Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.

Singer

 

Ian Goldin discusses the migration crisis

Exceptional people jacketWith the wave of migrants and refugees from the Middle East traveling to Europe, migration has once again become a politically and emotionally heated international debate. In this exclusive PUP interview, Ian Goldin, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, author of The Butterfly Defect, and co-author of Exceptional People, clarifies the facts and dismisses the myths about this societal movement that dates back hundreds of years.

Why did you write your book, Exceptional People?

IG: I believe that the debate about migration is dominated by emotional rather than fact-based responses. I wrote the book to assemble the available evidence and place current debates in both a historical and future looking context. In the USA, the immigration debate is as politically charged as it is in Europe and many other countries. But as the book shows, no country would be where it is today without the benefit of waves of previous immigrants.

Are there more migrants today than in the past?

IG: Migrants today account for about 3% of the world’s population, which is roughly the same proportion as it has been over the past hundred years. It is actually lower as a share of the US or European population than it was in the age of mass migration in the second half of the 19th century. Migrants are defined as people crossing international borders, so the fact that there are 100 more countries in the world today means than 100 years ago, means that people that used to move within a country, are now defined as migrants. This trend has accelerated with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the rise of independence movements.

What do you think are the main myths about migrants?

IG: That they take locals jobs, that they reduce wages, that they increase unemployment, that they are a drain on government budgets and that they are more prone to commit crime. None of these fallacies are borne out by the evidence.

Surely new arrivals means less employment and lower wages for locals?

IG: Although this seems to be intuitively obvious, it is not borne out by numerous studies. The reason is that migrants tend to fill needs in the labour market which local people are not providing, allowing the economy to grow more rapidly, which in turn creates more jobs and provides more taxes and services and leads to higher incomes and wages. This is both true of unskilled workers, where migrants allow greater levels of participation of local workers. For example, female workforce participation increases as migrants undertake tasks such as childcare that may keep mothers at home. And migrants create cheaper goods and services, such as food, cleaning and hospital care, which allows locals to be better off and spend more on other services undertaken by locals, such as professional and entertainment services. Migrants are also a powerful source of dynamism and innovation in society as is evident from Silicon Valley and a quick scan of who the Nobel Prize and Academy Award winners are. This increases the growth rate and competitiveness of societies, which leads to higher levels of employment and wages. It also provides for more dynamic and diverse entertainment, food, fashion and other choices for citizens.

So are there no costs associated with migration?

IG: There are costs. Particular communities may at times feel understandably threatened by the inflow of individuals with different cultural, religious or other views. Groups of workers may also feel the competitive pressures of immigrants. The challenge for cities, states and countries is to manage these flows, to ensure that each wave of immigrants is integrated effectively into society. The benefits of migration are national and are felt strongest in the medium term, whereas the costs tend to be local and short-term. This is why communities may need help, for example in ensuring that migrants do not put undue pressure on housing or education or other local services. The answer is not to stop migration, but to manage it more effectively.

Are there good examples?

IG: The USA is the best example, as its history is one of immigration. As I show in Exceptional People, it is vital that the lessons from this and other successful experiences are learnt to ensure that migration continues to play its central role in meeting the challenges of the future.

What about refugees?

IG: Refugees are very different to other migrants as they are in severe danger of death or persecution if they remain in their home countries. There is an internationally agreed legal definition of what constitutes a refugee. The desperate situation of Syrians illustrates that despite the legal and ethical imperatives, refugees regularly are denied safe passage and asylum. In principle, refugees aim to return home when it is safe to do so, but they may be compelled to stay in their host countries for many years. I show in Exceptional People that the policies of the host country, including as to whether refugees are allowed to work, fundamentally shapes the extent to which they are able to integrate and contribute economically.

Ian Goldin is Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development. He has served as vice president of the World Bank and advisor to President Nelson Mandela, and chief executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa. His many books include Globalization for Development and The Butterfly Defect.

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.

A Q&A with Richard Layard and David Clark, authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketHow can mental illness—an affliction that affects at least 20 percent of people in developed countries, reduces life expectancy, and wrecks havoc on educational potential—remain chronically under-treated? The answer is simple: mental and physical pain are not viewed equally, and even in a relatively progressive culture, the former remains profoundly stigmatized. As a result, most who suffer from mental health issues suffer in silence, or receive inadequate support. Can this change? Richard Layard and David Clark say it can.

In Thrive, Layard and Clark look at the practical politics of increasing access to mental health care, arguing that the therapies that exist—and work—are available at little to no cost. Recently, both took the time to answer some questions about the book, and the transformative power of mental health care.

What is the message of your book?

Depression and anxiety disorders are the biggest single cause of misery in Western societies. They also cause enormous damage to the economy. But they are curable, in most cases, by modern evidence-based psychological therapy. The shocking thing is that very few of those who need it get any help and fewer still get help based on evidence. In England such help is now becoming available to many of millions who need it. As we show, this help involves no net cost to society. It’s a no-brainer.

