Mary Jacobus on Cy Twombly, “a poet in paint”

Jacobus What does it mean to call an artist “a poet in paint,” as one of Twombly’s supporters did at the outset of his career? And what does it mean to bring poetry into painting and drawing, as Twombly’s artistic practice does? In Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Mary Jacobus — a literary critic — sets out to answer these questions, showing how throughout his life, Twombly turned to poetry as a way to expand abstract painting’s reach. Jacobus recently took the time to answer some questions about Twombly’s relationship to poetry over half a century or more, and his emergence as one of the major painters of the second half of the twentieth century.

What led you to write this book in the first place?

MJ: My first encounter with the work of Cy Twombly was an early drawing that I found fascinating in its use of line. Then I became aware of the extent to which line in the form of writing—abstracted and non-referential—formed part of his work: in his early lyrical series Poems to the Sea (1959), for instance, or in later work of the 1960s ranging from the sequence Letter of Resignation (1967) to the vast “blackboard” paintings at the end of the 1960s. Quite early on, Twombly seems to have been aware of the ways in which rhythm and repetition in handwriting training (the laborious Palmer method), or shorthand annotations or mathematical equations, could become the basis for abstract signs lacking specific reference: as if they were a representation of thinking without thought-content. Twombly’s own handwriting is famously hard to read, but its illegibility becomes part of his inimitable “signature” as an artist. I was delighted that Princeton University Press put Twombly’s handwriting on the dust-jacket.

But that’s writing as formal abstraction. Many people respond to Twombly’s work for its affective charge — how it seems to speak to them directly.

MJ: You’re right. Twombly manages to make his art both cerebral and obscurely charged and personal, as if alternately suggesting and withholding traces of the thoughts and feelings that went into it. One might call him an artist of obliteration as well as writing, since he often paints out or makes hard to read, the words he has included. As a literary critic, I was fascinated by the process of deciphering the words, phrases, sentences, and quotations in his work. I suppose we all look for reference when we read, even if it’s Mallarmé experimenting with the blanks between words and phrases. Twombly famously said he wasn’t entirely an abstractionist. In the post-Abstract Expressionist era, he found a way to make art out of automatic writing that owes something to Dadaist reliance on chance and the “found” object — and perhaps also to his national service training as a cryptographer in the mid-1950s. In the book, I stress the element of secrecy in Twombly’s work that coexists with a Romantic and affective impulse, and even his use of paint — fluid and dripping, like the abstract seascapes of Hero and Leandro (1981-84) or the “pond” or “Green” paintings (1988) — as a form of erasure.

You’ve emphasized writing as such — but what are Twombly’s literary sources? What kind of poetry does he quote in his paintings?

MJ: Art critics have often noted the presence of poetic quotation — not to mention copious mythic and classical allusions — in Twombly’s work. Sometimes they have tended to assimilate him to a continuous classical tradition or to an almost omniscient (not to say “Humanist”) absorption of the literature of the past. I think it’s important to say that Twombly’s “anthology,” if you can call it that, is very much of his time. At Black Mountain College, where he spent a formative period early in the 1950s, the poetry of Rilke jostled with a distinctly Poundian emphasis (channeled through the poet Charles Olson, at that time the dominant presence) on classical poetry and fragments of archaic Greek poets like Sappho and Alkman, both favorites of Twombly’s. Olson’s “glyphomania” had a lot to do with Twombly’s interest in the written sign as such, as well as Motherwell’s promotion of automatic writing. But avant-garde poetry and poetry teaching in the first half of the twentieth century was strongly influenced by Pound’s interest in the archaic. So Twombly was being “modern” rather than nostalgic in the poetry that came to hand — poetry that came to include Mallarmé as well as Rilke, and modern Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

Did Twombly read classical or modern European poetry in the original? What was his relation to translation?

