A Monk’s Tale (Part II), by Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdviserCommemorating Ten Years of Poetic Resistance, PAW Post No. 2

During the month of February, Writing for Peace is commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with Daily PAW Posts from a host of contributors.

Daily PAW Post, No. 2

In our first post, we learned about the gold-embossed invitation  that sparked a crisis of conscience in poet Sam Hamill:

The cream-colored square envelope had gold capital letters in the upper left-hand corner: THE WHITE HOUSE. I knew Laura Bush had sponsored several evenings with writers in her promotion of literacy. Clearly, there was going to be a poetry event, and equally clearly, I had been placed on the list. There could be no other possibility. I didn’t open it. I put it with other mail and returned to Copper Canyon Press, where I was in the midst of printing a broadside on my platen press. I felt intense stress, not joy. There was no way I could accept an invitation to George Bush’s White House. I felt a little nauseous as I realized the situation into which I had been thrust.


A Monk’s Tale

by Sam Hamill

Originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review

Part Two


As much as I love my country—and I love it dearly—I’ve never been a conventional patriot. I do not cherish a flag, nor do I take pledges of allegiance that might one day conflict with my bodhisattva vow. Kannon (Kuan Yin in Chinese) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and her name means “She-who-perceives-the-cries-of-the-world.” I want to hear those voices and hear them clearly. I listen. When my love of country conflicts with the profound suffering and murder we impose on humanity, I must take my stand with suffering humanity. But I do especially love the U.S. Constitution and its roots of democracy that once flourished and now are imperiled by empire-builders and religious fanatics.


Walt Whitman’s Caution

To The States, or any one of them, or any city of The States,

Resist much, obey little;

Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;

Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth

ever afterward resumes its liberty.

Ed Abby loved that poem! The Patriot Act is one of the most insidious documents in our history, and the congressional representatives who turned over to Bush their constitutional responsibilities to mandate for or against war should be impeached or shamed into resignation. Only congress shall have the right to declare war. The 1st, 4th, and 14th amendments were (and are) being undermined by bloodless corporate honchos like Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice and we now have an Attorney General who is an apologist for torture. We have become a corporate state.

Mussolini said that the perfection of fascism would be found in the marriage of the corporation and the state. Government by Haliburton? Oil companies writing environmental policy? “Clean Air” acts that contribute to the toxicity of our environment, and “clean water” policies that lead directly to rivers full of dead fish and ocean fish we cannot eat because of mercury levels? Mussolini would be proud of George W. Bush. Ninety-per-cent of the mass media in the U.S.A. is in the hands of a handful of international conglomerates. The American media were following Bush’s party line and repeating his lies unquestioningly. Tax cuts for the supremely wealthy and millions of children “left behind” —this is a corporate state. We are the only industrialized nation in the world without a national health care system; we pay more and get less. Europeans look at a huge wealthy nation that executes children and they wonder what’s wrong with us. How can we be so uncivilized? The world looks at the havoc we cause abroad while we gaze admiringly at our own reflection in a mirror.

Gray and I talked for hours. We called our old friends Hayden Carruth and William Merwin. Hayden had declined an invitation to the Clinton White House, we knew, and we wondered what kind of fallout or flak he’d received. We discussed every conceivable way to deal with the problem, even including the idea of me going, just to listen to what fellow poets and Copper Canyon board members would suggest. But I knew, I just knew I could not go. I didn’t even want to go picket. I just wanted to send them some poetry and make a statement against war. I believed then that this was the most dangerous administration in American history, and I believe that now.

My wife and I spent a mostly sleepless night. But I rose the next morning with a clear mind. This is the letter I wrote about 5 a.m.:

January 19, 2003


Dear Friends and Fellow Poets:

When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked “The White House,” I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea as I read the card enclosed:

Laura Bush

requests the pleasure of your company

at a reception and

White House Symposium on

“Poetry and the American Voice”

on Wednesday, February 12, 2003

at one o’clock


Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on the George Bush’s proposed “Shock and Awe” attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians. Nor has he ruled out nuclear weapons.

I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war, and to make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon.

Please submit your name and a poem or statement of conscience to:


On line by January 31. Send submissions between Jan. 31 and Feb. 10.

There is little time to organize and compile. I urge you to pass along this letter to any poets you know. Please join me in making February 12 a day when the White House can truly hear the voices of American poets.

Sam Hamill


I sent my letter to about forty poets. I did not alert media nor anyone else than the Copper Canyon Press staff and board of directors. We truly expected no more than a few hundred poems. Gray and our friend Nancy Giebink volunteered to download and format the poems as they came in. The initial letter gave Nancy’s email address for submissions. Within hours, she was utterly overwhelmed.

The next morning, I called Mrs. Bush’s secretary to get details of the symposium and to let her know that I would not be attending, but would send along a packet of poems representing a broad spectrum of American voices, plural. Alas, I got a recording announcing the symposium had been “postponed.” [Two years later, the official White House position is: “postponed.”] I learned only from fellow invited poets that the symposium would discuss Dickinson, Whitman, and Langston Hughes. This, frankly, offended me. For this White House to try to co-opt two, possibly three, homosexual poets, offended me; for them to try to use three of our most political poets offended me. The FBI and CIA followed Langston around for twenty years. Whitman would have despised these people, I am certain, because they are deeply, disturbingly undemocratic.

 from To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire

Courage yet! my brother or my sister!