What is the scale of the problem?

Surveys of households in rich countries show that around 1 in 6 adults have depression or anxiety disorders severe enough to cause major distress and impair the person’s functioning. Only a quarter of these people are in any form of treatment, most usually medication. This is shocking. For surveys show that mental illness is the biggest single reason why people feel dissatisfied with their lives – accounting for more of the misery in our societies than either poverty or unemployment do.

What is its economic cost?

Mental illness accounts for nearly a half of all absenteeism from work and for nearly a half of all those who do not work because of disability. This imposes huge costs on employers and taxpayers. Mental illness also increases the use of physical healthcare. People with a given physical illness of a given severity use 50% more physical healthcare if they are also mentally ill. This is a huge cost to those who fund healthcare.

Does psychological therapy help?

In the last 40 years considerable progress has been made in developing effective psychological therapies. The most studied therapy is CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a broad heading for therapies which focus on directly influencing thoughts and behaviours – in order to affect the quality of human experience. In hundreds of randomised controlled trials CBT has been shown to produce recovery rates of over 50% for depression and anxiety disorders. For anxiety, recovery is generally sustained; for depression, the risk of relapse is greatly reduced.

The range of therapies which have been shown to work has been surveyed internationally by the Cochrane Collaboration and in England by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Besides CBT, NICE also recommend for all depressions Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) and, for mild to moderate depression, Brief Psychodynamic Therapy, Couples Therapy and Counselling. Modern psychological therapies have also been shown to be effective in a wide range of other mental health conditions.

Do these therapies really cost nothing?

Yes. If delivered to a representative group of patients they pay for themselves twice over. First, they pay in reduced invalidity benefits and lost taxes due to invalidity. We know this from a series of controlled trials. Second, they pay for themselves in reduced costs of physical healthcare. Again we know this from controlled trials. It is so partly because the typical cost of an evidence-based course of treatment is only about $2,000.

How can these therapies become more widely available?

Two things are needed. First, there have to be enough people trained to deliver these therapies. This is the responsibility of universities and colleges, including of course supervised on-the-job training. Second, there have to be effective frameworks where trained people can be employed. The evidence is that recovery rates are higher where people are employed in teams where they can get supervision, in-service training, and clear career progression.

Those who fund healthcare have in the USA and UK the legal obligation to provide parity of esteem for mental and physical healthcare, and this requires that they are willing to fund high quality evidence-based therapies that are made easily available and provide the necessary duration of treatment, based on evidence. Insurers never fund half a hip replacement and they should not fund only half a proper course of psychological therapy.

What can be learnt from the English experience?

The English National Health Service has in recent years developed a totally new service to deliver evidence-based psychological therapies. (It’s called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)). This service has, over six years, trained altogether 6,000 therapists and is now treating nearly half a million people a year, with a recovery rate of 46% and rising. The prestigious journal Nature has called it “world-beating”.

How can we prevent mental illness in the first place?

First we must of course treat it as soon as it appears. This is often in childhood, where the same evidence-based treatments for depression and anxiety disorders apply as in adulthood. For children’s behaviour problems, parent training and family therapy are recommended.

But we must also reduce the overall prevalence of mental illness. This requires major changes throughout society. First, more support and education for parents. Second, schools which give more priority to the well-being of children. Third, employers who treat their workers with appreciation and encouragement and not as income-maximising machines. Fourth, more positively-oriented media. And finally, a new citizens’ culture giving more priority to compassion, both as an emotion and as a spring for action.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords.  David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Read chapter one here.

Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

Of Flesh and Spirit: Karl Kirchwey on Translating Verlaine

Symbolism is “in” and Paul Verlaine is experiencing something of an English-speaking resurgence, thanks to the efforts of poet, translator, Director of the Bryn Mawr College Creative Writing Program, and Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome,  Karl Kirchwey.

Next month, Princeton University Press is proud to release the first-ever complete English translation of Verlaine’s freshman collection of poems, Poèmes saturniens, translated and introduced by Kirchwey (whose own sixth book of poems, Mount Lebanon, will be released by Putnam in April. )

Q: When did you first discover Verlaine?
KK: I lived with my family in Lausanne, in French Switzerland, between 1970 and 1974. For part of that time, I attended an English boarding school in the mountains. The French teacher there, nicknamed “the Groundhog” by the students, was a man of deep culture and learning (I once found him practicing the violin in an empty classroom), and even today it pains me to remember the travesty some of the students made of his attempts to introduce them to Racine’s Andromaque. But I suspect that I first encountered poems by Verlaine at that time, when I was in my teens. Also, my mother had written poetry, and she studied literature for the two years she attended Vassar before dropping out to get married in the depths of World War II. I believe I still have her copy of an anthology of French poetry.

