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Measured By Stone by Sam Hamill

Political Poetry at the Sacrifice of Art

Sam Hamill’s newest book, Measured By Stone, comes to us from a press devoted to political creative writing. Curbstone Press describes itself as “a publishing house dedicated to multicultural literature that reflects a commitment to social awareness and change,” a place that publishes “creative writers whose work promotes human rights and intercultural understanding.” It should not be surprising, therefore, that Hamill’s book brims with barely contained -- sometimes outright angry -- political lyrics.

Hamill is known as something of a poetry legend from the northwest United States, and for good reason: he’s published thirteen other volumes of poetry, several essay collections, dozens of translations, founded the prestigious Copper Canyon Press, and directed Poets Against War. His work has been translated into twelve languages. And now we have Measured By Stone, 91 pages of philosophical, often lyrical, witty, sharp-snagging-as-a-whip, politically enraged poetry

But does it amount to good art, matching some of Hamill’s earlier works? This is less impressively clear than the poet’s curriculum vitae.

Hamill has always spoken with an edgy, prophetic, left-wing voice (sometimes quite effectively so). His newest work seems to amplify the rhetoric by a few notches. The book opens with a section called “Eyes Wide Open", a section which contains the thrust of Hamill’s political verse, followed by a second section that seems a sort of Zen counterweight to the first -- titled “Lessons From Thieves” -- and finishes with a litany of elegies and tributes to friends and writers, a section which bears the same title as the book, “Measured By Stone".

Poem after poem, especially in Eyes Wide Open", rails against the tyrannical, human-crushing political machine the poet believes to be rampant and rabid worldwide. In the title poem for the section Hamill writes: “Corporate leaders go to school/on Sun Tzu’s Art of War./'We all deplore it', the President says,/issuing bombing orders,/ but God is on our side.” The next piece, “America, Mon Amour", decries “the fascist in the White House.” A page later, Hamill even frames himself as the “grizzled old poet against the war,” as perceived by two giggly Italian girls.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with so-called political poetry. It wears, after all, a storied history wet with the blood of bards, a tradition going back to poetry’s roots as an oral, communal tradition and a tool of the oppressed. Arguably, then, all poetry operates on some level as a political instrument -- and maybe it must be: poetry witnesses, describes without flinching, exposes, mocks, satirizes, celebrates the downtrodden, and so on. But crafting overtly political poetry while keeping the poems aesthetically pleasing has always proved a difficult task, even for the masters of the art. Great art is never dated. Political art -- marrying two quarrelsome partners, politics and aesthetics -- is often not only dated, but dated in a way that evaporates its vibrancy.

And it’s here, at the heart of what the book aims to do, that Hamill’s newest work struggles most. The poet forges a weighty declaration about how prophets arise: “Buddhas are born/of necessity,” he writes in “Nine Gates". It seems likely that Hamill sees political poetry, particularly a poetry that assaults and exposes empires and dictators, as a necessity of our times. And certainly, many thinking people these days would hardly disagree with Hamill’s human-rights emphasizing, anti-war, anti-corporate, pacifist politics.

But those politics don’t, necessarily, translate into good poetry in Hamill’s latest work. It’s not that one disagrees with Hamill when he writes “Somewhere in Baghdad’s rubble,/ some boy or girl struggles/to hear a different drummer, to see/not terror, but stars/trembling in the sky, imagining peace…”, so much as one’s simply left yawning. The tiresome difficulty when mixing explicit politics with poetry is that one begins to see through the magician’s trickery, and what one sees behind the curtain is an agenda.

Art is never, no doubt, constructed without agendas or biases, latent or explicit, but when that agenda is thrust so obviously into the fore of the art’s form and subject matter, it’s easy for the work to end up banal, unsurprising, and uncreative. This, alas, is the trap Hamill steps into throughout Measured By Stone.

Ultimately, beyond the question of too-obvious agendas, it’s an aesthetic concern: sometimes the more rant-ish poems in the book feel like versified newscasts, not much more than dressed-up, lyrical recaps of the horrors of today’s world. What’s more, without surprises, many of the poems fail to do what Hamill calls on poetry to enact in “Nine Gates”: the poems fail to awaken us. Mystery via creative imagery and language -- things Hamill’s earlier work has demonstrated powerfully -- are, in the case of this current book, too often overshadowed by the poet’s politics.

It would be far too harsh to judge the book tripe, however. Hamill remains a wordsmith -- and a wise one -- and his mastery still shines from time to time in this new work. Hamill’s at his finest, for instance, when he leaps nimbly from the grand to the specific, zinging like a knife through air. In “Arguing with Milosz in Vilnius", the poet writes: “Tyranny is so banal./Jackdaws clack and squabble.” It is, ironically, in this mode that Hamill achieves his best political poetry: when his touch is lightest, his lyrics subtlest, and his metaphor most open and creative. For this reason, “Taos, 1958", rings sharply as one the book’s most powerful lyrics, while retaining slicing political undertones. Hamill writes:

…Huddled by our fire, my girl
and I read Rexroth and Lawrence

until the last noisy crow
brought nightfall on its wings,
then tequila and philosophy.
Our smoke rose in a plume

and disappeared. Our love,
our sadness. Her beautiful
country and its history. Her
slender body. Our desperation.

And our curse on the black heart
of Eagle Chief Carson.

Clearly, Hamill is still quite capable of moving us. Measured By Stone, however, does not represent the poet’s best effort. The explicitness of the polemics undermine the durability of the poetry, dating it and stripping it of the kind of mysterious, creative aesthetic Hamill has demonstrated in the past. The artist presents us here not so much with art built to last for all time, but rather -- and perhaps to this Hamill would just shrug and smile zen-like -- art meant to hold only these times.


Measured By Stone by Sam Hamill
Curbstone Press
Septmeber 2007
Paperback, $13.95
ISBN: 1-931-8964-02
91 pages