A Monk’s Tale (Part I), by Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdviserCommemorating Ten Years of Poetic Resistance, PAW Post No.1

Ten years ago, as the United States prepared for shock and awe, a poet received a gilded invitation from The White House. The invitation was declined, and what began as a simple call to action, resulted in over 11,000 poems, hundreds of readings and protests, and sparked numerous offshoots.  This February, Writing for Peace commemorates the tenth anniversary of  Poets Against the War, an unprecedented and enduring commitment to peace. Each day, we will send you a Daily PAW Post, including poems and essays from Martin Espada, Sam Hamill,  W.S. Merwin, Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, and others, as well as a special interview with Sam Hamill conducted by Veronica Golos.

It began with empathy for the innocents, a connection with those helplessly awaiting the destruction of their cities, neighborhoods, homes and families, empathy for the mothers and children, grandparents and fathers who would lose their lives. Sam Hamill felt that empathy in every cell of his being, and he acted. That small act, multiplied by integrity and conviction, expanded like waves rippling across a lake.

Our first Daily PAW Post goes back to the beginning. We hope you’ll find hope and inspiration in this month-long tribute to Poets Against the War.


A Monk’s Tale

by Sam Hamill

Originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review

Part One


We begin to die the day we are silent about things that matter. —M. L. King, Jr.


When I extracted the envelope from my post office box that crisp, clear January morning, I knew immediately what it was. 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. I couldn’t simply act on my own, by my own conscience, because my actions would reflect, like it or not, fair or not, on Copper Canyon Press. I was going to have to look deeply into my own conscience, my Zen practice and the practices of a lifetime as a socially engaged poet. I was going to be squeezed and pushed hard.

The night before, I had been exploring “shock and awe” on the internet, reading various stories about Bush’s plans to devastate Iraq with an intense and intensifying missile barrage, a weak nation of beleaguered people who had no relationship to the Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. When I completed my four-year enlistment in the Marine Corps, I exited as a Conscientious Objector. I was born during WW II, grew up during Korea and the McCarthy era, and came of age under Kennedy while serving for a couple of years in Japan. My first public poetry readings were under the auspices of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Poets Against the War (in Vietnam), and part of my campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. I ran for California State Assembly that year as a socialist, and devoted a lot of time to campaigning for McCarthy.

I had undergone infantry training at Camp Pendleton in southern California, home of Camp Smedley D. Butler, named after the Marine Corps Major General who won two Medals of Honor. This is what the good general had to say about serving his country: “I’ve spent 33 years being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism… I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American Oil interests in 1914. I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American Republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I was rewarded by honors, medals, promotions.” And Henry Kissinger has a Nobel Peace Prize that sticks in the craw of every democratic Chilean.

For forty years I’d been a socially engaged antiwar poet. I was engaged in the civil rights campaigns of the sixties, supported feminist issues of the seventies, and had, in fact, been a devoted nonviolent revolutionary my entire adult life. And now I was being invited to the White House, where plans were well underway to sell our nation a pack of lies and fears and an innocent nation—the very cradle of civilization—would be destroyed, our Constitution undermined, and all the worldwide sympathy and compassion extended toward us since the September 11 attack would evaporate.  Several human rights organizations already claimed that a million Iraqis had died for lack of necessities under the embargo; hundreds of thousands more could die in an American shock-and-awe attack.

For an hour or so, I worked in the print room, mind reeling. But I couldn’t focus. Finally, I opened the envelope. I was invited by Laura Bush to a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” [my emphasis]. That “the” kind of caught my eye. There was no mention of which poets would be featured, only that the symposium would be held on February 12, 2003, three weeks away. I closed up shop and went home. I emailed the Copper Canyon Press board of directors. Most responded by prompting me to go. (Few of those people knew me at all well.) I knew in my heart that I could not in all conscience go play nice with people who sponsor murder— and firing missiles at cities is murder, period.

I felt my country was about to embark on a road to international disaster. I thought about poets I admired who’d found the courage to be Conscientious Objectors during World War II, people like Kenneth Rexroth, Bill Stafford, William Everson, Robert Lowell. How much venom they must have withstood for being true to their consciences. Mind still reeling, I went out to my library and pulled out Whitman— always, to my mind, “the most American poet.” The Whitman who “contains multitudes.” I kept thinking, oddly, about “the” American voice. I’d been saying for years that the multitudinous, broadly diverse voices of poetry in the U.S.A. had made this the richest time for poetry since the T’ang dynasty. Any poet who isn’t in possession of a distinct voice isn’t, frankly, much of a poet. There’s not yet one American English language, but a tree of language with many beautiful branches—dialects, folk terminology, foreign words and phrases constantly enriching our tongue.