MJ: Twombly almost always uses translation, although just occasionally he quotes Rilke in German. He used translations that were very much part of his twentieth-century literary environment—by Robert Bly (Rilke) or Davenport (Archilochos) and in the case of Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis, contemporary translations or whatever he could find. For the series, Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) he used Pope’s translation of the Iliad. His library included a great many volume of poetry in translation, and you can see him editing, annotating, and selecting the passages he wanted, just as his archive includes fragmentary quotations and passages that he intended to work up as paintings or drawings. The massive painting, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (completed in 1994) reads like a compendium of poetry that Twombly returned to over many decades—Keats, Rilke, Seferis, and one surprise I won’t give away — that suggest how he used quotations to knit together a big painting and also to solve formal problems about space on the canvas.

Do you think your book will make a contribution to “image and text” studies?

MJ: Yes and no. Yes, in that Twombly himself is clearly thinking about the incommensurateness of image and text in the late series, The Rose (2008), where Rilke’s French poems accompany massive panels of multi-foliate roses. No, in that even in his artist’s-book collaboration with Paz, poem and image exist side by side in ways that express affinity without mutual interrogation. Twombly’s texts, whether scribbled or whited-out, don’t “explain” his paintings and drawings, any more than their resonant titles (Untitled is a favorite in any case). Sometimes Twombly draws on well-known narratives, for instance Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis or Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, but he often does so in mischievous or ironic ways, responding to something latent in their sexual content. His “versions” (if you can call them that) contain a kind of swerve, encrypting sexual concerns or commenting indirectly on the artist’s complicated relation to society. This is particularly the case when Twombly draws on Theocritus’s Idylls. Pastoral has always been a mode adapted to different kinds of politics, rather than a form of nostalgia for the past. What I have tried to do in “reading” Cy Twombly is to read against the grain — misread, if you like — and to suggest that on the analogy with experimental translation (which often uses visual means too), Twombly is himself a kind of neo-Dadaist translator who has no compunction about altering his sources.

You mentioned politics. What would you say is the important emphasis of your book besides its focus on the modernity of Twombly’s practice of quotation?

MJ: Twombly has often been seen as a-political, that is as focused on the mythic past rather than the present, and for some critics this has been a problem—Twombly is legitimized if he confirms to the informe but not if he seems to be a mouthpiece for a timeless Humanism. One of my concerns was to bring out the extent to which Twombly not only “outs” himself in the material he quotes and alludes to, but also the ways in which the theme of war runs through his work. His was an era that spanned the Korean War, the Cold War space race, the Vietnam War, and the first and second Gulf Wars. Twombly was always interested in archaeology. He visited archaeological sites in North Africa during his first trip to Europe and later in the Middle East—he loved the phrase “Asia Minor.” He was strongly opposed to war and visited Mesopotamian and Sumerian sites that were later damaged. He read the texts of Greek and Persian adventurism and his house at Gaeta overlooks an American naval harbor. A work like Fifty Days at Iliam coincides with the period of American reckoning with the Vietnam War and the problem of how to memorialize the war-dead. Many of Twombly’s later sculptures, and some of his paintings, are “memorial” or epitaphic works that allude to the period of the Gulf Wars and invasion of Iraq (it’s worth noting that Italy was strongly against the invasion of Iraq).

What difference do you think it made to Twombly’s art, and to the poetry he read, that he moved to Italy in the late 1950s?

MJ: That’s a very interesting question. Twombly was already familiar with the classical tradition before he arrived in Italy for the first time as a young man, with Robert Rauschenberg. Italy meant the Mediterranean, in an expanded sense that included North Africa (on that first trip) and later the Middle East. But living in Rome also oriented Twombly to Europe, even if he returned to New York each year to paint; Italy and New York had considerable links after mid-century. Perhaps one effect of the move to Rome was to cut him off from some of the New York poets of his own generation (O’Hara and Ashbery, for instance) who were keenly interested in modern art. I would say that what Twombly’s move mainly confirmed, in literary ways, was the formative influence of the European high modernists — Mallarmé and Rilke — and Mediterranean poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

To sum up, what do you think a literary critic has to offer when it comes to writing about an artist?

