Essays and Comment: T.R. Hummer: The Poet Retires

intr. Of an army, troops, etc.: to fall back or give ground, esp. when confronted by a superior force; to retreat.


As a poet, I’ve been a lot of people.

I don’t mean that I have written from the perspective of various personae or characters, or even of “heteronyms” in Fernando Pessoa’s sense. I mean that, as a poet, I have been a succession of different persons-writing-poetry, not by aesthetic choice but as a simple matter of fact.

When, from the modest and yet strategic hill on which I now stand, I survey the host of my past writing selves, my past poets, I lose nerve. They are a ragged, motley herd. Some of them are dead, having given their lives in service of something or other. Many are maimed and wounded, of course, bearing the obligatory stains, bandages, and eye patches.

I take stock of them through the Napoleonic field telescope that has appeared in my hand from somewhere, and bestow medals on two or three—not for excellence but for persistence in the face of reason. I gather my velveteen cape around my shoulders and, more James Brown than Byron, I walk offstage.



trans. To move (a person or thing) away, esp. for safety or storage; to lodge, store.


I didn’t retire from poetry. Poetry has many times retired from me. It moves me, as it is meant to, though not usually into a place of safety or storage—more often it has taken me to dangerous places, or unknown ones, parachuting me into strange terrain without an adequate road map (like GPS in the early days, it always promised I wouldn’t get lost, but…).

Poetry does get stored away. I have had nightmares about all the slender volumes stuck on library shelves never to be taken down and read (in the dreams they are always my books, but that is the ego of the dreamer: in my dreams, everything is me). And those odd books of poems one discovers in used book stores, published in the 20s or 30s or 40s: someone was very serious about that work, and who wrote that, again? I sometimes buy these books and liberate at least some of the voices they contain, consciousness sealed away, as the man said, as in a mason jar on Funk and Wagnall’s porch.

But when poetry itself retires, it goes into the realm of concealment and lingers there.

I grew up on a farm, where one works very hard at certain times of year and then one can do little but wait helplessly. Prepare the ground, plant the seed, and hope. The seed has gone underground, into storage, one might say. One harvests what returns.



trans. To retrieve or remove (a person) from a place of danger or hardship; to save. Obs.
trans. To withdraw or remove (an object, quality, etc.) from notice; to hide. Now rare.
intr. To retreat to a place for seclusion, security, or privacy. Usually with fromintoto, etc.
Also fig.





That farm where I grew up was in Mississippi, and my childhood was in the bad old days. Mississippi then was a war zone and my people (and I) were on the wrong side. Ultimately, though there were other contributing factors, it was poetry that removed me from there.

Much more might be said about that situation (pages of illustrations), and I have said it elsewhere. For present purposes, it suffices to observe that poetry won’t save your soul, but it can change you, and it can change your situation. There are doubtless other things it can and cannot do while it is making nothing happen; I speak only for myself.

I discovered poetry—not in the sense that we mean when we utter the controversial fiction “Columbus discovered America,” but purely for myself—as a secret thing. Had I been in a different context, that could not have happened, but where (and when) I was, poetry was not known by the locals. I discovered it for myself, and it was mine. I recognized that it had a certain power, but I also knew instinctively that it would be destroyed (for me) if others knew about it. I had to hide it to protect it, because I had to hide myself for the same reason. Poetry was the self I was becoming—or, more accurately, it was the schematic of that self, a score for the music of a consciousness I did not yet possess.

From the point of view of the place and time where I grew up, poetry was a thing of the enemy. It was the enemy.

Loving it, I became the enemy. As such, poetry and I had to hide.



intr. To go to bed or rest.


Poetry would not leave me alone. It leaked into my memory, so that I realized the poem on the page is not the only, or even the real, poem—any more than the score of The Goldberg Variations is the actual music. It found its way into my dreams. It forced me to harbor it, and to feed it, and its food was more poetry. On the shelves of libraries and in bookstores—usually not prominently placed—more voices insisted that I find them. By that strange and yet by now banal power that writing has, poetry leapt off the page and into my brain through my eyes’ barrier, and became an earworm. Stated so, it seems impossible, but that is what happened.