I’ve always admired Whitman’s profound optimism. I don’t share it, but I admire it. It served him well. But how far is our nation from the democratic vistas Whitman dreamed for us? We have the power to blow up the world many times over, and yet we are clearly incapable of running an election is which votes get properly counted. We are incapable of running an election that is not bought and paid for by corporate conglomerates that reduce grave issues to petulant sound-bytes, catch-phrases and outright lies. After writing some deeply moving poems in honor of the military, Whitman later wrote:


Away with themes of War, away with War itself!

Hence from my shuddering sight, to never more return, that show of

blacken’d mutilated corpses!

That hell unpent, and raid of blood—fit for wild tigers or

for lop-tongued wolves—not reasoning men!

And in its stead speed Industry’s campaigns!

With thy undaunted armies, Engineering!

The pennants, Labor, loosen’d to the breeze!

Thy bugles sounding loud and clear!

Rounding by thee in One—one common orbic language,

One common indivisible destiny and Union.


Well, we certainly have “Industry’s campaigns,” and armies of “Engineering” will doubtless prosper as they begin to rebuild a devastated country. We do not live in Whitman’s Utopia. We live in a time in which the odor of half-burnt corpses cannot shame us, the blood of our missiles does not stain us, in which even the caskets of those who serve their country are concealed. The Gulf War was a television event far removed from most Americans. Our “hell unpent” takes up about three minutes of the evening news. We have exactly the triangulated marriage of military-corporation-and-state that Dwight Eisenhower saw as a greater threat to the U.S.A. than communism as he left office in 1960.

That evening my wife, Gray Foster, and I sat down with a bottle of wine and we stewed.  I revisited my path to engaged pacifism, from an angry, violent, self-destructive and often homeless teenager, through the Marine Corps, and into college, and on through adulthood—my thirties, forties, fifties—turning ever more deeply to the teachings of Buddhism, the practice of Zen and my convictions about poetry. I remembered my first Zen teacher, a tiny Okinawan monk, who told me, “You must live as though you were already dead.” That became perhaps the central koan of my life. It certainly played an important role during the twenty-odd years I lived in poverty, building Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swenson and learning book typography, letterpress printing, and studying/translating Chinese and Japanese classics… and building my home with my own hands. Ahhh. Living beside a woodstove, studying Tu Fu by kerosene lamp. It’s romantic for about a week, then it’s a way of life. The poets I translated taught me how to live; they showed me the Way of Poetry. I had taken a Bodhisattva vow to follow the practice of Zen and the Way of Poetry, and I had been true to that vow for more than thirty years.


Souvenirs of Democracy


The business man, the acquirer vast,

After assiduous years, surveying results, preparing for departure,

Devises houses and lands to his children—bequeaths stocks, goods— funds for a school

or hospital,

Leaves money to certain companions to buy tokens, souvenirs of gems and gold;

Parceling out with care—and then, to prevent all cavil,

His name to his testament formally signs.


But I, my life surveying,

With nothing to show, to devise, from its idle years,

Nor houses, nor lands—nor tokens of gems or gold for my friends,

Only these Souvenirs of Democracy—in them—in all my songs—behind me leaving,

To You, whoever you are, (bathing, leavening this leaf especially with my breath—

pressing on it a moment with my own hands;

—Here! feel how the pulse beats in my wrists!—how my heart’s-blood

is swelling, contracting!)

I will You, in all, Myself, with promise to never desert you,

To which I sign my name.


I always liked Whitman for wanting us to read him in the bathtub, which is to say, naked. Naked is vulnerable. I liked him for asking us to touch him, to feel his pulse. And his vow to “never desert you” is really a vow to all humanity, not merely an expression of nationalism.


(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.


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1 thought on “A Monk’s Tale (Part I), by Sam Hamill

  1. Art Goodtimes

    sam, my dear friend judyth says that you are starting something down in san miguel de allende — a most wonderful place. i like your idea of making Feb. 12 a poets for peace day. how to get folks to join in? we have a poetry club in telluride feb. 5th and i could announce whatever connection to this you want to share


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