MJ: Obviously it depends to some extent on the artist — not to mention the literary critic. I’ve always been interested in art criticism, but one thing I learned in writing this book was that art criticism (like literary criticism) has its own disciplinary formations and protocols. So I learned a lot while writing it, including how to pay attention to the details of texture and line, paint and support, that probably are second nature to a well-trained art historian. But “Art writing,” as such, is a bit different. I deliberately end the book with Baudelaire’s essay on Delacroix (the origin of the phrase “a poet in painting”) because Baudelaire founds a modern art criticism in which the critic tries to do something that Barthes also attempts in his writing about Twombly: create a verbal translation. Art criticism needs language, it needs the literary. So I’m not simply claiming that it helps to know what Twombly’s sources were — one can certainly appreciate his work without knowing anything about his quotations — but that the exchange between literature and art, or literary criticism and art criticism, is ongoing and crucial in ways that extend beyond Twombly’s particular art practice. We can’t do without language. I see Twombly as a painter who recognizes this mutual dependence of art and writing, but at the same time his work offers something altogether more visceral and immediate: the “now” of painting and drawing as a kind of action, a way of knowing, specific to the visual artist.

Mary Jacobus is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Cambridge, England and, before that, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She has written widely on Romanticism, feminism, and visual art. Most recently, she is the author of The Poetics of Psychoanalysis and Romantic Things. Jacobus lives in Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge, UK. Her most recent book is Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.

Harold Bloom reads from Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

We are proud to have published Corrupted into Song: The Complete Works of Alvin Feinman. Though his poetry is lyrically intense and philosophically ambitious, Feinman published sparsely and remained largely unknown when he died in 2008. This is the definitive edition of Feinman’s complete work, which includes fifty-seven previously published poems and thirty-nine unpublished poems discovered among his manuscripts. Harold Bloom, who wrote the foreword, said of his friend’s poetry, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Listen to Bloom read two of Feinman’s poems below to experience that sublimity for yourself in a PUP blog exclusive.

Alvin Feinman

Alvin Feinman

“November Sunday Morning” by Alvin Feinman:

“Relic” by Alvin Feinman:


National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Austin Smith

almanac smith jacketAustin Smith’s debut collection, Almanac, is a lyrical and narrative meditation on the loss of small family farms. Most of the poems are personal, set in the rural Midwest where Smith grew up. Though they are geographically specific, the greater themes such as death and perseverance are as universal as they are disquieting.

The collection is also a meditation on apprenticeship. Smith, the son of a poet, reflects on the responsibility of a young poet to mourn what is vanishing.

Listen to Austin Smith’s reading of his poem, “Coach Chance”.

austin smithAustin Smith was born in the rural Midwest. Most recently, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. He has written a collection of poems entitled Almanac: Poems.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Anthony Carelli

carelli jacket carnations Throughout April, Princeton University Press has enjoyed featuring audio readings from an array of poets. Today, Anthony Carelli presents “The Brooklyn Heavens”, a poem selected from his debut collection, Carnations. Throughout the book, Carelli injects new life into metaphors as old as writing itself. The poems themselves are his carnations, wilting even as they are being written and being renewed with new writing and voice. Carelli transforms the most ordinary of images, such as a walk home from work or a game of Frisbee in a winter park.

An exclusive reading from Carnations:

Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including, AGNI online, and Memorious. His first book, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011) was a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Recipient of a Hodder fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at New York University.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

The Ruined Elegance jacketTo celebrate National Poetry Month, Princeton University Press has been proud to present audio readings from our poets throughout the month of April.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain embraces influences from America, France, and Asia throughout her latest collection of poetry, The Ruined Elegance. The poetry is inspired by an array of sources, from concentration camps to sketches, photographs to musical pieces. With lyrical language and imagery, Sze-Lorrain’s work offers hope and elegance to offset devastation and ruin.

Below, listen to Sze-Lorrain read “Transparent” from The Ruined Elegance. 

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of two previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris. Her most recent book is The Ruined Elegance: Poems.


