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poemoftheweek poem of the week



Sam Hamill 


The Orchid Flower


Just as I wonder 
whether it's going to die, 
the orchid blossoms


and I can't explain why it 
moves my heart, why such pleasure


comes from one small bud 
on a long spindly stem, one 
blood red gold flower


opening at mid-summer, 
tiny, perfect in its hour.


Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it's 
purely erotic,


pistil and stamen, pollen, 
dew of the world, a spoonful


of earth, and water. 
Erotic because there's death 
at the heart of birth,


drama in those old sunrise 
prisms in wet cedar boughs,


deepest mystery 
in washing evening dishes 
or teasing my wife,


who grows, yes, more beautiful 
because one of us will die.


A Woodsplitter's Meditation


Early October mist pours through the trees
surrounding Kage-an, bringing autumn
chills that send me out to the woodpile with
my new splitting maul. I test it simply,
popping dry alder I cut two years ago.


Two stellar jays come to see, yammering
loudly from the low boughs of a cedar tree
grown tall from a nurse log. I split hemlock,
spruce and fir I bucked last winter. Each pops
open like a book, pages glued with sap.


I have read this book, and so have the jays.
It is written in ordinary days
and deeds addressing all temporal desire.
I laugh too, then go in and light the fire.


I began this poem a month ago, 
then put it in a drawer. Since then I've been 
to California and seen Hood Canal 
canopied with orange and yellow maple. 
Autumn chill turned to early winter cold.


My bones grow stiffer as I grow older, 
but I do as well as I am able. 
I heard my friend's husband died suddenly, 
leaving me, bad habits and all, mourning, 
and, being his elder, feeling guilty.


Time is beauty, I think sometimes. I love 
these last brown leaves as I love growing old, 
sowing last month's plantings, tending this day's 
business at the woodpile, facing the snow.


I have no wisdom to ease her mourning. 
I have no wisdom at all. I carry 
the wood I split and build fires in the night, 
and huddle in my skin. What do I know? 
Leaves fall, trees grow. The snow is magical.


Time is beauty. Time together, time apart. 
The woodsplitter's meditation contains 
no answers, only questions, and seeks the heart 
of what time makes us: rings and scars, bruisings 
and vows and destinies never imagined.


What can I know of anyone's loss? I 
invest in the certainty of my death, 
no time to squander and no need to rush, 
but when she asks, "Where shall I turn?" I'm hushed.


Shall I say Li Ch'ing-chao mourned beautifully? 
That Yuan Chen's great elegies are great 
because he speaks so simply? I'm silent 
because my ignorance overwhelms me-
I bow to what I cannot understand.


The Upaya teaches "skillful means," the 
Kannon long life sutra means compassion, 
the loud cracks of my splitting maul recite 
a hundred temple bells, a hundred sutras. 
For whom? For what, without a little heat?


I will tell her I have not learned to grieve 
as a widow grieves, and what will it mean? 
The wood crib full, the fire lit, I sit 
alone in dying light and slowly breathe.

-from Almost Paradise


BIO: Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations (Shambhala, 2005), Dumb Luck (2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995). He has also published three collections of essays, including A Poet's Work (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching (2005), The Essential Chuang Tzu and The Poetry of Zen (with J.P. Seaton), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho, and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, The Erotic Spirit, Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath, The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (with Bradford Morrow), and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.

Hamill has taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered woman and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor's Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swenson and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January 2003, he founded Poets Against War, editing an anthology with the same name, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.


A "Mini-Review" of Sam Hamill's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer


The poems we are featuring this week by Sam Hamill are evidence of the poet's high level of craft, his obsession with form, and his brutal sense of humor, death hanging in these lines and forms like a tempest about to unleash.

"The Orchid Flower" is written in tanka, a five-line poem of the following syllable count: 5-7-5-7-7. In each tanka, a pivot usually occurs around the third line of the poem that changes the perspective on the image being observed.

Hamill chose to insert a stanza break at these pivot points, which serves to draw even more attention to them. In the last full tanka of "The Orchid Flower," Hamill writes:

     deepest mystery
     in washing evening dishes
     or teasing my wife,

     who grows, yes, more beautiful
     because one of us will die.

In the top stanza, we are met by a seemingly contradictory idea of "deep mystery" hidden within such quotidian activities. There is a joviality in living the moment and interacting with others. However, in the following stanza, we see a bigger picture- what makes these moments valuable is their temporary nature.

