This Old Poem #48:
Sam Hamill’s State of the Union, 2003
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/22/03

  At the end of Steven Spielberg’s awful schlock epic Saving Private Ryan the aging titular character is standing in Arlington National Cemetery, turns to his wife, & -after 2+ hours of every war film cliché imaginable filmed anew- asks her ‘Tell me I’m a good man!’ While SPR glorified war as inane self-sacrifice by addled stereotypes with no sense of individuality, most current artists, in all media, try to damn war as being without redemptive qualities. Somewhere in between lies the actual truth, however, like Spielberg’s dull hero, even artists on the other end of the political spectrum use their political beliefs to wave the flag for self-promotion.
  Chief amongst these, in the last couple of months, has been publisher/poet Sam Hamill. Previously known for starting the style-over-substance Zen-wannabe publishing house Copper Canyon Press, & writing narcoleptic cliché-ridden bucolics, SH- henceforth known as Sambo of the Loony Left (or just Sambo- for his slavish devotion to promoting the same tired stereotypes of ‘Liberal’ artists that the rest of the country pukes over)- has seen his Q rating soar with his public dissing of 1st Lady Laura Bush’s recent attempt to get some poets to read at some official functions. Sambo- in his best 6 year old snit mode, & with an eye to vault Copper Canyon’s sales- publicly rejected the 1st Lady (for her husband’s presumed sins) & decided to start an inane & self-serving website called . Predictably, 1000s of over-the-hill poetasters & up & coming doggerelists have foisted incredibly bad poems on to this site. Of course, art is shunted aside for screeding, & while schlockists like Adrienne Rich have built careers on this, the # of bad unpublished ‘poets’ who are hoping to use this tool of Sambo’s to connect with simpleminded publishers is truly depressing. There was a time when even bad poets like a Eugene Field would not even be accorded the title poet; they were distinguished as a breed apart- versifiers. Today the word poet does not mean someone who writes good poetry, or even poetry, but someone who can string words together, & is a good & sensitive person- as well as someone congenitally unable to grasp complexities.
  Sambo is a leading light in that cause- not the anti-war movement, but the far more dangerous & compelling ‘Please like me alot!’ movement. He’s never written a poem over 10 lines that is passable literature, & his strange poetastric Caucasian devotion to Zen (2nd in bizarre fetishes, only to bad white poets’ negrophilic love of jazz) has resulted in dry, dull poems which are bereft of music, lack real art- but damn, Dey’s Be Spiritual! Sambo longs to be 1 of the ‘well-thought of men’. This Lomanian deprecation (unbeknownst to Sambo, therefore the lack of its being self-) has led many more mainstream writers to attack Sambo’s stereotypical self-service & rightly impugn the motives of this previously (seemingly) conscience-bound poetaster. The online mag The Stranger has tackled Sambo in 2 recent articles. In a piece called ‘Just Shut Up’ [] Neal Pollack assails both the pro- & anti-War Movements. But Sambo & his horde of irrelevant doggerelists get a special juice: 

  My annoyance has been stewing for a while. It peaked with the emergence of Poets Against the War, an overhyped coalition of usual suspects led by Seattle poet and small-press publisher Sam Hamill. Last week Mr. Hamill, with a maximum amount of self-righteous pomposity, staged readings across the country. My first reaction, upon hearing about the protest readings, was, ‘Oh, no. The poets are against the war. Whatever are we going to do?’ But my flip, quote-marks-in-the-air reaction grew even less sincere and more ironic when I actually read some of the poetry. Select pieces are available on the Internet, in the e-book 100 Poets Against the War, now in a "third edition" because there have been so many submissions. Why, if you didn't know better, you'd almost think that thousands of poets were taking advantage of a political crisis to further their careers!

