Please welcome T.R. Hummer as the guest essayist this month. His personal essay on the agon of writing assays a lifetime of advice, anecdotes, and adages on the subject of the muse’s discipline. As both an accomplished poet and former editor of The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and The New England Review, Hummer brings a rare wealth of both editorial experience and poetic sensibility to this essay. Moving from memorable lessons to sage advice to literary tales about what he calls “the impossible journey” and “job” of writing, he captures the paradox of what T.S. Eliot called “the trying” with a memorable conceit about what even a rat will sacrifice if the “music is right.”
– Chard deNiord
How To Write On Rat Skin
Decades ago, when personal computers were still a novelty just being embraced by writers among others, I fell into argument with a famous older poet. We were on a panel; someone in the audience asked what we thought of computers as writing tools. The famous poet made a dismissive sound and said he would never use one. I said I was trying out word processing and finding it useful. He asked what was useful about it; I said it made certain parts of the writing process–I was thinking of revision, but didn’t get a chance to say so–easier. This opinion enraged him. “Easier!” he shouted. (He did shout.) “Writing poetry should be hard!”
I understood his point. We were, of course, disagreeing partly over semantics, for when a member of the audience followed up with a question about his writing process, he was quick to reveal that he wrote on IBM Selectric typewriters, of which he had, he said, four–distributed around his house in such a way that no matter where he was, a writing instrument was steps away. This arrangement presumably permitted him to catch every scrap of the voice of his Muse no matter where he found himself, and to catch them (dare I say it) easily.
I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from asking him why, if he wanted to make the writing of poems as hard as possible, he didn’t throw away those evil machines and take to making his own parchment out of rat skin on which he could compose his poems in his own blood. I was, after all, in my mid-thirties, tangling with a writer more than twice my age, whose level of fame was of a kind everyone else on the planet could only imagine. And our argument was, as I’m sure we both understood, superficial. Every artist can and will choose technologies of production that make it possible to create; and if we are being completely honest, we will agree that there is no art without technology. Art transforms materials and processes into the technos that art itself is; the skin of a rat, as a surface on which a poet might inscribe, becomes an instrument, and so in that case does the poet’s own blood.
If the argument about word processing was ephemeral, the question that arose incidentally in this conversation is of more enduring interest: how hard should art be? There is continual dyspeptic discourse in a certain stratum of literary criticism concerning the difficulty of texts, especially of modernist and postmodern ones–whether difficulty is necessary, or elitist, or salutary, or evil, and indeed what we even mean by the word “difficult,” since what is challenging for one reader may be easy for another. But of course our Luddite elder author was not talking about the difficulty of a poem to readers. His argument appeared to be that the process of writing a poem should be hard for the writer: the harder the better.
How hard a given poem was to write, how much it cost the author to create, is of course difficult for a reader to gauge: how can we know, beyond what the poet tells us? And then we have to worry about how trustworthy that account might be. Furthermore, conceptual or technical difficulty is one thing; physical difficulty is rather different, and the poet at the conference seemed to be cautioning the audience to make the process as physically difficult as possible. Why? Because more difficulty will yield more authenticity? Because, as a novelist once put it, “wounds and scars give a story a powerful authority?” Because people admire us more if we are hard workers, especially well-paid ones? Because blood turns into wine?
Do we work hard? Are we well paid? Compared to what?
The same novelist cited above has said that he taught himself to write novels by first typing out Faulkner’s Light in August to get the feel of the language in his hands. Having done that, he then wrote a novel of his own based very directly on Faulkner’s–not the subject, themes, or diction, but the sentence structures; our novelist’s draft was syntactically and morphologically identical to Light in August, although all the words were different. That’s an arduous process; but add to that the novelist’s testimony that he did all this on a manual typewriter, which he located in a barn, in winter, on a desk made of cinder blocks; he then seated himself on a desk chair also made of cinder blocks and did the writing naked. In a barn. In winter.
If art is grace, does self-mortification facilitate its arrival? “The Lord disciplines those he loves,” the Bible informs us, “and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (Hebrews 12: 6-7). In the obvious analogy to this egregiously patriarchal frame, one’s art would be the father one is trying to please, and be accepted by, through suffering: if one wants to be infantilized by a cruel father. A matriarchal model would surely lead to a different set of norms, if that’s what we’re looking for. Both the writers cited above are male.
At the same time, an indispensable female poet, who knew creative struggles aplenty, tells us “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work….. You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” This is a far cry from refusing to use a computer, or sitting naked on freezing cinder blocks; in this context, being enjoined to hard work is less a matter of choice than of spiritual and creative if not actually of physical survival. The challenge here will seem more serious, and to be frank, more adult, to many readers. But we are still in an agon in this ethos. “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters,” the same poet tells us. “The beak that grips her, she becomes.”
Does it all come back to what an even older poet wrote: “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. / Better go down upon your marrow-bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement…”? And so we return to cinder blocks and struggle.
“The poem,” wrote one wonderful and neglected female poet, “must be a last resort.” Stones abound; and in this context whose heart might not lift at the imperative still another (male) poet has on his gravestone: “Don’t try”?
It goes without saying that those who create must labor, and likewise that the word labor means, in its deep and multifarious cultural DNA, work, struggle, burden, trouble, effort, affliction, hardship, physical pain–and of course childbirth. And it is in our cultural DNA to think of artistic production as analogous to giving birth, complete with struggle, physical pain, and all the rest, up to the final emergence. There is much that is compelling in this model, and much that rings deeply true. I don’t suggest abandoning it; but I do wonder whether it can be supplemented, honestly and accurately, with other models.