The humor of the line "teasing my wife" is as sensual as it is jarring. If I had been thinking about my wife dying, my first instinct most likely would not have been to tease her. However, this is the perfect example of what Hamill states earlier in the poem: "Erotic because there's death / at the heart of birth." To disavow death in this poem would be disingenuous and render the moment less meaningful.

As Hamill chooses to write in forms and in ways that are highly influenced by poetry of the East, his infrequent but present deployment of rhyme becomes an interesting feature; Japanese and Chinese poets tend to view rhyme as a fault whereas Western poets have traditionally strived for it.

While there are internal rhymes throughout "The Orchid Flower" that aren't very ear-catching, one end rhyme in the third and fourth stanza grabs the reader's attention:

     blood red gold flower

     opening at mid-summer,
     tiny, perfect in its hour.

This bold "flower" / "hour" rhyme is a departure from the non-rhymed aesthetic associated with the tanka, and reveals something about Hamill's sense of tonality: if a rhyme will enhance the poem, then it shouldn't be sidestepped simply for the sake of avoiding it. The rhyme here underscores the interconnected nature that beauty and temporality share in this poem, as if this rhyme were working to place a big "equals" sign between beauty and death. Form is a means, not a goal.

Rhyme in "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" takes on a level of complexity that drives the poem to its inevitable end. I've heard the tanka described as the Eastern equivalent of a sonnet. With these two poems, we can see the skill with which Hamill bridges the poetic aesthetics of Eastern and Western poetry.

Each section of "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" is a sonnet with one key element of a sonnet missing-a rhyme scheme. This, however, is not to say rhyme is entirely absent. As the dissonance of repeated and overlapping melodies occasionally resolve in and out of consonance in the minimalist compositions of Philip Glass, rhymes-strong rhymes-appear in the third stanzas of each of the poem's four sections. This is most apparent in the third stanza of the first section:

     I have read this book, and so have the jays.
     It is written in ordinary days
     and deeds addressing all temporal desire.
     I laugh too, then go in and light the fire.

After two completely unrhymed stanzas, two, predominately end-stopped couplet rhymes hit the reader over the head harder than a two-by-four. But surprise is not the only effect these rhymes have; they show the reader that this is a poet who is in control of his craft. The rhyme here assures the reader that Hamill is more than aware of the sonnet tradition and is capable of masterfully writing within it but is choosing to show restraint.

The other ending stanzas of each section do not have the same rhyme scheme but-again-utilize a shifting, revolving pattern. "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" ends with a nod towards the rhymed tradition of sonnets, but only just:

     I will tell her I have not learned to grieve
     as a widow grieves, and what will it mean?
     The wood crib full, the fire lit, I sit
     alone in dying light and slowly breathe.

The "grieve" / "breathe" end rhyme could not be further apart in this stanza, but the sense of satisfaction that arrives when we land on the final syllable appeases our ears as readers accustomed to and comforted by rhyme.

There are no accidents in Hamill's poetry. He is able to wield form the way a sushi chef handles his knives. If you've enjoyed these poems, be sure to check out Almost Paradise, which offers some selections of Hamill's poetry and essays as well as some translations.

An Interview with Sam Hamill by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I love how far "The Orchid Flower" ranges from its original subject matter of the orchid flower to eroticism to washing dishes with one's wife to, finally, that rather "Stevensian" notion of life made all the more beautiful by the guarantee of death. Do you mind talking to us about how this poem came to be? Did it open with this line of observation of the orchid and go from there or did it work more backward, with thoughts on the nature of beauty?

Sam Hamill: The poem is exactly as it came to me, including the classical Japanese syllabic lines of 5-7-5-7-7. I came into the house from a long day's work and my wife said, "Look! It's not dead! It's blooming." This tiny orchid we'd had for two years or so, I think. The poem owes much more to Zen than to Stevens.


AMK: Do your poems tend to start or end in one way and begin and conclude, after revision, in a completely different way or do you find a structure/voice/artifice fairly early and stick to it?


SH: I compose by ear, by listening, memorizing, editing by ear again before I ever go to paper. By the time the poem gets written out, unless it's quite long, it's composed. Whether the line is syllabic or (more usual) organic, there is a field of comprehension, a field of composition... a cosmology in the poem. What is "given" to the poet is a kind of energy which is then transformed in order to be given away-the poem as economy of the gift. Workshop poetry often seems contrived to me, the result of revision after revision, polishing wit and image and metaphor, the poem as object rather than as revelation.


AMK: Speaking of structure, this poem utilizes an invented structure that looks like a haiku followed by a couplet. Why alternate between these two... stanza structures? Why not simply use haikus or couplets from beginning to end?