Q: What about his work spoke to your poetic sensibilities?
KK: As I have occasion to say in my Preface to the volume, what appealed to me very powerfully was, first of all, the intense musicality of Verlaine’s lines– impossible to render in English, really, because English is a language of speech stresses, as French is not– and then also the combination of carnality and learning, in the poems. Verlaine was a hot-blooded young man in a repressive society, but he was also, at least intermittently, a spiritual and religious seeker and a scholar on the upward road to Parnassus. Many of the poems in this book are full of sex, real or imaginary, but also braided up with the whole history of Western (and even non-Western) civilization.

Q: How did you know that the timing was right for this translation?
I had no idea of whether or not the timing was right for this translation. Poets don’t often work that way! The timing was right for me, in terms of my own work and my own interests, to undertake this translation. I fell in love with this first book of Verlaine’s, and then the hard work began, of trying to get the translations right. The fact that I then discovered that mine is the first complete translation of Verlaine’s first book in English was a happy accident.

Q: Do you believe that lack-luster translations are a chief motivator for poets to undertake their own translation projects?
KK: Again, I discuss this at some length in my Preface, but the short answer is: Yes. However, it is a commonplace to say that translations usually have a life-span of one generation or less. Certain translations– Pope’s Homer, for instance– achieve well-deserved immortality, but the evolution of language itself guarantees that most will be superseded. Therefore, what seems to the contemporary eye lackluster may have been more than adequate to the purposes and conventions of its own time.

Q:  You speak of Verlaine’s verse as caught between the sacred and the profane; does youth play a role in the presence of these extremes (he was twenty-two at the time of publication) or is this a quality that is endemic to the poetic sensibility?  How does your own poetry fit into this mingling of the fleshy and the spiritual?
KK: No single polarity or dichotomy is endemic to the poetic sensibility, surely. But, now that you mention it, my own poetry has always attempted to respond to the flesh, the spirit, and the intellect. It has been my effort for some years now to move away from the well-crafted and linguistically-alive but emotionally cool poems I wrote at the beginning of my career– poems that hid, behind their learning, from emotional engagement with the self– and toward poems of greater linguistic simplicity and more direct emotional engagement. But in a sense I think the critical damage was done with the first book or two– I became known as an “academic” poet, with the automatic assumption of emotional sterility that can accompany that label, in the balkanized world of contemporary American poetry. James Merrill rejected my first book for the Yale Younger Poets Prize with the remark that some of the poems reminded him too much of his own: layered like a cake but (he implied) finally without feeling. I took that comment, by now more than twenty years ago, to heart.

Q:  You’re an upstanding citizen, father of two, loving husband and college professor.  It seems there is very little common ground between your personal life and that of Verlaine.  Was there an element of living vicariously, a languorous and decadent fin-de-siècle lifestyle, as you immersed yourself in his words?
KK: I’ve never tasted absinthe, but I don’t think I would like it. It is, of course, unimaginative in the extreme to insist, or expect, that a translator should have anything in common with the writer he is translating (though biographers, for example, have certainly been known to take on the coloration of their subjects, after long study and immersion in the details of their subjects’ lives). In any case, a connection between the outlines of my personal life and those of Verlaine’s would be irrelevant to a translation: what is relevant is that my work and his might have something in common (see under “Flesh and Spirit,” discussed above). As for living vicariously… I suppose you are correct that poetry always requires an act of the sympathetic imagination.

Q: Were there any startling discoveries made, either about yourself and your own work or about Verlaine, as you worked closely with the text?
KK: Yes. As I think about this translation in the context of my own work, I realize that discovering I was capable of using a system of imperfect rhyme, in translating all of the diverse rhyme schemes in Verlaine’s first book, actually prepared me to work on a long poem called Mutabor I have had in hand for several years now, some parts of which recently appeared in the new literary journal Little Star. That is, working in rhyme at book-length in the Verlaine translation gave me the confidence to undertake a book-length poem which is all in four-line stanzas rhymed variously. I have been working in imperfect rhyme for most of my career as a poet; the perfection of Richard Wilbur’s rhyme schemes (and coincidentally he is also our greatest living translator of Racine, Moliere and Corneille) have always been beyond me. But it has been a satisfaction to work within a larger and more open-ended architecture, in Mutabor, and this derived from my work on Verlaine.

To this I would add that translating brilliant and precocious poetry (which much of the work in  Verlaine’s first book is) is a very humbling experience, testing not only one’s knowledge of the foreign language, but indeed one’s own sensibility as a poet.

And one final startling discovery? The single strangest word in Verlaine’s first book is oaristys, which isn’t even French (it’s Greek), and which refers originally to the magic girdle of Aphrodite used by Hera to beguile Zeus in the Iliad, but which has come to mean “link of intimacy” or “pillow-talk.” Here in Rome, the architectural and artistic wonders contained in the Palazzo Farnese (which is the French Embassy) are momentarily available to the public. Yesterday I was studying Annibale Carracci’s stupendous ceiling frescoes on mythological subjects. There was Zeus, inching Hera toward bed: and bound firmly below Hera’s breasts was the oaristys!

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Many thanks to Professor Kirchwey for gamely answering all manner of inquiries.  POEMS UNDER SATURN will be released on April 6.