Ishion Hutchinson is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, most recently 2016's House of Lords and Commons. He also serves as a professor of creative writing at Cornell University. His poem, “In Thermopylae,” opens SR’s Winter 2019 issue, and is dedicated to the memory of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We spoke to Hutchinson about Heaney and the lingering influence of his poetry on the language and texture of Hutchinson’s own work, among other things.
SR: The poem is dedicated in memoriam to Seamus Heaney. Toward the end of the poem, one hears “splintering coals in water hiss, Sea Sea-moss, Sea-must.” I can't help but hear the name “Seamus” echo in that line. Is it fair to say that this poem is an elegy for Heaney, but is at the same time haunted by him?
IH: Yes, it is absolutely an elegy. The echo of the name is meant to be emphatic—emphatic but also elemental, the idea that this name, the name of this poet (an ancient name, Seamus, meaning supplanter) rings us around, is there. I like the errancy of a pun. Very risky, even dangerous in an elegy, but there are ways a pun can propel the pitch of a word into something unexpected, strange. It is one way, as the closing line of Heaney’s “Personal Helicon” says, “to set the darkness echoing.” But haunted by him? No. I am inspired by him, and I mean inspired in a diviner sense, diviner as in fortunate, greatly fortunate for having discovered his work when I was a first year student at the University of the West Indies. I was lucky enough to tell him that in 2012, his last autumn on earth. And the inspiration remains the same in the sixteen years since I first heard his voice, as a calling.
SR: Is there anything else you find yourself wanting to say to Heaney, or any of your other dead, that you can't contain in a poem?
IH: Too much. But the poem will have to do, and I hope I show the immense debt and gratitude I have for his life and work. Like many others, I felt his death deeply. And out of that, the shock, language started to move at a stutter. Only belatedly I realize I was attempting a kind of keening, what the Irish call caoinim, essentially lament, which accounts for the very last word of the poem.
SR: I can't help but notice some of the sonnet's traditional architecture underneath the fractured lines and music of this poem. If I'm on the right track, could you speak to the ways in which your practice is both in conversation with, and dismantling, this form and its history?
IH: The question is too large to treat succinctly well here. I can say I agree wholly with being in conversation, in upholding the spirit of dialogue, with history and form. This dialogue is its own kind of transfiguration—which brings about something new and turn negative contacts positive. If you see the sonnet’s architecture underneath my poem, then that architecture, its foundation, is what makes the poem possible. The architecture inaugurates something to speak. How could I possibly want to dismantle that? At worst, we would be left with defenseless silence and at best, which is equally terrible, chaos. Commenting on the form of Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” the great Jay Wright says “It takes us from chaos to what we may call an ‘antithetical chaos’ to a realization of latent human possibility.” Wright is right. Antithetical chaos, such a beautiful way to express what happens when form and history rhymes within the self, magnifies the self against annihilation.