Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Facing the world with eyes wide open' whilst 'standing among the missing': the poetry of Sam Hamill

Poets should speak out against what we see as the assault against our Constitution and the warmongering that's going on.  
Sam Hamill 
How much grief is a life?/ And what can be done unless/we stand among the missing, among the murdered,/the orphaned,/our own armed children, and bear witness/ 
Sam Hamill 
You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.” 

Sam Hamill

True Peace 
Sam Hamill 

Half broken on that smoky night, 
hunched over sake in a serviceman's dive 
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa, 
nearly fifty years ago, 
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks 
who stopped the traffic on a downtown 
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up 
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas 
and kerosene, and he struck a match 
and burst into flame. 

That was June, nineteen-sixty-three, 
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine. 
The master did not move, did not squirm, 
he did not scream 
in pain as his body was consumed. 
Neither child nor yet a man, 
I wondered to my Okinawan friend, 
what can it possibly mean 
to make such a sacrifice, to give one's life 
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction. 
How can any man endure such pain 
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, "Thich Quang Dúc 
had achieved true peace." 
And I knew that night true peace 
for me would never come. 
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world 
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief. 

Half a century later, I think 
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc, 
revered as a bodhisattva now--his lifetime 
building temples, teaching peace, 
and of his death and the statement that it made. 

Like Shelley's, his heart refused to burn, 
even when they burned his ashes once again 
in the crematorium--his generous heart 
turned magically to stone. 

What is true peace, I cannot know. 
A hundred wars have come and gone 
as I've grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones. 
Mine's the heart that burns 
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul. 

Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I've learned?

There is no other poet like Sam Hamill.

His poem True Peace describes his reaction to the self immolation of Buddhist priest Thich Quang Duc in June 1963 in Saigon. Thich Quang Duc sat in the middle of a busy Saigon street and waited for a fellow priest to pour petrol over him. He then set himself on fire.

Thich Quang Duc was protesting religious persecution against Buddhists by the American sponsored dictator of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Just weeks before  Diem's armed forces shot dead 9 Buddhists.

The murder of the monks and the self immolation of Thich Quang Duc set off a wave of protest against the deeply unpopular Diem regime, which triggered a US inspired coup approved by President John F Kennedy to overthrow the Diem regime in November 1963. The coup and overthrow of the Diem regime paved the way for escalation of US involvement in the second Vietnam War.

Sam Hamill is a distinguished American poet and political activist. 

Hamill is an outspoken and campaigning poet who has produced nearly 20 volumes of poetry and edited even more. Hamill acknowledges the influence of the Beat poets and also Zen Buddhism on his poetry.

As a young man, Hamill served in the US army as the result of a court sentence.

He is an avowed pacifist who has taught in prisons and has worked actively with women and children affected by domestic violence.

He founded and ran Copper Canyon Press for 32 years, one of the US's most innovative poetry publishers and has also translated Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Latin and Estonian poetry.

In January 2003 he was invited to the Bush White House by the President's wife Laura Bush as  part of a poetry symposium. Hamill refused to attend in protest against Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went on to establish Poets against War, a global movement against war, to speak out about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hamill called for poets to submit poems for an anthology of poetry protesting against the wars. The anthology proved to be the largest single theme poetry anthology in history, comprising 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets. 12th February 2003 became a day of poetry against the war.

Hamill's actions inspired 135 poetry readings and events throughout the US and lead to the establishment of the website Poets Against the War.

His poetry has been translated widely with recent translations in France, Egypt, Italy and Argentina.  A Collected Volume of his work titled Habitations: Collected Poems, spanning nearly half a century of writing will be published in 2014.

He presently lives in Port Townsend, Washington, and Buenos Aires. Recent interviews and article featuring Sam Hamill are hereherehere and here.

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