Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Justin E. H. Smith: How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

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Smith jacketA poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’.

Homer’s epic poetry, which originates in the same oral epic traditions as those of the Balkans or of West Africa, was written down, frozen, fixed, and from this it became ‘literature’. There are no arguments in the Iliad: much of what is said arises from metrical exigencies, the need to fill in a line with the right number of syllables, or from epithets whose function is largely mnemonic (and thus unnecessary when transferred into writing). Yet Homer would become an authority for early philosophers nonetheless: revealing truths about humanity not by argument or debate, but by declamation, now frozen into text.

Plato would express extreme concern about the role, if any, that poets should play in society. But he was not talking about poets as we think of them: he had in mind reciters, bards who incite emotions with living performances, invocations and channellings of absent persons and beings.

It is not orality that philosophy rejects, necessarily: Socrates himself rejected writing, identifying instead with a form of oral culture. Plato would also ensure the philosophical canonisation of his own mentor by writing down (how faithfully, we don’t know) what Socrates would have preferred to merely say, and so would have preferred to have lost to the wind. Arguably, it is in virtue of Plato’s recording that we might say, today, that Socrates was a philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle, both, were willing to learn from Homer, once he had been written down. And Socrates, though Plato still felt he had to write him down, was already engaged in a sort of activity very different from poetic recitation. This was dialectic: the structured, working-through of a question towards an end that has not been predetermined – even if this practice emerged indirectly from forms of reasoning only actualised with the advent of writing.

The freezing in text of dialectical reasoning, with a heavy admixture (however impure or problematic) of poetry, aphorism and myth, became the model for what, in the European tradition, was thought of as ‘philosophy’ for the next few millennia.

Why are these historical reflections important today? Because what is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the scope and nature of philosophical enquiry.

The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico wrote in his Scienza Nuova (1725): ‘the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions’. This order was, namely: ‘First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers.’ It is implicit for Vico that the philosophers in these academies are not illiterate. The order of ideas is the order of the emergence of the technology of writing.

Within academic philosophy today, there is significant concern arising from how to make philosophy more ‘inclusive’, but no interest at all in questioning Vico’s order, in going back and recuperating what forms of thought might have been left behind in the woods and fields.

The groups ordinarily targeted by philosophy’s ‘inclusivity drive’ already dwell in the cities and share in literacy, even if discriminatory measures often block their full cultivation of it. No arguments are being made for the inclusion of people belonging to cultures that value other forms of knowledge: there are no efforts to recruit philosophers from among Inuit hunters or Hmong peasants.

The practical obstacles to such recruitment from a true cross-section of humanity are obvious. Were it to happen, however, the simple process of moving from traditional ways of life into academic institutions would at the same time dilute and transform the perspectives that are deserving of more attention. Irrespective of such unhappy outcomes, there is already substantial scholarship on these forms of thought accumulated in philosophy’s neighbouring disciplines – notably history, anthropology, and world literatures – to which philosophers already have access. It’s a literature that could serve as a corrective to the foundational bias, present since the emergence of philosophy as a distinct activity.

As it happens, there are few members of primary oral cultures left in the world. And yet from a historical perspective the great bulk of human experience resides with them. There are, moreover, members of literate cultures, and subcultures, whose primary experience of language is oral, based in storytelling, not argumentation, and that is living and charged, not fixed and frozen. Plato saw these people as representing a lower, and more dangerous, use of language than the one worthy of philosophers.

Philosophers still tend to disdain, or at least to conceive as categorically different from their own speciality, the use of language deployed by bards and poets, whether from Siberia or the South Bronx. Again, this disdain leaves out the bulk of human experience. Until it is eradicated, the present talk of the ideal of inclusion will remain mere lip-service.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He writes frequently for The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016).

8 Perfect Gift Books for Mother’s Day

Still stumped about gifts this Mother’s Day? Princeton University Press offers a great variety of choices for nature lovers, biography buffs, and more. Here are just a few unique ideas.

Cranshaw Jacket

Is your mother a garden lover? Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs by Whitney Cranshaw is the ultimate book for common insects and mites that can be found in yards or gardens. Whether she’s interested in finding out what has been damaging plants, or simply wants a comprehensive identification guide, this book is a must-have.

bees

The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril offers tips for identification and debunks an array of myths about bees. With other 900 full-color photos, as well as tips on how to attract bees to your backyard, there’s no doubt this is a wonderful choice for someone who loves natural history, gardening, and insects.

silent sparks jacket

What could be more magical than fireflies?  Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis is a fitting choice for lovers of beauty, mystery, and the biology behind the scenes. Silent Sparks details why and how fireflies make their light, providing a tour of the different species that span the globe.

offshore sea life howell OffShore Sea ID Guide

No matter which coast your mother loves to visit, there are perfect guides available to help her identify sea life. Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast are both full of beautiful photos to assist in the identification of whales, dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and more. The guide is ideal for beginners and experts alike.

Living on Paper

For the mother who loves to settle down with a good biography, Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch is the perfect gift. The book is unique in that it is composed from over 760 of Murdoch’s personal letters, offering unprecedented insight into her life and personality.

Kroodsma

For mothers who love nature, memoirs, or birdsong, Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific is a wonderful option. Author Donald Kroodsma intimately details his journey with his son across the country while they document birdsong.

the fourth pig mitchison jacket

Remind your mother of fairy tales read together, now with a twist. This collection of short stories and poems reimagines well-known tales like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Three Little Pigs”. This updated edition of The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison is an intriguing bridge between childhood favorites and the darker versions adults save for themselves.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

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 theparisreview.org, 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 poets.org, 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.

poetry_cards_Carelli

Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including theparisreview.org, 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.

