T. R. Hummer is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose, including The Infinity Sessions (LSU, 2005) and The Muse in the Machine: Essays on Poetry and the Anatomy of the Body Politic (University of Georgia Press, 2006). Formerly Editor in Chief of Quarterly West, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The Georgia Review, he is professor of creative writing/English at Arizona State University. Hummer is also an accomplished saxophonist.
Hard now to remember those winters, snow scabbing the stones
Outside Gettysburg ten years after the names sank in with the carcasses.
What did I know about the unities? It was freezing, we had nothing,
We’d eaten the mules, the wheatfields were scattered with salt.
I hunched in the seminary balancing the leatherbound Euclid
Against the Homer my father had scribbled his name in once, a boy
Like me, still ignorant and alive. Outside, Pennsylvania was a hellish
Polygon of ice. The opposite sides and angles of a parallelogram
Are equal to one another, and the diagonal bisects it; that is, divides it
Into two equal parts. I imagined him repeating these things
Twenty-five years ago in a body smaller than mine.
I imagined him in the ground, the ground bisected, two worlds
Divided, the line drawn between him and me.
Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another.
I would take up the ministry that laid him down. I would speak the Word
That choked him. His body after ten years under was less than mine,
A volume of icy grit surrounding a Minié ball. We were learning. I knew
History was doing the same things others had done, being born,
Sweating, fighting, saying axioms by rote. I drew the geometry
Of fields in early spring, dead men at the plows,
Forty acres of ground chiseled and harrowed, laid out naked in the sun.
I know now they died of everything you can think of: Evisceration, shock,
Peritonitis, gangrene, malnutrition, incompetence, deceit,
Every possible loss. Then, I knew only what we copied
From the poet and translated: The spear in his heart
Was stuck fast, but the heart was panting still and beating
To shake the butt end of the spear. In the freezing house, my mother
Was sewing trousers, running her ruined fingers over the parallel lines of a bolt
Of corduroy, burning her hands on linen, stitching, shivering,
A conventional emblem of loss. If equals be taken from equals,
The remainders are equal. How could she weave him back? She had no loom.
She made uniforms for soldiers. They taught us to say these things:
My father in the underworld is bloodless, wanting nothing.
What is a nation to him? What is a son? There are rivers, stinking fires,
Ghostly pain like the pressure of starlight, emptiness, illusion,
There are six hundred thousand souls repeating their indifference every second
In the Hades of the Brothers’ War. He is a citizen of that polis now,
And I hate him in the language of the dead I am still learning slowly
For the sake of his memory, sign by inevitable sign.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem is from Walt Whitman in Hell, which was published in 1996, but took a long time to write. “Greek” was among the first poems composed for the book (it was, in fact, for awhile the provisional title poem), so I’m guessing I wrote it in 1988. I believe I still lived in Gambier, Ohio, and was editing The Kenyon Review, when it was written. In terms of a proximate cause, I had recently acquired from my late grandmother’s “library” (she owned maybe 50 books) a leather-bound geometry textbook that had been my great-grandfather’s; I was struck by the fact that it was nothing more and nothing less than Euclid’s Elements. There were no concessions made for young minds, no pedagogical material, no answers in the back of the book. It was straight Euclid. I should also add that I knew my great-grandfather, T.W. Jackson; he was born in 1860 (he remembered the Civil War; his father died in a prison camp) and died in 1957, when I was seven years old. The material for the poem, then, was at hand—though my great-great-grandfather fought on the Southern, not the Northern, side. During that phase of my writing I was pushing myself beyond “personal” material, toward what I was then thinking of as “altered centers of consciousness” for poems. I had come to the conclusion that much of the sentience of my own poems—and the poems of many of my contemporaries—was as traditional, and as inherited, as fixed forms like the sonnet. I wanted to get outside what I had assumed was “original” and “my own material,” and found that for me this feat took quite a lot of work, discipline, and thought. All the poems in Walt Whitman in Hell are the result of that particular impulse, and “Greek” is an early example.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It’s difficult for me to remember exactly, but I know that the writing at that particular time was very laborious for me, almost to the point of self-injury, as if I was insisting on doing so much heavy lifting that I was in danger of incurring a spiritual hernia. It was a bit like learning geometry straight out of Euclid—especially if the Euclid were still in ancient Greek. I remember laboring over this poem, and several others simultaneously, for about six months: how many drafts, I cannot say. Many. Part of the work I was doing was convincing myself that the voice was authoritative—for me if for no one else. I was busy convincing myself that the “project” I had undertaken was worth doing, that it wasn’t a dead end—and that, on the other end, I was capable of doing what I envisioned. A lot of imaginative weightlifting ensued.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
This cluster of questions strikes several nerves for me. I do my best, for instance, not to “believe in” anything at all, though of course I fail. I am by conviction and constitution what I think of as a radical agnostic, by which I simply mean that I’m convinced that “belief” is poisonous. To be convinced is another matter entirely. That said, I am convinced that almost everything a poet does is “received”—whether from poetry itself, or from life, or both; whether muses or gods breathe poems into us remains unproven, but it’s possible. In writing Walt Whitman in Hell, I was on the front lines of a personal war with cultural reception: I did not want to accept anything the tradition of poetry, or my own life, offered me simply on faith. On the other hand, I did not (and do not) want to throw out the poetry with the bathwater. I “received” the book of Euclid from my family (and in another way I received it from western culture, and from Euclid himself); I “received” stories about the Civil War from my great grandfather. I “received” Homer from my education. I “received” a truckload of ideas about poetry from an abundance of sources. What was to be done with all that? I had “received” so much that I was in danger at that point of being crushed by it. In intervening years I have learned how to be ever more conscious of the negotiations of cultural reception and their translation into poetry, and to deal with it with ever-increasing magnitudes of negative capability. At the time I was working on “Greek,” and the other poems that were written around the same time, I was cutting new paths through the underbrush for myself with the exceedingly dull machete of my mind. It was sweaty, bloody work.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
