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

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdviserCommemorating Ten Years of Poetic Resistance, PAW Post No. 3

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.

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In our previous post, Sam Hamill declined the First Lady’s gold-embossed request, and penned an invitation of his own. The poet shared his reaction to finding the White House envelope in his box, “I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea…” and concluded with this call to action:

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


A Monk’s Tale

by Sam Hamill

Originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review

Part Three – Conclusion


We were flooded with poems and letters of gratitude—and not a little hate mail. News broke about the “postponement” of the symposium, and we were flooded with news media. As we prepared for a national day of poetry readings and discussions opposing the war, we picked February 12, the day of Mrs. Bush’s “postponed” event. We connected with a poets against the war group in England, and another in Italy, and soon began developing an international network of poets opposing war. Poems continued to pour in that first week at one per minute: five thousand, six thousand, seven thousand… There was hate mail and a few death threats. There was a steady outpouring of gratitude from writers who felt silenced, exiled by this administration.

Our local internet provider called. Incoming mail was so heavy that it threatened to collapse the whole system. We called our old friend, Emily Warn, a Seattle poet who had worked at Microsoft. She connected us with Andy Himes at Project Alchemy, an organization that provides technical assistance for nonprofit organizations, and we formed a board of directors with Himes supervision creation of the Poets Against the War web site. His enthusiasm burned so brightly that he later went on to create Voices in Wartime, a companion web site to Poets Against the War. And his engagement there led to his production of the film, Voices in Wartime, an outstanding documentary on poets and war.

Time and time again I was asked by media people, “Why can’t you poets just leave the politics out your poetry?” The answer: “Because ‘politics’ isn’t thrown into a poem like a spoonful of curry into the pot. Poetry is a large house and has plenty of room for the overtly political, the covertly political, the personally political, evens attempts to be apolitical, which is almost impossible. It has political traditions. Homer was political, The Iliad a great anti-war poem. Sappho evicted men from her community in part because she believed that “war-mongering is childish behavior.” Anyone read Euripides or Sophocles? In Antigone, Haeman tells King Creon, “It is no polis that is ruled by one man.” Who’s more political than Dante? He wrote under a death sentence. Shakespeare? Lord Byron demanded a major overhaul of the English Parliament. Poetry is social speech in musical measure with traditions including the serious investigations of history and culture and language and the human condition. Don’t start me on the Russians, the Spanish, the Chinese poets-in-exile past and present, the modern Greek poets…

I was attacked by a couple of former Nixon people on the op-ed pages of the (liberal?) New York Times and twice in the Wall Street Journal, all personal ad hominem attacks, of course. The first WSJ diatribe inspired one of my favorite moments during those hectic days. The phone rang. A voice said, “Hey, Hamill, you SOB!” I assumed it was another threat and was about to hang up when the voice said, “This is Phil Levine. You’ve been savaged on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal and I’m fucking green with envy.”

For the first time in modern history, poetry was being discussed and debated in newspapers and magazines— and on talk radio, of course. Another moment of delight: I was on the Michael Medved talk radio show. He is, I gather, a right-winger who spends a lot of time on “family values.” I found him to be, unlike his fellow travelers, a civilized man in his conduct. No shouting, no name-calling, just earnest disagreement with my position. Then a call-in, “William from Hawaii on the phone.” Medved asks, “Are you a poet, William?” The voice says he is, and I interrupt to explain that this is W. S. Merwin, and Medved yelps “The W. S. Merwin? The great poet?” It was my only encounter with a rightwing media personality who had clearly read at least one more or less living American poet. The others were still asking, as though entering the 20th century rather than 21st, “How come it don’t rhyme?” A hundred years ago, Whitman was largely dismissed, his poetry laughed at. While he was singing a truly “American” idiom, his contemporaries continued to imitate the forms and syntax of their English masters. “Poetry is news that stays news.” —Ezra Pound. American mass media is populated with people who are poetry-illiterate.