Keep on! Liberty is to be subserv’d, whatever occurs;

That is nothing, that is quell’d by one or two failures, or by any failures,

Or by the indifference or ingratitude of the people, or by any unfaithfulness,

Or the show of tushes of power, soldiers, cannon, penal institutes.

Revolt! and still revolt! revolt!

What we believe in waits latent forever through all the continents, and all the islands and

archipelagos of the sea;

What we believe in invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive

and composed, knows no discouragement,

Waiting patiently, waiting its time.

(Not songs of loyalty alone are these,

But songs of insurrection also;

For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel, the world over,

And he going with me leaves peace and routine behind him,

And stakes his life, to be lost at any moment.)


Whitman speaks of “the tushes of power” while sitting in contemplation like a Buddha. To take the way of poetry is to stake everything on the conviction that words are more powerful than weapons. The first task of the poet, for me at least, is to become a citizen of the world. The Arab poet is my sister, my brother, my grandmother I never knew. Those who must be shrouded by the burka, those who choose the burka, and those who reject the burka are my sisters. I believe each of them has something important to teach me. The path of poetry, the path of compassion is dangerous at every turn. “Love thine enemy as thy self.”

Had we behaved as Whitman’s democracy after the September 11 attack, we would have expressed strong convictions about our faith in our Constitution rather than subverting it; we would have asked where such virulent anti-American sentiment was born and what fostered it—as if we did not know. The United States has bombed more than forty countries since the end of WW II. We have empowered tyrants (including Saddam Hussein) and dictators when we could profit from it. Pinochet was brought to power by Henry Kissinger (with aid from Bush Sr.); Noriega is a product of the CIA. How many years did the people of the Philippines suffer under a U.S.-backed Ferdinand Marcos? It’s a long ignoble list, about which most of my compatriots know far too little. Our Constitution was not written for application only in easy times, to be subverted every time a bunch of people are overcome with fear. Fear brought the Nazis to power. We should have stood firmly and strictly by our Constitution and hunted down the people responsible. And we should have addressed the disease that lies at the heart of religious fanaticism as well as the rage that is the result of our own imperial behavior.

The September 11 attack on the U.S. was not the disease; it was a severe outbreak of the symptom. The disease is Superpower Fever: the disease is a profound disconnection between the American people and the ordinary, real people of the rest of the world; a government that lies, a government that creates needless suffering at home and abroad, a government that instigates war in order to advance its own power and agenda. The disease is mass media repeating the propaganda of the power elite without exercising the courage to ask the hard questions that expose a mean agenda. It has often enough been said: we get the government (and the mass media) that we deserve. Unfortunately, our government and our corporations are responsible for creating misery around the world, from sweat-shops in Indonesia to ecological disasters in Iceland. Whitman envisioned a far different country:

Where the city stands with the brawniest breed of orators and bards;

Where the city stands that is beloved by these, and loves them in return, and

understands them;

Where no monuments exist to heroes, but in the common words and deeds;

Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place;

Where the men and women think lightly of the laws;

Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases;

Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons;

Where fierce men and women pour forth, as the sea to the whistle of death pours

its sweeping and unript waves;

Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority;

Where the citizen is always the head and ideal—and President, Mayor, Governor, and

what not, are agents for pay;

Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves;

Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs;

Where speculations on the Soul are encouraged;

Where women walk in public processions in the streets, the same as men,

Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as men;

Where the city of the faithfulest friends stands;

Where the city of the cleanliness of the sexes stands;

Where the city of the healthiest fathers stands;

Where the city of the best-bodied mothers stands,

There the great city stands.


Whitman builds his great city on the shoulders of bards and orators, on the shoulders of poets. Whitman the oratorical optimist understands the cynicism of the politics of fear; he rejects the imposition of authority from “above,” insisting that first there must be authority from within. He insists that it is not George W. Bush, but we, the people, who are responsible for more than 100,000 deaths and the decimation of a country that posed no serious threat to us. The citizen is the head, the ideal, and politicians merely our hirelings. The great city must arise from within us. The great and peaceful nation Whitman imagined is already there within us, if only we choose to imagine it and behave accordingly.

(to be continued…)


Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace Advisor

About Writing for Peace Adviser, Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill is the author of more than forty books, including fifteen volumes of original poetry (most recently Measured by Stone and Almost Paradise: New & Selected Poems & Translations); four collections of literary essays, including A Poet’s Work and Avocations: On Poetry & Poets; and some of the most distinguished translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese classics of the last half-century. He co-founded, and for thirty-two years was editor at, Copper Canyon Press. Learn more about Sam Hamill here.


Writing for Peace News:

All during the month of February, Writing for Peace is commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with a Daily PAW Post. If you are interested in arranging a reading this month in honor of Poets Against the War, please contact us with the details at editor@writingforpeace.org, and we will be happy to share your information on our site.

Writing for Peace Young Writers' Contest2013 Young Writers Contest

The Writing for Peace Young Writers Contest is in full swing, with entries coming in from all over the globe.  The contest is open to writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, for ages 13 to 19. Contest deadline is March 1st, 2013. Spread the word to young writers everywhere! You’ll find contest guidelines here.

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The first issue of DoveTales will be released this month, featuring poets, writers, artists and photographers from all over the world.  We are also looking forward to seeing the winners of our 2012 Young Writers Contest in print. Watch our posts for news of the journal’s release. The new submission guidelines will go up on March 1st. Thank you for your support!


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