Celebrate National Poetry Month with Poem in Your Pocket Day

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoNational Poetry Month is in full swing, and April 21st is designated  Poem in Your Pocket Day. Celebrated across the country, the “pocket poem” is a simple reminder of how powerful and overlooked poetry can be. Spread poetry in classrooms, libraries, offices, or wherever you happen to be by printing out either an old personal favorite or a poem you’ve newly discovered. You can share your choice on Twitter using the popular hashtag #pocketpoem.

Although Poem in Your Pocket Day was founded by the office of the mayor in New York City in 2002, it quickly gained national momentum. You can find more information about the event at, which features news, updates, and additional programs that are taking place throughout April.

To promote and celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day, Princeton University Press is pleased to present a selection of six printable PUP poem cards you can take with you throughout your day.

Jollimore poetry card On Birdsong

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.

Feinman poetry card The Way to Remember Her

Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) taught literature at Bennington College from 1969 to 1994. He was the author of Preambles and Other Poems and an expanded edition of that work, Poems (Princeton). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Yale University.

Greenbaum poetry card The Two Yvonnes

Jessica Greenbaum’s second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She teaches inside and outside academia, and as a social worker she designs workshops for nonconventional communities. She received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the poetry editor for upstreet, and lives in Brooklyn.


Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including, AGNI online, and Memorious. His first book, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011) was a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Recipient of a Hodder fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at New York University.

Whitehead poetry card A Glossary of Chickens

Gary J. Whitehead’s third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. His previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps and The Velocity of Dust. He has also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions. His writing awards include, among others, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award. His poems have appeared widely, most notably in The New Yorker.
Smith poetry card The Key in the Stone
Austin Smith has published four poetry collections: In the Silence of the Migrated Birds; Wheat and Distance; Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down; and Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Austin’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, amongst others. He was the recipient of the 2015 Narrative Prize for his short story, “The Halverson Brothers.”
poetry_cards_Sze-Lorrain (1)
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of three previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola, Water the Moon, and The Ruined Elegance, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Gary Whitehead

j9947Throughout this April, Princeton University Press is honoring National Poetry Month with a variety of special and exclusive audio readings. Today we’re proud to feature poet, high school teacher, and crossword constructor Gary Whitehead. Whitehead’s subjects are diverse, ranging from morality to illness, incorporating imagery from the Civil War to Noah as an old man. His work has a striking musical quality. Whitehead’s most recent collection is A Glossary of Chickens: Poems.

Listen to the poet read “A Glossary of Chickens” below.

Gary J. Whitehead is a poet, teacher, and crossword constructor. His third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. His previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps and The Velocity of Dust. He has also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions. His writing awards include, among others, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award. He has also been awarded the Princeton University Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award. His poems have appeared widely, most notably in The New Yorker. He lives in the Hudson Valley of New York and teaches English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in New Jersey.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading from Jessica Greenbaum

the two yvonnes greenbaum jacketTo celebrate National Poetry Month, Princeton University Press will be featuring weekly audio readings from some of our most popular poets. Today Jessica Greenbaum, author of The Two Yvonnes, reads from her collection. Moving from 1960s Long Island, to 1980s Houston, to today’s Brooklyn, the poems range in subject from the pages of the Talmud, to a sick daughter, to a squirrel trapped in a kitchen. As always, Greenbaum’s poetry displays a keen discussion of human vulnerability.

Greenbaum is essential reading, particularly throughout a month dedicated to the wider appreciation of poetry, because of her accessibility. Written in “plain American that cats and dogs can read,” as Marianne Moore once put it, the book asks: how does life present itself to us, and how do we create value from our delights and losses? Listen to Greenbaum’s passionate reading of The Two Yvonnes.


jessica greenbaumJessica Greenbaum is the author of The Two Yvonnes, one of Library Journal’s Best Books in Poetry for 2012.


For the love of books

The Quotable Kierkegaard jacketFeynmanCalaprice_QuotableEinstein_pb_cvrthoraeu smalljefferson

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a heartfelt declaration of our love of books? We offer up these quotes from our Quotable’s, as well as a special giveaway!

