T.R. Hummer
March 2002

 

T. R. Hummer was born in Macon, Mississippi in 1950; he grew up in rural Noxubee County on a farm. Because noxubee is a Choctaw word meaning "stinking waters," he spent most of his high school career playing the saxophone in various rock and roll bands and avoiding the "education" local circumstances dictated. As fate would have it, he found his way to the University of Southern Mississippi and the Center for Writers, where he studied with Gordon Weaver and D. C. Berry, receiving his B.A. in 1972 and his M.A. in 1974. He then spent three years living in Jackson, where he worked for the Mississippi Arts Commission, spied circumspectly on his neighbor Eudora Welty when she shopped for groceries at the nearby Jitney Jungle, and stood by helplessly while his first daughter, Theo, was born by caesarian section (his first book, Translation of Light—a limited edition chapbook from Cedar Creek Press—arrived in the mail on the day of her birth).

In 1977, he lit out for the territories, to study with Dave Smith at the University of Utah; there he was editor of Quarterly West in 1979. He completed his Ph.D. in 1980 and took his first academic post in the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University, where he was poetry editor of The Cimarron Review. During these years, he rediscovered the saxophone and played western swing and country rock with The Skinner Brothers Band, who after his departure did a stint as Garth Brooks’ backup band. His first two full-length books of poetry, The Angelic Orders (LSU Press 1982) and The Passion of the Right-Angled Man (U. of Illinois Press 1984) were published, and in 1984 he relocated to Kenyon College; there, after a year in the Kenyon-Exeter Program in England and visiting positions at Middlebury College (where he guest edited New England Review) and the University of California at Irvine, and having again abandoned the saxophone, he became editor of The Kenyon Review. In 1987, Lower-Class Heresy was published by University of Illinois, and in 1989 he returned to Middlebury as editor of New England Review.

1990 marked the appearance, and disappearance, of The 18,000-Ton Olympic Dream, which, having been acquired and brought into print by William Morrow, went out of print almost immediately. Bemused by this, Hummer applied for, and received, a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry and relocated to the University of Oregon in 1993, where he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing, completed and published Walt Whitman in Hell (LSU Press 1996) and again took up the saxophone, which now he began to study with cabalistic fascination, secure in the knowledge that he would never learn to play the thing properly.

In the fall of 1997—after a hiatus of exactly twenty years—he returned to the South, where he became Senior Poet in the MFA Program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, a city he found so congenial that he remarried, wrote another book of poetry (Useless Virtues, LSU Press 2001), and stood by helplessly while his second daughter, Jackson, was born by caesarian section. Up until Jackson’s birth, he had played tenor and baritone saxophone in the Richmond-based jump blues band Little Ronnie and the Grand Dukes (Young and Evil, Planetary Records 2001), but he was so elated by the symmetry of events that he left the band (with regret and apologies), took yet another new position, and became editor of The Georgia Review. This necessitated moving even farther south, to the University of Georgia in Athens, where he is living still, with his wife Stephanie, his daughter Jackson (Theo refused to come, having interests of her own to attend to), two cats, and three saxophones, none of which he will ever properly learn to play.


Apologia

I confess that I approach the task of making a statement of poetic purpose with the same apprehension Randall Jarrell felt on being asked what he did for a living by a stranger in the next airplane seat. It is difficult to explain to others just what we are up to as poets; one is tempted simply to point to the poems and leave it at that. But that isn’t fair to people of good will who find the profession of poetry puzzling.

What does poetry do, people sometimes ask, exasperated, it seems, by what they have read or what they have not read; what good is poetry if it has so small an audience? What good is your pituitary gland, I am prone to answer, and can you say that at this moment you are aware of it? Do you even know what it does? Are you even sure you have one? For the culture, I am convinced, poetry functions on that level; for the engaged individual reader, its work is something else: an electrification, a reminder that there are real mysteries left. For the poet, it is a pure obsession, a sequence of questions which have no answers, of demands that have no satisfaction other than the satisfaction of obsession itself.

The texture of my particular version of this obsession derives from the conviction that poetry inhabits and enunciates an incommensurable zone between individual and collective, between body and body politic, an area very ill-negotiated by most of us most of the time. Our culture, with its emphasis on the individual mind and body, teaches us very little about how even to think about the nature of this problem, which means that our culture, as a collective, is far more mysterious than it seems: even the mystery is hidden. E pluribus unum is a smokescreen: what pluribus; what unum? And yet this phrase is an American mantra, as if it explained something.

Whitman remains the greatest teacher we have yet had on this particular subject, and poets’ fascination with him is founded on his amazing leap into the mind of the body politic. He seems miraculous because what is for most of us a near-unbroachable difficulty was for him no difficulty at all. I am the body politic, his poetry says; I speak the mind of America, the mind of humanity. It is no wonder that the rest of us are a bit more reticent; even if we could think the thoughts of the body politic, would we want to? On the other hand, it may be that contemporary poetry is hypnotized by the good liberalism of the young Wordsworth, who wrote "What is a poet? . . . He is a man speaking to men. . . ." This idea seems so obvious now that—once we translate it out of its gender-specific form—it is well-nigh unquestionable; but the self of Song of Myself is no "mere" human. "I contain multitudes," Whitman famously wrote; but he also wrote "Who touches this book touches a man." The boundaries of selfhood are redefined several times over in these two formulations, and Wordsworth’s humble, generous, and simple idea is confounded by it.

Our present situation, obviously, makes it difficult to share Whitman’s optimistic seamlessness; his job was Adamic, and we live after the American fall (or several of them). It is for that reason, maybe, that American poetry so often pays lip service to Whitman while its practice is grounded much more firmly on Wordsworth. We write most frequently out of "our own" experience, speaking (or singing) in "our own" voices; poetry workshops, critics, and general readers often insist on it (write what you know). And that approach has yielded a large and bountiful crop of poetry in our time, one which is sufficiently diverse in its points of origin that it may seem ungenerous to complain that it is often too similar in method. The most potent divergences we have are neoformalism and language poetry—the former insisting on a return to a former sameness, the latter insisting on the monotony of an idée fixe (what would language do if there were no pesky people involved?). Neither of these routes offers much more than a journey on a Möbius strip.

The most fruitful direction I have assayed is to make my writing a continual meditation on the principle that language is the flesh of the body politic, and therefore deeply complicit in all human doings on the individual as well as the collective plane. I find hope for poetry in this idea, though nothing so ecstatic as Whitman’s near-boundless enthusiasm. Who touches my book touches a book, it seems to me, and forgets this at his or her peril, since men and women are different from books, and more valuable. Still, the book can make a difference; the book can vivify, and the sum of books makes up an important part of the brain and nervous system of humanity.


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