On February 17, in the midst of the “the storm of the century,” with New York City all but shut down, nearly 3,000 people showed up at Lincoln Center for “Poems Not Fit for the White House,” sponsored by the Not in Our Name organization. They cheered, stomped, roared and applauded through more than two rambunctious hours of joyful and sometimes heartrending protest from across the spectrum of American voices. And a moment for Stanley Kunitz, WW II conscientious objector, and other for Arthur Miller who thanked me for starting Poets Against the War, introducing himself almost shyly, “My name is Arthur…”

On March 5, 2003, in the company of W. S. Merwin, Terry Tempest Williams, and PAW board member Peter Lewis, I delivered to Congress 12,000 poems by 11,000 poets opposing the war. We were hosted by Ohio Rep. Marcie Kaptur, with Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, Jim McDermott, Maxine Waters, and several others joining us. It is the largest single-theme poetry anthology ever compiled; if the manuscript were printed out, it would stand about six feet high. Poems have been read into the Congressional Record regularly since then. It has been quoted in the governing halls of England, France, Italy, German, Spain and Japan, and many of the poems have been translated into various languages. At a dinner for organizers and compatriots, Seattle’s Rep. McDermott gave a deeply moving speech about how grateful he was for Poets Against the War and about the power of poetry. And in talks with Dennis Kucinich and Maxine Waters, I was struck by how much of the poetry they had read.

Working with 25 inexhaustible volunteer editors, in one week Sally Anderson and I edited 12,000 poems, selecting fewer than two hundred as representative of the whole, and the print edition of Poets Against the War became a best seller for Nation Books.

On a plane to Italy in the fall of 2003, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker someone had left behind and was astonished to read Mark Strand reviewing a huge selected poems of Pablo Neruda. He basically dismissed all of Neruda’s overtly political poetry, glibly saying, “Political poetry has no legs.” Excuse me? Has our reviewer read Sappho or the Chinese Poetry Classic? Does he realize that Neruda’s “United Fruit Company” has been translated into a hundred languages? Has he heard the Mikos Theodorakis’ operatic treatment of Canto General that was performed to celebrate the fall of the rule of the colonels in Greece? Is Paradise Lost not a political poem? Our national anthem is a poem; most are. Ours celebrates bombs and flags, the principle emblems of warfare.

The Italian press asked far more insightful questions and reporters were far less likely to be rooted in ignorant assumptions. I talked about Dante and Catullus, about Nazim Hikmet, Akhmatova and Seferis and reminded them that Zbigniew Herbert was a young Dadaist fooling with words until he found himself in a Soviet prison, where he redefined his notions of poetry. They listened, they asked, and the Italian people responded to news of Poets Against the War with overwhelming enthusiasm. I spent ten days in Piacenza at a great literary festival with sixty or so writers from Europe, Africa, South and Central America, and Cuba. It was in Piacenza that I was fortune to meet and read with Salah al Hamdani, an Iraqi poet in exile who had endured years in Saddam’s prisons, escaped from Abu Ghraib, and who now makes his home in Paris.

Baghdad, Mon Amour
By Salah al Hamdani (translated by Molly Deschenes)

You cannot be crucified
On the side of a page
Of a story that is not your own,
Nor to the rhythm of the deaths that brood your plagues
Because there will be no cry to relieve your grief.

You cannot be crucified on the banks of the streams
Your body bleeds,
When the Euphrates washes away the secret of its soul
At the birth of a new defeat.
I know this:
No wound deserves a war.

You cannot be crucified at nightfall,
When you did not close your prayers
On the body of palm trees
Because there is no honorable assassin.

You cannot be crucified for the cinders of calamities,
For the tombs of your gods,
Or for the belief of a dying humanity.

Baghdad mon amour,
Not son, nor father, nor God,
No prophet crowned by the church will save your soul,
Not that of Mecca,
Not that of those who refuse
To share the olive trees in Palestine.

This is my notebook of war,
The years of exiles folded in a suitcase
Too long abandoned to the dreams of the convicted.

This is my share of victims,
My share of moon,
My harvest of nothingness,
My share of dust, words and cries.

This is my misfortune
Like a comma locking a line of ink.

