“And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
That last always.”
– Kenneth Rexroth
Aside from the signature, this is how Rexroth ended his epistle “Letter to William Carlos Williams.” And while this statement seems to me to make perfect sense, and did since I first saw the poem maybe 20 years ago, it is certainly a minority view, at least in the poetry circles that I’ve frequented. So I write as a North American in an age where the word “soul” is looked down upon as some relic from a previous age and where “God” is often a dirty word. There may not be a God, but I’ve lived my life as if there is that which deserves veneration.
Rexroth was an anomaly as a North American poet. An autodidact who read everything and lamented the rise of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. back in the 70s, he does not fit neatly into the tidy schools of Twentieth Century USAmerican poetry we’ve come to know. He was part of Poetry Magazine’s Objectivist Anthology of February 1931, but is not associated with that movement outside of that particular issue. TIME magazine called him the “Father of the Beats” and he replied famously “an entomologist is not a bug.”
Rexroth also once found a strung-out young junkie sitting outside City Lights bookstore in San Francisco one day and helped him kick the habit. That junkie would clean up his act and follow every lead Rexroth would provide in his weekly columns for the San Francisco Examiner. That addict would also steep himself in classic Asian poetry, again following Rexroth’s lead. That recovered junkie is Sam Hamill.
Hamill’s life would not have been the same without Rexroth and his inability to be associated with a particular school of poetry mirrors Rexroth as well. But that is better seen as an ability to transcend schools out of a distaste for such groupings. That said, Hamill is surely a West Coast, Organic poet in the mode of one of his “teachers” as he puts it, Denise Levertov, as well as Robert Duncan, though he’d be to the right of both of these poets in terms of his practice of this aesthetic, especially Duncan. His approach is more in line with Levertov’s later work, minus the God references. (He’s a Buddhist and an atheist, likely because of the Mormon community in which he grew up.) I’m thinking of Levertov’s later direct, political poetry. Hamill’s work is very direct and has been for as long as he’s been publishing, even TOO direct at times, as he would admit, especially about his early work. The oddnesses that are present are usually part of his honkadori, or practice of literary allusions.
At seventy-one years old, he’s well beyond the time he expected to live, as an abused orphan, recovering heroin addict and widower, but the work of a life as a poet who has undertaken a bodhisattva vow to poetry is now available for anyone interested in a beautiful “fat selected” collection of the best of his work.
The new book is Habitation, published by Lost Horse Press of Sand Point, Idaho. It says “Collected Poems” on the cover, but that is a misnomer, as the 107 page poem Triada, rich with Hamill’s personal mythology (a personal “vision-quest”) is not found in Habitation, as the new book weighs in at over 600 pages and is also absent some “occasional” poems Hamill decided were not worth re-publishing.
This is a book one can go to school on. Add his translations and essays (most notably collected in Avocations and A Poet’s Work) and you have a good sense of mainstream 20th century West Coast poetry. And by mainstream, I don’t mean that mush that we’ve come to know as the bland, MFA/workshop type poetry, but a true middle-path way between the conventional North American mode that’s been derisively referred to as “The School of Quietude” and LANGPO and other “experimental” works on the other side. While he understands process, his poems are surely “about something” and he’d scorn most poems that are not. Often taking a seven beat line he shows a huge love for the natural world combined with a strong desire for justice. You can imagine how important this quality is when you know Hamill was given up for adoption as a toddler, abused by his step-family and managed to scrape by on his own sheer will, tenacity and nerve to create one of the most notable lives of poetry we are likely to see in quite a long time.
But back to Rexroth and the opening quote. A poet is one who creates
sacramental relationships that last always. This, more than anything else, is what you get from any time spent with Hamill or his writing. He mentions this line in poems to Rexroth and Gary Snyder, another of his teachers. He is incredibly generous, especially when people recognize that time with him is a gift. One gets that generosity simply by reading his work. You can look up all the references in Hamill’s poems with which you’re unfamiliar and new worlds open up, as happens with the best of poetry, and deep affinities are established for those who, like him, seek nonviolence and justice in a world where both things seem to be in short supply. One gets a sense of the Zen-informed way Hamill has tried to navigate the world though that dedication to creating sacramental relationships. This is best seen, in my view, through his poems dedicated to friends and mentors. There are many examples in Habitation to give you a sense of that. Poems for Rexroth, Snyder, Levertov and others. But I’ll choose one to share and to illustrate my point here, but also by typing it, in a small way I re-live the journey Hamill had with the poem as he wrote it, like re-tracing the steps Jack Kerouac took on his way to Desolation Peak, or the path of a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago in Spain. The poem is:
In Memoriam, Morris Graves
Rising from my zafu just as dawn breaks
over the trees, below a few thin clouds
that will burn off in an hour, I’m pleased
cherry and plum trees bloom, daffodil flowers
falling or fallen, and the garden glows
in various shades of yellow and green.
This house I built so long ago grows old.
The garden and the life are a poem
evolving from traditions long as time.
I came here green, unwise. I’m still unwise.
Like the old Buddhist poets who taught me
how to live, I believe the poem is
a sacramental act, pure devotion
to whatever may be revealed only
through the music of intuition. The
dance of the intellect, the dance of the wild
imagination, illuminates what
cannot otherwise be known—a koan,
one’s rational and irrational mind
at one. It is so because leaves are green,
and death is born in greenness; and it’s true
as blue and right as rain, and sustains me
in my practice. As Carolyn Kizer
remarked on Chinese poetry, wisely,
“It teaches us the value of friendship.
And you may not believe it, but that’s far
more important than husbands, wives, even
children. Because what are you if you are
not first of all a friend?”
So now I turn
in my fifty-eighth year to face Tu Fu,
who died, in exile, at my age. And, “I
have beaten out my exile,” Ezra wrote
in a hard time, years before Rapallo.
My exile is not alienation
but rootedness, poetry’s sustenance.
My daily friends are robins listening
for worms, busy finches, jays, noisy crows,
a woodpecker now and then. And Morris,
who painted the wind. “The painting has no
narrative. It is exactly what it is,
flowers and light.” And the poem has no
paraphrase, but embodies what it is—
found only in its singing. The cante
jondo, “to keep bitterness from sorrow.”
I will not mourn the death of one so true.
I raise my cup and bow and make this song
because a few friends have sustained me,
and embody what poetry has taught me.
Thank you Sam Hamill. Goddesspeed to you.
Lost Horse Press
Sand Point, Idaho