We might begin with the obvious observation that almost any human endeavor is easier for some people than for others. Nureyev’s defiance of gravity, like Serena Williams’s (and yes, her vocation is close kin to dance), is simply forever beyond the capacity of most of us; and while both clearly worked very hard to attain it, it isn’t clear to me, beyond some point, that what they do hasn’t become easy for them, in the sense that the sheer joy of the doing outweighs the effort. The agon is transformed into a transcendence, and isn’t that what we, who can only stand and watch awestruck, want? No matter how a great dancer, for instance, strains every bone and muscle and nerve in execution, the joy we think we see in the moment of grace cannot be only an illusion. It cannot be that it only seems “a moment’s thought,” which implies that grace is only part of the show.
A poet friend of great accomplishment once told me that when he was young he met one of his heroes, and asked a typical apprentice question about a particular poem that he loved: “How much did you revise this?” When the older poet gave him a look and said “Revise? I don’t revise,” my friend was devastated: how could such a splendid, transparently complex piece of writing have been arrived at all in one go? Fortunately, he had the wit to ask another, better question: “How long did it take you to write it?” This earned him not a look but an introspective pause, and the answer, “Oh…probably about a year.” Given that the poem in question is about a page long, this answer is far more revealing than the answer to the first: when “revision” is so organically a part of one’s being-in-the-world that it is invisible even to the one who is doing it, it is no longer labor.
Accomplished musicians often testify to a similar phenomenon. Mastering an instrument involves struggle–with the limitations and imperfections of the instrument as much as with the limitations and imperfections of the player. At some point, though, the instrument disappears. One has incorporated it–become of one body with it–and then the struggle ceases and there is music. And at the same instant, the player too disappears.
There is a story about the saxophonist Stan Getz, whose daughter found him lying on the living room sofa with his eyes closed and his hands folded on his chest. “Are you sleeping, Dad?” she whispered. To which Getz instantly whispered a reply: “No, kid, I’m practicing.” Getz no longer required an instrument; nor, it seemed, in that moment, was he hindered by his complex and difficult personality, about which his colleague Zoot Sims once quipped, “Yeah, that Stan: he’s a great bunch of guys.”
Would his interior music have been improved if he had been required to work harder, or at least more obviously, at it? Musicians play. Writers, it seems, work. And the writing they do is their work. The plays of William Shakespeare are his works. Our language in this instance seems interestingly conflicted. In other languages, perhaps, there are other options; we anglophones seem bound to a work ethic even when we want to levitate.
The Waste Land, famously, is heavy lifting; Eliot himself was exhausted by it even before he “finished” it, and turned it over to Pound. The Four Quartets is, if anything, an even denser poem, but it feels to this reader less laborious (your mileage may vary on this matter, I realize), as though for Eliot it had taken that long for the instrument to disappear.
At the other end of the scale, Whitman said, “I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Did Whitman “work” at his poetry? Did he “revise”? The answer to these questions is obvious if only in the great number of versions of Leaves of Grass, and their variety. But the title of his book is designed to invite us to consider the lilies of the field and their famous relationship with toil.
Then again, how hard did he have to work to allow his mind to follow every blade of grass down into the earth to the farthest extent of every rootlet–even into the grave?
In his splendid poem “The Sleepers,” Whitman limns a journey in a line: “I wander all night in my vision,” one which seems to be based on teleportation from bedroom to bedroom where people are sleeping, and telepathic linkage with dreaming minds and souls–in short an impossible journey which most of us would not think of attempting, but Whitman, being Whitman, simply accomplishes, without undue straining, as Keats said, after fact or reason.
Dickinson says the same with characteristic succinctness:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
Dickinson’s demons are a focus of obsession to those who love her work; clearly she carried more than her fair share. Her demons, one might say, were a great bunch of guys (and many though not all of them were most certainly male). But, like Stan Getz on his sofa, she had the revery, and like him, when the moment came, my God she could play.
Work implies strength; labor connotes force. Put in the ten thousand hours, our moment whispers to us, and you can accomplish anything.
Write a thousand sonnets to complete an apprenticeship, like one beloved 20th century poet decided to do. Write a novel sitting naked on cold cinder blocks. Practice your instrument constantly, like Coltrane. At the end of the day, you will still be yourself, holding a cold hunk of metal, or a pile of pages.
“Don’t try,” the profane poet of the Golden State has etched on his gravestone. He wrote poems as clear as sewer water, and as fragrant, and as necessary.
If work is only strength, how can art be vulnerable? If art is work, how does the music play? For someone like Stan Getz, I imagine, the music was always happening; for Lester Young and Billie Holiday, the great duets never stopped, even when they slept. For Whitman, the journey never ended; for Dickinson, the clover never died. Once the universe starts flowing unobstructed through a life, who can demand it take a certain form?
“The Sleepers” begins in medias res, and we are in the middle of an enormous flow of consciousness that sweeps everything in its path:
I wander all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,
Stopping with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,
Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.
The journey is arduous in its way; it takes the speaker out of himself into the lives of others, so that he is “lost” to himself, “ill-assorted, contradictory.” The fascination of that journey is a transcendence of limits, and this human light does not struggle to free itself to travel: it simply declares itself, like a melody, and goes. The instrument on which it is played is consciousness itself, another fallible machine; but its very fallibility, once we are attuned, is the wind that moves the reed, that chords the sail, that becomes the accelerando of the ship, from the prow of which there hangs an aeolian harp. That, perhaps, is what it means to “pray without ceasing,” whatever in particular you mean by prayer: an impossible job that, in its impossibility, becomes nothing less than a life.
If the music is the real thing, the rat will volunteer its skin for your sail; your blood will leap joyously into your pen, and sing in your nib like the sea.