Baghdad my love,
I was crouched in the corner of the page
In the shelter of the arid days,
Far from the torrents of blood
That carry the name of those shot with the silence of man.

Baghdad, mon amour,
Sitting like a Bedouin in a mirage
Lying on my shores, I cherished my own shroud.
Far from the cross, Fatima’s palm and the star of David
Far from their books, their wars
Wandering in the sand of the dunes,
From the steppe to the city
I drag my body from season to season,
I trail you along from the couch to the mirror, from my room to the street
Between my writing and my solitude
In the shelter of their cemeteries,
Their martyrs, their morgues.

Baghdad my love,
You cannot tremble at the threshold of these ruins of days,
A civilization trained to kill
Violated your virginity.

Baghdad, city forever rebellious against your torturer Saddam,
You cannot groan at the only revelation of this hegemony,
Those who rushed around your body at death’s door,
These “liberators” are their accomplices.

Madinat-al Salam,
City of peace,
Love in the soul of writing.

Baghdad my wound,
My father the working man died without knowing joy,
My mother mislaid her youth in the mirror
And the only witness to my first grief on your breast
Is the breath of the sand,
The starry sky and God’s gaze on the call to prayer.

I wished so much today that man had never discovered fire
And cursed it to advance so much in its own din.

This soil that gave birth to me, today put to death.
Oh mother! I want to return inside your flesh
To hear the beating of your heart,
To quench my thirst in the murmur of your breath.

Very dangerous man, this poet with a huge, gentle, aching heart. Would our reporters ask him to “just leave the politics out of it?” How would Laura Bush “just leave the politics out” of the good gray Whitman? Langston had one subject: the African-American experience. How does one “leave the politics out” of that? I sat on that stage in the crowded little town square in Piacenza, and as I listened to Salah’s elegant, steady baritone, I wept for my country and for his. I promised him afterward that I would get at least this poem of his, given to me in French, translated for an American audience.

I met with a number of mayors and city counsels and such and was received warmly everywhere.  And I had wonderful conversations—and sometimes little debates—with hundreds of high school students in Pisa and San Giuliano, where the mayor presented me with a big Italian “pace” banner and a lovely etching of the old city hall. During my travels in Italy, I wrote a long poem, “A Pisan Canto,” reflecting on Ezra Pound and his politics and his time in the “gorilla cage” at the end of WW II; meditating on the character of those who would lead us now; and on “the role of poetry” as I have perceived and practiced it for forty years.

Last fall, I spent two weeks at a gathering of poets in Lithuania, mostly in Vilnius, where I visited old haunts of Czeslaw Milosz and reread many of his books. His notions of “poetry of witness” have had a profound influence on my practice. The Lithuanians were astonished to learn that Milosz was very popular with American poets and readers. I visited a memorial park near Druskininkai that served to remind us of recent Lithuanian history— the Nazis, the Soviet. I dubbed it Scoundrel Square, but was far more deeply moved than that might sound. The ordinary faces and lives of people who sold out their neighbors, their country, their souls: I thought of my old friend Shirley Kaufman, who translated the poetry of Abba Kovner, a Jewish poet who grew up in Vilnius and led the United Partisan Organization against the extermination of the Vilna ghetto before settling in Israel in 1946. He called poetry, “a way of asking forgiveness for the evil in human existence.” Lithuania has risen from the ashes of evil; it has begun to glow like amber.

Most of the young poets I met were avoiding the political in their poetry except inasmuch as it is influenced by rap and other performance arts. But as that generation matures, it will find history resting squarely upon its shoulders. Perhaps poets like Adam Zagajewsky will show them the way if the “burden” of a Milosz or an Abba Kovner is too great. There, as in Italy, I had the opportunity to extend cooperation between international organizations of poets, and to help get some good poetry translated. Seeing the USA from an East European perspective, say, or from an Icelandic perspective, is to see ourselves with fresh eyes, with the eyes of the world, as various as each of them may be. I dream of an American administration that listens as much as it talks. The voices from the ghettos have important news to tell us still, as do those who have risen from its shadows.