PUP Books

The Quotable Kierkegaard

“It is the most interesting time, the period of falling in love, where after the first touch of a wand’s sweeping sensation, from each encounter, every glance…one brings something home, just like a bird busily fetching one stick after the other to her nest, yet always feels overwhelmed by the great wealth.”

“What is it, namely, that connect the temporal and eternity, what else but love, which for that very reason is before everything and remains after everything is gone.”

The Quotable Feynman

“It’s necessary to fall in love with a theory, and like falling in love with a woman, it’s only possible if one does not completely understand her.”

The Quotable Thoreau

“How insufficient is all wisdom without love.”

“It is strange that men will talk of miracles, revelation, inspiration, and the like, as things past, while love remains.”

“What is the singing of birds, or any natural sound, compared with the voice of one we love?”

The Ultimate Quotable Einstein

“Love brings much happiness, much more so than pining for someone brings pain.”

The Quotable Jefferson

“If I love you more, it is because you deserve more.”

“We think last of those we love most.”


In Love’s Vision, Troy Jollimore puts forth a new way of thinking about love. For the most romantic holiday all year, we’re giving away three copies starting February 12. The entry period ends February 20. As you pay special attention to your loved ones let Troy Jollimore’s vision of love give you food for thought.

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?


You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:



Feature image by Steve Czajka –

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes


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.

An interview with poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain on “The Ruined Elegance”

Sze-Lorrain, poet

© Dominique Nabokov, 2015, Paris

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In her new collection—an intercultural journey that traces lives, encounters, exiles, and memories from France, America, and Asia—she offers a nuanced yet dynamic vision of humanity marked by perils, surprises, and transcendence. Recently she took the time to answer some questions about The Ruined Elegance.

Can you speak a little about your writing process or how these poems came about?

FS: Almost every poem in this collection behaved like a beast. I lost whenever I tried to fight it, until I realized how far I missed the mark. “To question the options of elegy, I’ve probably chosen the wrong epic.” [from the poem “Back from the Aegean Sea”] Several verses and their poetic narratives were deviating at the start, in part because I had tried to be clever about a “lyric/anti-lyric.” I wanted silence and music. What better paradox could there be?

It did feel like a crisis when I could only pick these poems up from their “ruins.” I censored words and images even before saying them out loud or putting them down on the page. Part of my illusion had to do with my folly of “writing to tame vulnerability and speechlessness” on the page. While finding ways to cope, I felt drawn to reading poems that were gentle yet could sustain a certain emotional rawness and moral jolt. To recenter myself, I walked — from one arrondissement to another.

The Ruined Elegance jacketWhat colors come to mind when you revisit the poems in The Ruined Elegance?

FS: Violet, vermillion, and shades of gray-green. No vintage “black and white.”

Why not?

FS: Because I hope to have the poems operate beyond witnessing, documenting or commenting about their socio-historical sources, even if some of the thematic concerns relate to specific political events — these poems believe in history, but they don’t live in the past.

Why poetry?  What would you like to be if you weren’t a poet, literary translator, or zheng harpist?

FS: I didn’t plan to “be a poet.”  Poems and Bach bring me as much joy as doubt, though sometimes not as much company as would horses and trees.

Why poetry — because it can still resist greed and social constructs.  Were I not a poet or musician, I would like to play bridge professionally or practice herbology and phytotherapy.

What are some of your poetic influences?

FS: Dickinson, Lowell, Rimbaud, Milosz, Lorca, Białoszewski, Montale… as well as translations of Buddhist scriptures and Latin texts.

 Please offer some reading recommendations for our readers.

FS: Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: it is my perennial “drug” or ritual.

I also recommend C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, Aesop’s Fables, photography catalogues of Tina Modotti, Susan Stewart’s On Longing, Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, Simone de Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death], and photographs of the Baudelairian Paris by Eugène Atget.

An excerpt from The Ruined Elegance. Note, the first line is after the last verse of her translation “Mirror,” by contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Zao, forthcoming from Zephyr Press:

Poem excerpt
Chapter one is available here.