Epistolary Poetry by Sam Hamill

July 3, 2018
by Paul Nelson

I have been getting caught up on some of Sam Hamill’s work since his death back in April. Last night reading from his 1981 book of “casual essays” or “over-the-shoulder” glances he titled At Home in the World, I came across an essay entitled “Epistolary Poetry.” The subtitle is “The Poem as Letter; The Letter as Poem.” Preparing for a couple hundred signups in five hours for the 12th Poetry Postcard Fest (& Sam would HATE that I capitalize the”o’s”) I felt it right to read that essay immediately.

And it starts with some classic Sam Hamill snark. (He would hate that description, but it’s accurate.)

      Several years ago in Missoula, at the customary after-the-reading bash, I was approached by a young grad school poet.
     “I didn’t realize you were a former student of Richard Hugo’s.” he said.
     “I’m not.”
     “But you write letter poems,” he declared,” and that’s an invention of Dick’s.”
With all the specializing and pigeon-holing done by scholars, it has always astonished me that no one (to my knowledge) has written on epistolary poetry as a genre. The poem as letter has been with us for nearly as long as we have had written poetry. In the Western tradition, the honor of inventing the genre is generally bestowed to Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Latin poet who preceded Hugo by two thousand years…

HA! Sam goes on to discuss epistles by Wordsworth, Li Po, Tu Fu, Shelley, William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel”, George Seferis, Octavio Paz, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Yvor Winters, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Robert Hass, Thomas McGrath, Kenneth Rexroth and Denise Levertov. He cites two of her poems from the book of hers that was current at the time, and that he also reviewed in this book, Life in the Forest. One of those poems was


The sunshine is wild here!
It laps our feet!
Wavelets of sunshine!
Spiky wavelets!
The sunshine snaps at our toes!
Thick handfuls of sunshine freeze
our fingers like ice,
like burning ice cream!
The towers of the city across
the gulf of sunshine are wavering!

Sam did not like punctuation marks either, but did consider Levertov a “great teacher.” He also concluded in his review that Life in the Forest features “poems of mature affection and engagement written by a mature poet at the height of her power.”

That turned out to be prophetic, as Levertov’s later work was not as potent as the Organic Form she honed between letters to and from Robert Duncan, but still better than most of all other poems being written by her contemporaries.

Sam continues to teach from beyond the veil, as I suspected he would. Casual essays? Perhaps, but worth a look. And as postcard season starts again, some good fuel for summer. Thank you Sam.

1 Comment

  1. Carol Blackbird Edson

    Hi Paul! Poets as subtle thinkers- today there was a fine interview on KUOW’s The Record, of poet Terrance Hayes talking with Bill Radke on the poet asking important questions in our time.


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