In hindsight, everything is technique. In the moment, everything is panic and reaction. Does a tennis star employ “technique” to hit an especially difficult shot? Of course she does; but the subjective experience is of nerves and reaction, not the conscious application of what has been consciously learned. I wanted an austere voice that could match the frozen plains of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in winter. I wanted a voice out of Hades (not the Christian Hell, the Greek Hades). I was already playing around with the idea that the altered centers of consciousness of the poems I was writing had their sources in the dead—the kinds of voices Odysseus accesses by letting the shades in the underworld drink from his bowl of goat’s blood. I spent years and years absorbing the western (and some non-western) prosodic tradition; when I was in graduate school, I trained myself to carry on conversations in iambic pentameter. When I was writing the poem—when I write poems generally—I do not think about any of that unless the poem particularly demands it; I trust my ear, which is both trained and primal.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
A couple of years.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
It varies. Now—because of digital submission—I tend to submit poems more quickly than I used to; but I am also, for better or worse, more sure of myself than I used to be. Early on in the process of writing Walt Whitman in Hell, I sat on poems for quite a long time, unsure of them.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
In a strict sense, this poem contains not a single “fact”—nothing that could be journalistically or scientifically verified. In a different sense, it depends entirely on facticity, defined in the usual sense as “the state of being factual.” I don’t think there’s any poetic contradiction between these two statements, or anything unusual about being able to say such things about a poem. How many “facts” are there in Browning’s “My Last Duchess”? Yet the poem depends on its ability to cast a spell of facticity upon the reader. Art traffics in this kind of magic constantly: the movies, photography, painting. Only instrumental music is entirely free of the demands of the fact. And as we know, all art aspires to the condition of music. The narrative/dramatic facets of a poem purvey the “facts” in the poem; the lyric/rhetorical facets want to transcend fact. The tension between the two can be the driving engine of a certain kind of poem—the kind that “Greek” is.
Is this a narrative poem?
Aha. No. And yes. The poem has narrative facets. But it does not so much tell a story as refer the reader to one—or several. If a reader comes to this poem with no knowledge of the War Between the States, I wager that much is lost. “Greek” riffs on the master narrative of American history the way John Coltrane riffs on the melody of “Lush Life,” when he plays that gorgeous tune in his utterly individual way. But the poem is no more a strict narrative than Coltrane’s “Lush Life” is strictly melodic.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
The most immediate influence, probably, is The Iliad, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, which I fell in love with decades ago. I was also reading Walcott (of “The Schooner Flight,” middle Walcott), Adrienne Rich, and Robert Penn Warren, a poet on whose middle and late work I sharpened my eyeteeth for years. I had also just begun serious delving into Czeslaw Milosz about the same time. I had read at Milosz off and on, spottily; a couple of conversations with Robert Hass convinced me to pay very serious attention there. And I was also beginning to assay Yannis Ritsos, a poet from whom I was to learn some pretty important lessons.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I could write a book on this subject. My sense of audience is deeply internalized, but that does not mean that I write for myself; I don’t. The art of writing activates the writer’s primal connection to the species. Part of me reads over my writing shoulder from that point of view, saying things like Can we eat it? Does this crap matter? Another part stands back and speaks Miloszian: What good is a poetry that does not change nations? For me the fundamental issue is this: how does an individual in his or her little body communicate with the leviathan of the body politic? How does one cell in the elbow communicate, through the brain, with the entire body? Poetry participates in the “biology” of the culture, the anatomy of the body politic. Beyond this point, things become deeply complicated.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Not so much any more. I used to. David Baker in particular used to see everything I wrote, when I wrote it, and vice versa. He would have been the first reader of “Greek,” and he would have given me detailed feedback and advice; he’s an excellent and generous reader. Now, though, I want to finish the book before I or anyone evaluates what I’m up to; I don’t want to be interfered with, so to speak. I send the poems to magazines, of course; that’s different. And I send the ms to my editor. But all the people I’ve worked with closely in the past (in workshops and elsewhere) and all the poets I love are installed in my mental software, and advise me constantly.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I rarely commit this kind of historical set piece. This work represents a phase (nearly twenty-five years ago!) in my thinking about what I called above “altered centers of consciousness.” I still work that way, but I have learned more subtle means of alteration.
What is American about this poem?
Its subject, its language, its soul. Other than that, it is entirely a Greek poem.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Both. I abandon poems always, but only when they are finished: by which I mean, when all the questions I had about them in the beginning are answered, or more precisely, exhausted.