Q: Can you describe how you write: time of day, where you write, what you use (computer, chalk, pen)?
HAMILL: I make notes on napkins, in a notebook, on scraps or post-it notes. Some poems get drafted on legal-sized yellow notebooks. But most shorter poems get drafted “by ear,” that is, by recitation, by listening/composing from an “inner ear,” or muse, imagination. Poetry, for me, is a union of vision-voice-and-music, the gift of inspiration from the muse, which I must transform in order to give it away again in the form of a poem. Inspiration: to breathe in deeply and speak from those depths. Poetry makes noise. It exists as a body of sound. The words on the page are merely musical notation. When I think I have the poem “finished,” I write it down; sometime later I may make a little change or two. But it’s important to me to get the sound, the feel of it, just about complete by way of the ear. My BS detector is in my ear.
– Sam Hamill
I’m just a poetaster myself, writing for my own amusement. But it makes me feel good to know that my method of writing is the same as his. I used to have to travel 210 miles a day round-trip at work, mostly on a long stretch of rural interstate at night and in the early morning, and I used to compose poems in my head to pass the time. It was sort of an unstated rule that I had to keep them short enough to remember them easily, and it made it much simpler when I could get the sound and feel of the poem just right.
“No one read anything silently until about two or three hundred years ago,” he said in his essay “Body and Song”, from Avocations.
It is doubly unfortunate that so many university literature courses continue to “teach” poetry silently, stuck in logos, the “reason” of the poem, and stuck in phanopoeia, the imagery of the poem. Our insistence upon a way to “explain” the poem often denies us the truest experience of the poetry…The Greeks believed that by emptying ourselves of ourselves, we may draw into our bodies the breath of one of the Muses – inspiration; becoming inspired, we become pregnant with meaning, we make a song by listening; listening attentively, we make sounds with the body, and a poem is born, a poem we then give away in order to become empty again, in order to become inspired. The song, the spiritual exchange, is the fundamental experience of poetry. The lyric poem itself exists only as a condition of music, whether that music be flatly spoken or whether it be an aria, and it cannot be properly understood without being heard.
[…] I have never known how – even in a library – to read a poem silently; I cannot read a poem without moving various parts of my body besides my eyes and fingers: my breath is borne (read: born) on the first line, and muscles begin moving – lungs, spine the many, many muscles of the human face and throat working to make sound.
I think it was that musicality in his translations of Li Po and Tu Fu that enthralled me. I found that book in a woven basket in a little bookstore downtown; I don’t even know why those books were grouped together like that. But I remember fishing around in there, pulling that one out, and sitting down to read it, almost reading the whole thing right there. I still read it every few months (plus so many of his other translations); it never gets old. One of Li Po’s poems from that collection still takes my breath away for a second when I read (recite) it:
On Dragon Hill
Drunk on Dragon Hill tonight,
that banished immortal, Great White,
turns among yellow flowers,
his smile spread wide
as his hat sails off in the wind
and he dances away in the moonlight.
Can’t you just see it? Don’t the perfectly chosen words create the same sensation of flowing movement they describe?