Returning from Vilnius, I was sick at heart over Copper Canyon Press; I had been agonizing for more than two years. During his brief tenure as Publisher at Copper Canyon Press, Thatcher Bailey had undermined respect for me and for my position, telling staff and board that my thirty years with the press was “just history,” that “anyone can be the editor and everyone should get a chance,” and that he intended to “revision the press.” He demanded my resignation as he departed. His behavior divided the staff and board and poisoned the well. I lost several outstanding staff members. Bailey is now director of Centrum, host organization to Copper Canyon Press at Fort Worden. One of his first official acts there was to dismiss me (with “honors” of course) from my position as director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference, and to do it publicly just two weeks before the 2004 conference was to begin. I didn’t get the support I needed from senior staff at the press, especially the utterly duplicitous Michael Wiegers and Joseph Bednarik, cohorts of Mr. Bailey, and I could not function properly without it. A sacred trust had been deliberately betrayed. I had no choice but to go. I will continue to support the poets and the poetry, of course: they have been my world for thirty-two years.

There is important work to be done with Poets Against the War, including a lot of work in development and organization, and I am presently committed to that. For the first time in history, there is a growing worldwide network of poets devoted to the traditional values of poetry and social engagement. Working together, we can help enlighten people everywhere, each within our own community, working together to make poetry better understood and to speak on behalf of decency and human rights wherever oppression raises its Janus mask. We can promote literacy and cross-cultural pollination, enriching our own lives and works in the process. And if some poet feels obliged to speak for those whose voices have been silenced, we might benefit by listening, even as that means listening to the dead. And numbering and naming the dead. If we’re going to annihilate masses of people “for the good of the world,” we might take the time and trouble to learn a kittle of their language and cultural values and even their poetry.

Peace is born only within each of us and peace in the world will never be achieved through the imposition of war. Whitman (like a Buddha, like Confucius) reminds us: order begins from within. Embody peace. Peace in the world or peace in the home, it is achieved only by mutual agreement to stand by a few well-chosen words. True peace is achieved from within, one person at a time, renegotiated almost constantly. Poetry clarifies the vision. If war were an effective means to peace, the last century would not have been the bloodiest in all of history. Poets are good at helping people look more closely at words and all of their implications. The poem is a little body of language and music and enlightenment. A poem can embody or ennoble or inspire a moment of peace. A poem can change a life.

No, I could not walk away from Poets Against the War. Far too many people all across this world stood beside me in support of peace and poetry when I asked for a company of poets. I found myself asking whether being an ambassador for poetry was “right work” or “right practice,” and I decided that indeed it is. Grampa Walt says it is my duty to contain multitudes, to dream a better U.S.A., where being a citizen of the world is a vital part of what we are. Emily tells me I have wild nights to live and fresh perspectives to discover. Langston reminds me that I still have a lot of brothers and sisters in chains (both visible and invisible chains: poverty is a prison), and that the struggle itself has merit. Jazz was born in the hearts of those who endured this country’s greatest shame. Art matters. Those most abused, those left illiterate and impoverished, those with the least vocabulary—they invented the indelibly rich poetry of the blues. Sometimes that poetry made life worth living and their tales worth telling. Old Walt and Charley Patton remind me that I have a right to dream and a right to sing. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds me that with those rights come real responsibilities, and that opposing violence in America can be dangerous.

Poetry saved my life when I was a misbegotten, self-destructive kid, and the way of poetry has determined the course of my life. It has, can, and will save many others. Whether traveling on behalf of poetry and social engagement, teaching a little, or starting another press; whether printing on a letterpress or editing for someone else, or simply waiting for the first signs of spring, I plan to continue the proper conduct of my life—a life of service in the temple of poetry. I will be a monk whose vow is taken seriously, even as one primary manifestation of my temple was destroyed.


Posted: http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol9/iss1/


Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdvisorAbout 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' Contest

2013 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.

DoveTales, a publication of Writing for PeaceDoveTales,  An International Journal of the Arts

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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