  That even a humorist can see through the obvious veil of Forrest Gumpian simpleminded opposition is telling. Aside from the obviously patronizing notion that the only position of conscience must be to oppose the war, is the worse notion that it is a requirement for all poets & artists. Well, I’m a great poet & Sambo’s a poetaster, but even I would not presume to speak for all poets, nor define what their political beliefs MUST be to be an artist.
  As for the war, I’m on the fence- both positions are tenable. YES, at its root this war is about oil- but not ONLY oil, in the naïve way Leftists presume! If Saddam controlled oil in that region millions of people would be at his behest financially, a potential Depression rivaling theat of the 1930s could loom, & he would be free to murder millions more in the Middle East. YES, there is no absolute proof of Saddam’s connections to Al Quaeda, but proof of his connection to terrorists who ARE connected to Al Quaeda is plentiful. YES, I’m alarmed that Bush is a liar who stole the 2000 election (but Dems really gotta stop blaming Ralph Nader- the best candidate in the field if you really know world issues), but Saddam is a genocidal monster. Who to support- an addle-minded liar or a mass murderer? The oft-tossed chestnut that Leftists loved to hide behind a few years ago was that they would have eventually stood up to Hitler in WW2, the time just needed to be right. However, we all know that until Pearl Harbor the Leftists would have sold their neighbor’s soul to avoid war. YES, I am disturbed that Tony Blair seems to have become the Mark Fuhrman of geopolitics by fabricating the ‘evidence’ that Colin Powell recently presented to the UN. Yes, I am disturbed by gutless Leftists who now (in very Reaganesque fashion) wrap themselves in the American flag, even as 2 years ago they were snickering after 9/11 & smugly proclaiming we got what we deserve (yes, I really am glad that $7/hour Starbucks waitrons & low paid temp workers got flattened for their centuries of oppressing Middle Eastern goatherds!). YES, I’m pissed that Taliban & Al Quaeda sympathizers are flooding back to Afghanistan, are strongholded in Pakistan (for which we do zippo about because they’s already nuked up- ala South Korea), & old W. seems to have forgotten that they & Osama bin Laden are the real Public Enemies #1. YES, I’m angered over the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of Germany & France (or those brie-eating surrender monkeys, as the latest term of derision calls them), who seem to forget that we have always been there for them, even when they were not, & also forget that they are far easier & closer targets than we are. YES, I'm even more pissed over the 'hidden' financial interests that American companies have in our desire to invade Iraq, & even more so over the disingenuity of France, Germany, China, & Russia to be 'indignant' over such- especially since they have even larger corporate interests to NOT invade Iraq! YES, I’m pissed that once again the UN is making a great case for its irrelevance, & plain old silliness, & that the city of New York should, by eminent domain, seize back the HQ’s property & turn it into a subsidized housing project for poor people- it certainly will be needed after Bush is done with this country. YES, I’m pissed that the financial mess that the Reagan-Bush 1 years (thought fixed by Clinton) have been resurrected by Bush 2 in some grim Hollywood fashion that harkens to a Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger film. YES, I’m pissed that the war will cause pain there & more here, but by not getting rid of Saddam we are probably even more at risk in the long term. But the biggest reason I’m conflicted about this war is that I think the reasons for doing it still slightly outweigh those against inaction, but I have absolutely no faith in our President. Yes he’s an idiot, a crook, & ethically inert. But so was every President going back to Truman (excepting the nice but hamstrung Jimmy Carter). In these coming months I most fear that the leader of this nation is genuinely a stupid man, while- if we must tell the truth- the leader of Iraq (evil & twisted as he is) is 1 of the most brilliantly sinister players on the world stage since Joseph Stalin’s death ½ a century ago. Saddam is alot smarter than W. I fear that whatever actions will be the best (war or not) Junior will make the absolutely wrong- & worst of the wrong- choices. Just look what he’s done in 2 years to a previously good economy. Of course- what’s the economy or war when you’ve got pressing issues like cloning, abortion, & prayer in school to worry over?
  The point for my extended rant? That Sambo is as dumb in the opposing view as W. is in his. The Stranger had another article [] that took on Sambo & his ilk. Penned by Christopher Frizelle it’s called POETS AGAINST THE WAR, Great for Sam Hamill's Career, but Good for Poetry? Here are some prescient moments, & sentiments I have long exhorted (it’s nice to know there are others not as benighted as Sambo):

  Hamill, the local poet and cofounder of Copper Canyon Press, first made news a few weeks ago when the White House canceled a February 12 poetry symposium because Hamill threatened to turn the event into an antiwar rally.


  If you weren't at Richard Hugo House's packed, wall-to-wall antiwar poetry reading last week, estimated at roughly 400 strong (similar readings occurred all around the country), Ahern's online sentiments will give you a sense of some of what you missed. You also missed statements like, "Every single person is a special person, and a writer, and a poet." You missed impassioned readings of W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, and many original compositions, including one about tanks, chocolate bars, and "misinterpreted dreams"; one about 12-year-old boys being blown apart by missiles; and one about the "hypermagical ultra omnipotence" of governmental power.


  But the message they're sending, if you listen to it, is uncompelling. All that these "poets" are able to articulate is an enormous amount of hesitation, a trite wariness illustrated by the shriek of a baby or the flash of a bomb. There is a strong, coherent case to be made against military action in Iraq, but protest poets don't like to get mired in the specifics of an argument.

  What this protest doesn't accomplish is anything on the level of poetry, because the moment poetry becomes useful it is not poetry at all. Auden wrote, for example, that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/in the valley of its own making."


  ….protest poetry relies on simple emotions, uncomplicated truths: It persuades with broad emotional appeals that polarize and overstate, but never deepen or extend the issues. As an art form, protest poetry is a bastardization; and as a political tool, it is completely impractical.


