In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Troy Jollimore, author of Syllabus of Errors, talks about inspiration while writing “My Book” (Syllabus of Errors, 29).
“I bought a copy, but it wasn’t mine.” This is the opening line of “My Book,” a poem in my third book, Syllabus of Errors. The line introduces what I take to be the main theme of that poem, the question that animates it, which is: what does it mean to say that something—in particular, a work of art—is “mine”? That is, what is the nature of property, especially when it comes to art? Our society is largely built on notions of property; indeed, property is crucial to the way people in the modern Western world think about rights and other ethical matters. And yet property is a complex and elusive concept, much more so, I think, than we commonly pretend.
“My Book” plays on ambiguities between the everyday meaning of my (in which to own a book is simply to possess a copy of a book, a physical object that one might treat and dispose of as one pleases) and the special meaning of my that attaches not to material ownership but to authorship (which is itself, it seems to me, a kind of ownership, but one that attaches to something other than a particular material object). But just what is this special sense? Authors are often imagined as bearing an especially intimate relationship to their works and, perhaps as a result of this, a special responsibility for their works. They are, to some degree, identified with their works. One feels, in reading the writers one loves, as if one comes to know them. Their thoughts, their minds, the very essence of their lives is there on the page, for all to see. The cliché “my life is an open book” alludes, in part, to this.
My own relationships with “my” books, though—and with my own individual poems as well—has not been so straightforward. I seem to find them as mysterious as do other people, and often wonder just what they are trying to get at. I don’t really know where they have come from; I don’t really understand the process by which they were written; and I am not confident in my ability to repeat that process in the future. The poems seem to have an existence that is largely and indeed fundamentally independent of me, and the prospect of being identified with them, or even being held responsible for them, feels troubling.
For the most part, when I hold one of “my” books in my hand, what I feel is not intimacy but strangeness. The person who has written the poems seems foreign and mostly unknown; as foreign and unknown, perhaps, as any former version of oneself. What do these poems say about me? What do they say to me? What if I decide I am unsatisfied with them, or no longer believe (if I ever did) the ideas they express—do I have, in that case, the right to revise them? Or would this amount to a kind of vandalism, a violation of the rights of their actual author, who is no longer around to assert those rights or complain about their being disrespected? What kind of special authority may I presume, when I am asked, as I was for this blog post, to write about one of “my” works, as if to explain it to the world? If I read Derrida again, or Barthes, would that help me answer these questions?
Perhaps one day I will write a book that really feels like it is mine, and I will be able to hold a copy of that book in my hands without being troubled by these questions. Maybe I’ll call it My Book, and I’ll make “My Book” the first poem in it. For the time being I feel happy with that poem; I like what it seems to say and enjoy how it says it. The thoughts it expresses are thoughts I myself seem to have had. It’s almost as if I wrote it.
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.