In bed, in the dark, I floated among voices. Here was Longfellow, there was Poe, down there Dickinson. Whitman was too big to be whole in my head, but in his case that is immaterial (literally): streams of Whitman circulated through me like blood. Yeats turned up, and Blake, and Bishop. It was not that I became a human anthology; it was that I became human.

How could I rest? Poetry would not let me. Many-personed, it battered my heart.



intr. To move to another place; to go away, depart, leave.


It’s a complicated thing, leaving home: I mean really leaving in every sense. It’s more than packing a bag: it’s an amputation; it’s a death.

I remember the day poetry killed me. I thought, there, that’s done. I was wrong. Poetry killed me once and then again and again. If it had not, I would still be there, wherever there used to be. If it had not, I would not have become the enemy. Poetry killed me, and for that I kiss its feet.




intr. Chiefly poet. and literary. To disappear, vanish (from sight).


What an artist does for a living matters; what an artist does individually, what artists do collectively, governs, in part, how culture regards art and the uses to which it puts artifacts.

Many of us, now, teach; many of us are academics. To be a teacher is not the same thing as to be an academic. To be a poet is another thing yet. To be a person in the world—a parent, a lover, a friend, an enemy, a taxpayer, a citizen—are all different things, and yet many of us are all these things and more.

When I was a child I had many teachers; my family and friends taught me, the animals on the farm and in the field likewise. Entering school was a trauma from the first day, but I became a citizen of schools, a teacher first and an academic later. In another time and place, I would have become something else, but I arrived at a moment when it was possible for a poet to find a niche in the work of universities, and for better or worse (sometimes the one, sometimes the other) I embraced it.

From my earliest awareness, I was a creature of the logos. I felt words coalesce in my diaphragm and lungs, and press out of me through the larynx and tongue and fly through the air to enter other creatures, and I was enthralled by the force and the mystery of it. This is nothing special. Speech acts are, as Oliver Sacks has written, instances of “utterance: uttering forth one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being.” The dark voodoo of language is taken for granted by most people, it seems. For me, it was ecstatic from the start, and terrifying. I don’t mean poetry, not yet—I just mean ordinary communication: saying pass the cereal or shut the door. There were words you could say to your mother and she would respond; there were words you could say to your siblings, even to the dog, and the world would change. But I didn’t create these words, nor did I control them, not really. They flowed into me from someplace unknown, and pressed out of me toward places unseen. But they bound us creatures together; they let us know things about each other (and ourselves); they let us—made us—love.

There is no retiring, while we are human, from that mystery. Poetry is part of it. Poetry does not exhaust it, but poetry goes to the heart of it. I speak in very broad terms here, and there are poets who would object. I don’t mind their objection. I don’t insist that others agree. But I know what I know.

Lately I retired from teaching, and from academia. I miss the former; I do not miss the latter. As for teaching, I don’t get paid for it now, but I still do it; I return to teaching as it was in the beginning, and move, however annoyingly, among friends and family, children and animals. My students in colleges and universities taught me more than I taught them. I tried to show them that best poetry is always and only about consciousness—that being the most effective formulation I could find for the unnamable mystery we all were dealing with—and they already knew that, so they nodded pleasantly and took notes. My one regret is that I did not ever once say to them simply that poetry is a thing of the spirit. I didn’t say that because most of them would not have heard it—not due to any shortcoming of theirs, but due to the degradation in our currency of certain words.

I have not retired from poetry. For me, at least, that isn’t possible, even if I wanted to do it. A time will come when I will write no more poems; if I reach that point and am still alive, I will nevertheless not have retired from poetry. I will—and not for the first time—have vanished into it.




  1. T. R. Hummer’s most recent books of poetry are After the Afterlife (Acre Books) and three linked volumes, Ephemeron, Skandalon, and Eon (LSU Press). Former editor-in-chief of The Kenyon Review, of The New England Review, and of The Georgia Review, he received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in poetry, a NEA Individual Artist Grant in Poetry, the Richard Wright Award for Artistic Excellence, the Hanes Poetry Prize, and the Donald Justice Award in Poetry. He lives in Cold Spring, NY.



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