 

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.

An interview with Jesse Zuba, author of “The First Book”

Literary debuts both launch and define careers, and have a unique impact on the literary marketplace. In The First Book, Jesse Zuba has written a cultural history and literary analysis of “first books”, focusing on poetic debuts, that will intrigue writers and publishers alike. Recently, Zuba spoke to PUP about his first book, The First Book:

The First Book jacket“First books” hold such a special place in the public imagination. How did you come up with the idea of writing about first books?

I was interested in how poets came to see themselves as poets, and be recognized as such by others, before they had anything more than their unpublished writing to show for their efforts, and at a cultural moment when poetry generally didn’t count for a whole lot. I tried to write a research paper about this in college. I remember checking out Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium and John Ashbery’s Some Trees from the library, and re-reading Gary Snyder’s Riprap. But I didn’t follow through. I was fascinated by Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote,” but I didn’t have any idea what it meant, let alone how to link it to other debut poems.

Eventually I saw that my questions about vocation were exactly what poets usually brooded on as they began their careers. I also noticed the improbable amount of fuss made over debuts in reviews, essays, advertisements, and elsewhere, and I got curious. Four dozen annual first book prizes? For poetry? I liked that the topic gave me a chance to discuss a wide range of poets handling vocational anxieties in different ways, and also to talk about the first book as a complex artifact that is more central to the poetry scene than you might expect.

What does “The First Book” have to do with “Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America”?

The first book anticipates others to come. I couldn’t discuss it without placing it in the context of the poetic career. But what was that? Was the classic sequence of pastoral, georgic, and epic still relevant, or was it just a series of books? How did jobs, relationships, and receptions get factored in? And what about the oppositional bent of modern poetry, with its ambivalent relation to the very forms of success that conventional careers aim to achieve?

By focusing on the representation of career, I followed the lead of the poets themselves, who obsessively address questions of self-fashioning in their debuts. That they talk so much about it, both obliquely and sometimes quite explicitly, suits the occasion, since the poetic career – always precarious, and especially so in twentieth-century America – is bound to be radically uncertain at the outset, when it’s all still to do.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you worked on the book?

One challenge was the complexity of the career notion I just mentioned. Most of the criticism dealing with it comes out of Renaissance studies, which has only an indirect relevance to my project. I gradually found my way to books like Edward Said’s Beginnings, and sociological studies of art and professionalism, which helped me to find the handles on the issue. But in the early going, it was sometimes tough to work with a concept that was at once so hazy and yet so pervasive in literary criticism.

In a similar way, the idea of the first book itself proved more difficult to pin down than I expected. If Stevens’s Harmonium, published in 1923, was his first book, was the expanded 1931 edition of Harmonium his second book, or the definitive edition of his first? Was Observations Marianne Moore’s debut, or was Poems, which was published three years earlier by her friends, without her say-so? What about early publications whose authors later destroyed them, like Lyn Hejinian’s The Grreat Adventure, or omitted them from collected editions, like Robert Hayden’s Heart-Shape in the Dust? It was a while before I learned to look at examples like these as evidence of the interest poets and publishers have taken in debuts, which are often staged and re-staged in tellingly energetic ways.

In the book you list lots of debut titles that deal with beginning, from James Merrill’s First Poems and Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note to Eleni Sikelianos’s Earliest Worlds and Ken Chen’s Juvenilia. Is this part of the secret formula for getting published? Do poets write for prizes?

I don’t see much evidence of any formula, though there are some interesting similarities among first books, and I’m sure many poets have considered current trends and judges’ tastes in the hopes of increasing their odds. There are too many constantly-changing variables involved for a formula to be more than minimally effective, and the checklists you sometimes see in prize advertisements with qualities like “willingness to take risks” and “formal virtuosity” not only raise more questions than they answer, but are much more easily said than done: they might as well say “write like W. B. Yeats” or “write like Frank O’Hara.”

Only Chen’s book won a prize out of the titles you mentioned, and plenty of debuts are published and win prizes without drawing on the theme of beginning in their titles or elsewhere. I see the emphasis on beginning that pervades post-1945 poetic debuts as part of a complex response to the increasingly institutionalized environment in which poetry is often written, published, and read these days, not as a subtle advertisement of a poet’s promise, designed to win over editors.

What are you reading?

I just finished recording a reading of Emerson’s Nature for Librivox – a great volunteer organization that makes audio versions of public domain texts available online for free. At the moment I’m in the middle of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, A Bernadette Mayer Reader, and Gillian White’s Lyric Shame. I’m looking forward to James Richardson’s During and the newly translated early novels of Haruki Murakami. I’m always re-reading Philip Roth.

What’s next for you?

A new project dealing with what I think of as “the scandal of authorship” has roots in reading Roth. Why is the author seen as a bad guy in a novel like The Counterlife? How is it that fiction elicits such harsh judgments? What does it mean that writers sometimes take pains to forestall such judgments – by judging themselves guilty in advance, for example, or through sheer tact? I’m casting a fairly wide net for now: Roth, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov. I’d like to explore tensions between social responsibility and the autonomy of the aesthetic in the post-1945 period, think some more about literary careers, and hopefully tell some good stories along the way.

Jesse Zuba is assistant professor of English at Delaware State University.

Read the introduction to The First Book here.