An interview with poet Troy Jollimore on “Syllabus of Errors”

Syllabus of Errors coverAfter being praised as “a new and exciting voice in American poetry,” by the New York Times for the publication of his first collection of poems, (a National Book Critics Circle Award winner), and receiving critical acclaim for his second compilation, Troy Jollimore returns to the world of contemporary poetry with his third collection, Syllabus of Errors. In his new book, Jollimore, a professor of philosophy, explores the notion of error in our daily lives. In an exclusive interview with PUP, Jollimore discusses the themes present in his poems, the significance of misunderstandings, and the relationship between philosophy and poetry.

Your new poetry collection is called Syllabus of Errors. Where does that title come from?

TJ: That evocative phrase names a Catholic church document that purports to list a number of popular and hazardous heresies, in order to help believers avoid them. Of course my poems don’t have any ambition at all, as far as I can see, to help people avoid errors, unless it’s the error of not paying enough attention to language or to beauty. But my own poems, especially the ones I like best, often start with an error: misunderstanding something, mis-hearing something, finding out that something you’ve believed for a long time is false. And rather than thinking of the process of revision as one of purging or eliminating the errors, these days I think of it more as exploring errors, finding out what’s interesting about them, what kind of power they have. Poems don’t have to be correct, they don’t have to be true; there’s great freedom in that. Years ago, when people would ask me to sign copies of my first book, I would often write, “For ___, this book of lies and bad advice.” That seemed appropriate, and it still does.

In your work as a philosopher, on the other hand, you must be more concerned with avoiding errors.

TJ: Yes, my day job is as a professional philosopher, and yes, in some sense what you say must be true. Although in philosophy, too, the errors themselves can be interesting; all the great philosophers—Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, you name it—were wrong about so much. Each of them offered a picture of the cosmos (more than one picture, in the case of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein) that was productive and profound, and that made possible certain insights that were not available before, but was also deeply wrong in some way.

Is there a tension between doing philosophy and writing poetry? Do they inform each other? Do you have to work hard to keep them separate?

TJ: My thinking on this continues to change. I always think of Randall Jarrell’s comment that “Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem.”

I resist this, of course, because it seems to me that any decent piece of philosophy will tell us something new and significant about the world, and so can’t help but be interesting. But let’s suppose that Jarrell meant something else, that the poet, unlike the philosopher, is allowed and even required to do anything to make a poem work—to make it interesting, to make it a good read. You can include falsehoods, questionable statements, stuff you don’t know, stuff that just sounds good, stuff you just make up. Whatever works. Just as the poet gets to twist and violate the rules of grammar and syntax, to stuff her poem full of non sequiturs and illogical swerves, etc.—it’s all part of the same package, the package that gets called ‘poetic license,’ I suppose.

Whereas when doing philosophy, while you may end up saying something interesting, something that gives pleasure or delight, something that is memorable or moving, you aren’t allowed to aim at being interesting, delightful, moving, etc. in the same way; you have to aim at understanding, at achieving an accurate and insightful picture of things, and you are bound by the rules and practices that govern that sort of inquiry. And then, once that is done, being interesting—or giving delight, or moving the reader, or what have you—is something that can happen, but only as, in essence, a kind of side-effect.

On that reading, Jarrell was saying something quite interesting. I’m still not entirely sure I think it’s true. I still meet idea that it is legitimate to do anything that improves the quality of a poem, the quality of the experience of reading the poem, with some resistance. I’m tempted to say that any truly valuable poem must to be true to the world, to get the world right, in some significant sense. That certainly seems true of many of the poems that I value most, or that have moved me most profoundly; and if it’s generally true then it perhaps suggests that truth, properly understood, is not only a fundamental goal in philosophy, but in poetry as well. But of course a lot is concealed, and needs to be excavated and analyzed, in that phrase “properly understood.” And of course there are poems that don’t seem to fit this model very well, for instance relatively abstract poems that don’t seem to be representational in nature and so can’t be assessed in any straightforward way as true or false, accurate or inaccurate, and so forth.

The poems in Syllabus of Errors seem to keep coming back to the same set of themes and images: birds and birdsong, death, beauty, the movies.

TJ: Authors say this a lot, but it turns out it’s true: you find out what a book is about by writing it. You can set out to write a poem, or an entire book, on a given set of themes, but the poems have ideas of their own: they will communicate with you by, among other things, refusing to work—refusing to be written—when you’re going in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong themes, trying to write the poem that, at this moment, is not yours to write. I write the poems I can, and I don’t generally feel that I have much control over it—and in those rare moments when I do feel in control, I know I’m in trouble!

I’m always writing about beauty in one way or another, and death when I can manage it. As for the movies—they feel very alive to me, as an art form; despite the corrupting influence of money, the fact that movies, unlike poetry, can reasonably aspire to a mass audience, America has somehow produced an art form in which incredible talents—Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufmann, David Lynch, Joel and Ethan Coen —can produce powerful, astonishing, at times visionary works. (And of course those are only living American directors. The most “poetic” directors are people who have tended to work in places far away from the cultural codes and influence of Hollywood: Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Marker, Wong Kar-wai…)

Yet at the same time the movies feel a bit like an endangered species; audiences are shrinking, the movie palaces of the golden age have all disappeared, film has been replaced by digital photography and projection, and fewer and fewer people care about seeing movies as they are meant to be seen—on a huge screen, in a theater, surrounded by other people. The movies used to be the place where we came together with our fellow citizens to share experiences, the place where you noticed that when you laughed, when you gasped, when your pulse raced, the same thing happened to the person in the chair next to yours. Where do we come together now? Online, I guess. And online isn’t a place. It’s nowhere. It doesn’t exist. If we’re only meeting in cyberspace, which is more and more the case, then we just aren’t meeting at all.

In a poem like “Vertigo,” the longest poem in the book, beauty, the movies, and death come together: the poem is an elegy for a lost friend, and tries to approach this loss, it seems, by engaging with Hitchcock’s film.

TJ: Right. There are things that cannot be approached directly. So maybe this is a strategy of avoidance or of indirection, or a way of making the unsayable sayable. Poetry, like the movies, like any art form, can be a lens through which to view something, like death (as if there’s anything that’s like death other than death itself) that can’t be comprehended in itself, that is too staggering and overwhelming, so that any statement we try to make about it ends up seeming like a falsification, an evasion. So art is like the camera obscura you use to look at a solar eclipse, which ends up being a way of really seeing; not a diminished way of seeing, or even ‘the only way of seeing that we have’—as if there could be something better—but true sight, true perception, a direct contact that only seems to be indirect. What does ‘direct’ mean, anyway, in the context of perception and understanding? That’s a philosophical question, but it’s one that poetry continually grapples with; one that poetry, being the art form it is, couldn’t avoid even if it wanted to.

Troy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.