Habitation is Sam Hamill’s witness to a perverse, tumultuous and glorious world, and it ought to have been received upon its publication with respect and rejoicing for its importance to Anglophone letters.
These collected poems are Hamill’s witness to a blasting and triumphant life at which he has not blinked. Although he’s very much a poet of the American Northwest, he’s also, via his translations and experiences, a poet of the Far East. But his oeuvre doesn’t rest well in those categories. He often reminds us of the Stoics Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and Zeno, and of Catullus, the neoteric republican poet.
Hamill’s free-verse poems are testament to a slippery truth about free verse: practiced with integrity, it demands more discipline than rhymed and conventionally metered poetry. It requires improvisational meter unique to its original impulse, not impulse harnessed to preexistent form. It is poetry consumed by its first-heard music. It resembles jazz in this respect.
The poet’s choice of title is easily understood, but a strong argument could be made for Habitation as The Book of Awareness. Hamill is, above all else, the poet of awareness. The implications of this for him and his work are immense and sometimes unbearable. His witness makes him more an outlier than most poets, a man destined to look too hard and fixedly at the accommodations we make to fit in. And that is perhaps why he founded Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swensen in 1972, a press once synonymous with independence, excellence and a maverick streak.