Saved by Poetry – Sam Hamill, Poet, Editor, Publisher (1943-April 14th, 2018)

American Poet Sam Hamill (1943-April 14th, 2018) Photo Credit:3QuarksDaily


For Sam Hamill

Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us,
not the way a fisherman pulls the drowning swimmer
into his boat, not the way Jesus, between screams,
promised life everlasting to the thief crucified beside him
on the hill, but salvation nevertheless.

Somewhere a convict sobs into a book of poems
from the prison library, and I know why
his hands are careful not to break the brittle pages.

Martin Espada from a talk given at the 2012 This Rock Festival on March 22nd, 2012.

from Requiem

For Kenneth Rexroth

This dead weight we carry
like an ancient grief is ours
because we will it – the lonely burden
of the verb to be
as it becomes attached
to living or alive, day by day. So it’s not say

we can’t or won’t go on.
But on this earth, in
the middle of our trespass, we are
invisible, we are only shadows
sliding into night, pausing to give names
to things that shape our passing: saguaro
thimble-berry, madrone. Or charity.
Or love.

Sam Hamill from Habitation – Collected Poems, Lost Horse Press, 2014

Yesterday we lost another poetic treasure. Sam Hamill, poet, editor, founder of Poets Against the War in 2003 and co-founder of the celebrated poetry publisher: Copper Canyon Press.

A few years ago at the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island I had the privilege of introducing Sam. And I introduced him through the poem Blasphemy written in his honour. I take as gospel in my poetry therapy work the poem’s first line: Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us.

Here some excerpts from a tribute to Sam (which included Blasphemy) by Martin Espada in 2013 at an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of Poets Against the War:

I am honored to speak today at this tribute to Sam Hamill and Poets Against War.

Poetry saved Sam Hamill. Poetry saved him from a life of violence, self-destruction and incarceration…Sam was born in 1942 or 1943 to unknown parents. Adopted and raised in Utah, he was beaten and abused, a runaway, a petty thief, in trouble with the law, in and out of jail.

In the moving poem, “Plain Dumb Luck,” he writes of being “huddled in a cell in Fredonia, Arizona/ rolling cigarettes from a Bull Durham pouch/ locked up for the crime of being fourteen and homeless.” A sheriff tells him to “Go home, son,” but “Home was the road/ for a kid whose other home was hell./ I’d rather steal than taste that belt again./ I stole.”

And yet, by poem’s end, forty years later, the poet concludes that he is “the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive.” It was his “dumb luck” to discover poetry. From the practice of poetry everything else would flow.

At City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, there was more “dumb luck:” a serendipitous encounter with poet, translator and critic Kenneth Rexroth, who would become Sam’s first mentor. As Sam recalls:

“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.”

What became of Sam Hamill?

In the words of Hayden Carruth, “No one—I mean no one—has done the momentous work of presenting poetry better than Sam Hamill. His editing and publishing, his criticism and translations, his own very strong and beautiful poems have been making a difference in American culture for many years. What a wealth of accomplishment!”

Sam has published over 40 books. His collections of poetry include Destination Zero, Gratitude, Dumb Luck, Measured by Stone, and Almost Paradise. His essay collections include A Poet’s Work and Avocations. He taught himself classical Chinese and Japanese, and is the leading translator of poetry from these ancient languages. His translations include Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings of Basho, Crossing the Yellow River, The Poetry of Zen, and the Tao Te Ching.

There is a poem of Sam’s carved on stone plinths above Centrum, the art and cultural center in Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, Wa. where Copper Canyon Press is based. As I remember, I think it is this one!

What the Water Knows

What the mouth sings, the soul must learn to forgive.
A Rat’s as moral as a monk in the eyes of the real world.
Still, the heart is a river
pouring from itself, a river that cannot be crossed.

It opens on a bay
and turns back on itself as the tide comes in,
it carries the cry of the loon and the salts
of the unutterably human.

A distant eagle enters the mouth of a river
salmon no longer run and his wide wings glide
upstream until he disappears
into the nothing from which he came. Only the thought

Lacking the eagles cunning or the wisdom of the sparrow,
where shall I turn, drowning in sorrow?
Who will know what the trees know, the spidery patience
of the young maple or what the willows confess?

Let me be water. The heart pours out in waves.
Listen to what the water says.
Wind, be a friend.
There’s nothing I couldn’t forgive.

Sam Hamill from Destination Zero, White Pine Press, 1995


This poem so  wise: the heart is a river/ pouring from itself, a river that can’t be crossed. And this, such acceptance: There’s nothing I couldn’t forgive.

Hamill was so rooted in the Pacific Northwest of North America, a region we call Cascadia. So it seems so appropriate to end this tribute to Sam with the last poem in his Collected Poems published four years ago. A praise poem to the place that saved and nourished him through the words of poetry which also saved him.

Of Cascadia

I came here nearly forty years ago,
broke and half broken, having chosen
the mud, the dirt road, alder pollen and
a hundred avenues of gray across the sky
to be my teachers and my muses.
I chose a temple made of words and made a vow.

I scratched a life in hardpan. If I cried
for mercy or cried out in delight,
it was because I was a man choosing
carefully his way and his words, growing
as slowly as the trunks of cedars
in the sunlit garden.

Let the ferns and the moss remember
all that I have lost or loved, for I carry
no regrets, no ambition to live it
all again. I can’t make it better
than it’s been or will be again
as the seasons turn and an old man’s heart

turns nostalgic as he sips his wine alone.
I have lived in Cascadia, no paradise
nor any hell, but both at once and made,
as Elytis said, of the same material.
A poor poet, I studied war and love.
But Cascadia is what I’m of.

Sam Hamill from Habitation, 2014, ibid

One Comment

  1. Posted April 16, 2018 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    What a loss. Those beautiful books, those beautiful words. Who will, who can take his place? The presses of the world roll on and the little typesetter in his frayed sweater lays the metal letters in their slots with smudged hands.

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