SH: The measure is 5-7-5 (hokku, the opening of a renga) followed by a 7-7 couplet, as in renga. But the base measure of 5-7-5-7-7 is classical waka, short poem in Japanese. I've translated so much waka that the rhythms are as much in my bones as the iambic pentameter I grew up with.


AMK: What is it about eastern culture that fascinates you so? Its influence is apparent in your work.


SH: San chiao-Three Systems of thought: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism- simply put: this has been the center of my practice as poet, as translator, as human being, for half a century. I sit zazen, I study the classics. It's not a fascination; it's my daily practice, the road I walk. There are aspects of "eastern culture" that are horrendous, just like our own. But in the literary tradition, especially Zen and Taoist, I find a fertile meeting ground.

AMK: You've been at this poetry thing for some time, not only as a poet but also as a publisher (you co-founded Copper Canyon Press in 1972) and activist (you recently started Poets Against War movement). How do you feel that operating in realms other than purely writing poetry has impacted your work?


SH: Meaningful poetry is drawn from life's blood and sweat and tears and laughter. I taught in prisons. I worked with battered women and children and with batterers. I taught Poets in the Schools. I set type by hand and stood feeding a printing press hour after hour. I built my house near Port Townsend with my own hands and mind. I studied Chinese and Japanese by kerosene lamp when I had no electricity. I chose to live this way-in the margins of capitalist culture, in the shadow of the American war industry, in order to serve poetry and advocate for radical-revolutionary- cultural changes like civil rights and peace, to practice peace while advocating true revolution.


AMK: How do you think poetry can impact our countries military actions across the world? Why don't you just write poetry and let the rest of the rest of the world take care of itself?


SH: It's one small world and we are one humanity. The "world taking care of itself" is the USA invading Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and maybe Syria and Iran and running torture centers like Guantánamo and overthrowing democracies and installing dictators like Pinochet and Marcos and initiating "Dirty Wars" etc. Global warming recognizes no national boundaries, neither do dead oceans. I feel a responsibility to report honestly from planet Earth.


AMK: Much of your work is in straight free verse but a good portion of it is also in some sort of invented form, like the alternating haiku and couplets in "The Orchid Flower." Talk to us about your use of sonnet sections in "A Woodsplitter's Meditation." Sometimes the end rhyme is clear; other times end rhyme is a little harder to discern if detect at all; other times the scheme switches from sonnet to sonnet such as the AABB structure in the first section and the AABA scheme of the second and fourth sections.


SH: Variations improvised on a line, as in jazz. I don't sit down and write into a fixed form. I follow rhythms and sounds, but the poems reveals its "form" in the act of setting my breath and listening closely.


AMK: Why sonnets in the first place? Why sonnets broken up into two quintets and a quatrain?


SH: They are not sonnets. They may resemble sonnets, but they are a living contemporary measure, improvisations. My reading in poetry (and poetics) gave me certain measures, but I constantly improvise.

AMK: Why use sections when you have the sonnet form already there to indicate a break of some sort?


SH: Because the poem has separate movements and "sections" offer a larger pause.


AMK: Most of the lines in these sonnets are ten syllables each. Some, however fall a syllable short or are a syllable too long. Given that you can clearly manipulate language in order to fulfill the expectations of the form, I wonder why, sometimes, you choose not to.


SH: "Fulfilling the expectations of form" is what makes for so much boring formalism. Basho said, "Learn all the rules. The forget them." My lines are mostly lightly end-stopped, unlike conventional meter. As Creeley and Levertov both made clear in essays, "form and content" are not two things. It's likely a stately line because of the subject matter, which begins with grieving. Line breaks tell us when to breath. This poem came to me section-by-section. One meditation leads to a first movement; another to a second movement...


AMK: Your poems often have a shadow of a narrative (in "the Orchid Flower" we have the speaker worrying over an orchid; in "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" we have the man splitting wood and building fires), but it seems that language and structure are what carry the day, those elements that draw you to poetry rather than, perhaps, fiction. What do you value most in a poem? How do you bring these values to the page and is this action conscious or un/subconscious?

SH: George Seferis wrote:   

     I want nothing more than to speak simply, to be granted that grace.
     Because we've loaded even our song with so much music that it's slowly sinking
     and we've decorated our art so much that its features have been eaten away by gold
     and it's time to say our few words because tomorrow our soul sets sail.


I want to be true to my Muse. I track the dance of heart/mind (one character in Chinese) as the poem reveals itself to me. Years of scholarship, years of practice, inform the subconscious as well as the conscious mind. If the poem approaches song, sing it; if it is intimate, speak it in a whisper. Dance. Dance well... with the one what brung ya.

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