  The art of poetry is concerned with what is various and irreducible--issues like the subjectivity of human experience, the sovereignty of the individual, the complicated nature of truth. At its best, poetry is an antidote to provincialism, intellectual oppression, and simplification. To me, the most alarming thing about, and there is a lot to choose from, is the page outlining submission guidelines: ‘All poems must be against the war; no pro-war poems, no hate-filled poems, no obscene poems will be published.’ [emphasis mine- DAN] Such restrictions could only produce the worst kind of poetry; poetry that fails to reflect the contradictions and uncertainties of the real world we live in.


  So why is Sambo so ill at ease in the real world? Let’s take the obligatory gaze at the old resumé:


Sam Hamill is the author of thirteen volumes of poetry including Dumb Luck (BOA Editions, 2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995), which won a Pushcart Prize; three collections of essays; and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (2000), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho (1999), and The Essential Chuang Tzu (1998). He is editor of The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (2002, with Bradford Morrow), The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press (1996), The Erotic Spirit (1995), and Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath (1988). Hamill 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 Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, and two Washington Governor's Arts Awards. He is Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press and director of the Port Townsend Writers' Conference. Hamill currently lives in Port Townsend, Washington.


  Could anyone with such a history even remotely be expected to approach poetry as a craft, not a way to, ugh, change the world? Of course not. But why are idiot savants like this the rule & not the exception? I could go on but this is a TOP essay, so let’s hit the poem in question (culled from that terrible aforementioned doggerel site). Here’s what Sambo deems invaluable for you to know:


State of the Union, 2003


I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We've seen them a thousand times.

Soon, the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can't bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.


  I’ve underlined both the (anti-)war poem & plain old clichés. Not much of a poem left, eh? Stanza 2 ends in almost self-parody- just how many times has that sentiment been uttered? The poem’s last line is the only unique thought. & this is- believe me- 1 of the 3 or 4 best poems on that horrible site (& I’ve read a few 100!). Let’s rework it:


State of the Union, 2003

They pray to different gods.

Black moons reflecting.
He will have something to say.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
I can't look at the monuments

in his eyes. Soon, he will speak.


  I was tempted to retitle the poem merely State, but then I’d have to leave more of the actual poem behind. Uh-uh, I’m not a cruel man. The title stays, but with excision & some movement of lines we get a much different, shorter, & better poem. Line 1 now loses its bathos & could refer to the Congress listening to the speech, the Iraquis, or a # of others. As its own stanza it forces the rest of the poem to play off of that notion. I dislike black moons & their reflecting, but it’s the only image to work with that can at least be partly salvaged. The poem now ends with the speaker tuning out, not just for disgust, but possibly apathy. We lose the bathos with the word bear’s removal. By moving the line about the President’s being soon to speak to the end, we place the poem at a moment of precipice & leave the reader dangling. A simple but effective twist which makes the reader distrust the speaker’s intentions & presumptions. The poem is now not preachy, but tricky- a far better artistic state to occupy, That the enjambment of the last line also places the moment before speaking in the President’s eyes, we get a psychic doubletake the original lacks. As with most TOP rewrites, this is not a great poem- but a solid little poem with potential for more.
  Of course, these sorts of artistic gambles are verboten in the PC Elitist realms Sambo shuffles in. His other poem, Sheepherder Coffee, is just as bad. Witness this gem from within:
I can't help but think
of Palestinians huddled in their ruins,

the Afghani shepherd with his bleating goats,
the widow weeping, sending off her sons….

  Of course Sambo cannot help but think such things- he’s a guilty white liberal, sans a real life, with the time & money to foist yet another horrible poetry website onto the Internet. I will bite my tongue for I do not really want to prattle on about what a total hypocrite & phony people like Sambo & his ilk are- it’s too obvious, yet as beyond their ability to see as a ragtag bunch of right wing Christian bigots I recently kicked the collective asses of in their inability to see their own benightedness. Instead, I’ll end with a piece from an op-ed rebuttal, written on 2/6/02 by a poet named Frederick Glaysher, to the New York Times []:

  It is clear that the crowd alluded to by Mr. Hamill summons poetry to their own radical distortions and agendas, achieving only a further marginalization of an art that has all too often, among some, lost allegiance to the civilizing values of peace, which require defense never more so than now.
  Far from "the conscience of our culture," such poets have no sense of history and the deep obligations of our country, to ourselves and to the world, which the burden of power lays upon us at this juncture….At this time of national and international crisis, poets who betray their nation, art, and humanity merit no audience at The White House.

  My response to that- & coming from an avowed Agnostic, take this with gravity- is AMEN!  

Final Score: (1-100):  

Sam Hamill’s State of the Union, 2003: 25
TOP’s State of the Union, 2003: 65

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