Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Sam Hamill
Dear Editor,

I have admired W. S. Di Piero's poetry and essays for years, and I find his comments on Homer's epic intriguing and insightful. Likewise, his informed look into Christopher Logue's ongoing epic adaptation.

But when he writes of Poets Against the War, his old-fashioned, monolithic, white male, Euro-centric views get in the way of 21st century realities. There's not a female poet in his herd. He dismisses pacifism with a single sweep of his hand (and calls William Stafford a "conscientious objector," when in fact and practice Stafford was a pacifist). He cites a number of poets who served during World War II, but none of the poets who opposed the war, including such major figures as Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz, Kenneth Rexroth, or William Everson. His essay did remind me, by omission, that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote her anti-fascist, anti-war sonnet, "Conscientious Objector," in 1933, and what courage that must have taken.

Much of what he doesn't care for he dismisses as poetry of "mere sensibility." I suppose he similarly dismisses the classical poetry of Japan for the same reason—it is, after all, a poetry of pure sensibility. He offers the same snide remarks I heard and saw from the right-wing media during months of protest—the idiotic suggestion that poetry doesn't matter. If poetry doesn't matter, why is he defending what he perceives to be its highest attainments?

He attacks a line by Dorianne Laux and a line by Katha Pollitt without offering the poems to be examined whole. Such is the carnage of academic poetry autopsies. He accuses the latter of "trivializing" Achilles by comparing him to the poet's daughter who "stalks off to her room." I suggest to your critic that Pollitt's treatment is entirely appropriate and that the poem brilliantly presents just the sort of complexity of emotion that he otherwise admires. To Sappho, and to women writing in the 2,500 years since Sappho, war is often considered to be immature behavior. Neither Homer, nor any of the white male poets of World War II, is fit to speak of the authentic experience of being a woman, a mother, a poet trying to maintain a semblance of a sense of humor while her country marches inevitably toward perpetual war-mongering. I think Katha Pollitt's poem is wonderful.

I could make claims for Dorianne Laux's poem as well, but since we are old friends, the reader might assume a bias on my part. I could defend university writing programs against what I consider to be just another cheap shot. But is that necessary? I think the critic is busy poking holes in the air.

The important point is simply this: Di Piero doesn't understand what the anthology represents. Some of the contributors are children. Some are poets being anthologized for the first time. Some are Pulitzer and National Book Award winners. Poets Against the War represents a broad spectrum of American writers of poetry as, during a one-month period last winter, we compiled 13,000 poems protesting the invasion of Iraq. Few were writing out of direct experience of war.

This is not World War II. This work is not culled from a lifetime of writing by a handful of white male poets who spent four years at war. It is culled from the broad spectrum we find in American poetry today, and it is that very breadth and depth that has made the past fifty years so great for our poetry. There are Latino/Latina poets, Asian-American poets, African-American poets, gay and lesbian poets, housewife and sheepherder poets—in short, all the diversity of experience and language that is missing from Di Piero's canon. What's "good" and what's "bad" can be endlessly debated. But in the entire history of poetry, there has never been anything like Poets Against the War.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2003

Biography

Sam Hamill was adopted from foster care at the age of three and grew up on a farm in Utah. Early experiences with violence, theft, jail time, and boot camp were offset by Hamill’s growing interest in poetry, particularly Beat poetry. During a judge-ordained enlistment in the Marine Corps, Hamill encountered Albert Camus’s essays on pacifism and discovered Zen literature as well. He committed to the Zen practice that continues to . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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