamill. 

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Sam Hamill is an American poet and the co-founder of Copper Canyon Press. He is also the initiator of the Poets Against War movement (2003), which he set up in response to the Iraq War. Hamill’s Habitation: Collected Poems presents some of Hamill’s best poems spanning a career of over 40 years.

9 comments on “Sam Hamill: Poetry, Politics, and Zen

  1. thisisnorm
    September 8, 2017

    Saving ourselves by trying to save others, that’s what I think poetry is all about. Poetry is my way of looking deeper into life; becoming aware through reflection.
    Looking at life this way has brought me to understand that our needs are really simple; it is our wants that complicate our lives. We are all wounded in some way; either we walk with a limp or with fear in our heart. Poetry helps us find our way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Matthew Goldstein
    September 4, 2017

    Beautifully written statement. You were lucky to find a good mentor. A good mentor and an in production to the world of literature can turn a life around. And poetry can fill it with meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alan J. Blaustein
    September 4, 2017

    Poetry as an art or a means of expressing beliefs? Creating beauty with words or rhythmic-sounding essays? The question for me is which is primary, and for me as a rhyme-and-meter poet it’s the former. Formal poetry can quite well deal with current concerns while still remaining poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Barbara
    September 4, 2017

    Interesting post

    Like

  5. Pablo Cuzco
    September 3, 2017

    “The most important element of any poem is the part that is left unsaid. So the poetry frames the experience that lies beyond naming.” This reminds me of the empty hub of the many spoked wheel and the emptiness of the cooking pot of the Tao Te Ching. The empty, or no-thing, is the most useful part of the thing. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Barbara Huntington
    September 3, 2017

    Thank you, Sam.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. nananoyz
    September 3, 2017

    Reblogged this on Praying for Eyebrowz and commented:
    Thoughtful and thought provoking.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. robert okaji
    September 3, 2017

    Reblogged this on O at the Edges and commented:
    Sam Hamill knows!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. lyncoffin
    September 3, 2017

    Bravo, Sam.

    Liked by 2 people

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