Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Interview with Philosopher-Poet Troy Jollimore


Photograph of Troy Jollimore

What follows is an interview with philosopher and poet Troy Jollimore. Troy is Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. He is the author of Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press, 2011) and On Loyalty (Routledge, 2012) as well as over a dozen articles in journals including Midwest Studies in PhilosophyCanadian Journal of Philosophy, and American Philosophical Quarterly. He is also the author of two collections of poetry: At Lake Scugog (2011) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2006. He is a former External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow.

Aesthetics for Birds recently featured an interview with poet and critic David Orr, author of Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Much of David’s work as a critic aims at demystifying poetry for a modern audience. Of course, philosophical enquiry can be said likewise to aim at the demystification of its subject matter. Given your status as a philosopher-poet (a designation perhaps few other than yourself can genuinely pull off without seeming for all the world a Class-A poseur), in what ways have you found philosophy to help or to hinder the study, practice, or appreciation of poetry (whether in general or more specifically in terms of your own work)?

First, thank you for making it clear that you don’t consider me a Class-A poseur! I often feel the poetry and the philosophy are continuous, or are two aspects of the same thing. Think of Plato. The dialogues are great works of philosophy, and they are great poetic works. It’s only natural that a person who does one should do the other—it’s surprising there aren’t more of us—and the division into different departments is, I think, largely a matter of academic bureaucracy, though one that has become so deeply entrenched and institutionalized that it feels natural and inevitable, as if it were a feature not of the university but of the universe itself.

One thing I’m tempted to say, when someone asks this sort of question, is that both philosophy and poetry are ways of trying to get at the truth. But we should immediately qualify that, with respect to poetry, because of course not all poetry is trying to be accurate in any way, or trying to depict anything. Or rather, it depends largely on how flexible you’re willing to be, how much you’re willing to stretch concepts like truth, accuracy, etc. Some poems just want to sound good, they don’t aspire to have any discernible meaning at all, in the ordinary sense, let alone a descriptive meaning. Just as you could say, of a piece of instrumental music, that it is ‘right’ in some important sense, you could say that of such a poem, too. But I think that’s stretching the concepts too far. Whatever ‘right’ means there—and that’s already not really the right word—it doesn’t mean ‘true.’ So let’s allow that there are some poems that are good poems, but they aren’t good because they are accurate or true.

But it’s important to realize how many poems don’t work this way, or don’t work entirely this way. Any poem that is about more than just sound, pure music, has, I think, some concern with truth. Even a poem that at first looks like pure fiction, pure creation, something that is made up and is in no way an attempt to depict reality, even a lot of these turn out to be trying to be true, to get things right, at a deep level. For instance, if a poem is trying to describe a human experience, then it matters whether it gets that experience right. The incident it describes might never have happened, the characters might be imagined (even the speaker, if it’s a first person poem, can be largely imagined, and not identical with the author at all)-all of the factsof the poem might be fictional, but there is still a deep difference between a poem of this sort that captures experience accurately—the poem that can make you say, no inappropriately, “Ah, that’s so true”—and the poem of this sort that gets the experience wrong. (It gets trickier, of course, when a poem is not trying to describe an experience but rather to provoke or enact one.)

I think a great deal of poetry is of this sort, and that one of the things such poetry does is to help us understand our lives better, to understand the world better. That’s not the only thing it does, but of course understanding things better isn’t the only thing philosophy does either! Philosophy, like poetry, also gives pleasure, it entertains, it builds community, it provides solace. And both make the experience of living life richer, I think—partly (but again, perhaps not entirely) because they give you a better, deeper grasp of the world. The person who, faced with a certain situation, is able to respond poetically—perhaps because she literally recalls some lines from Rilke or Emily Dickinson or Jane Kenyon or whoever, or perhaps because, whether or not she recalls a particular line or image or metaphor, reading and thinking about poetry has taught her to think metaphorically and so has trained her perceptions to be richer and more resonant—is going to grasp that situation more deeply, and will get more out of it . She will see aspects of it that other can’t.

We need these various ways of trying to grasp the world—and we need others, too—because the world is incredibly complex, and pluralistic, and elusive. Some insights are more easily captured, articulated, grasped, or gestured toward in poetry’s language rather than philosophy’s language; for others, the contrary is true. And if this general picture is roughly right, then doing philosophy (whether that means reading it, writing it, carrying on dialogues about it, or whatever it might mean) is going to help you do poetry, and vice versa. It’s all part of the larger, quite encompassing process of developing your mind in a way that makes it more adequate to the world, capable of capturing or registering, and responding adequately to, more of what is going on in the world.

Impressionist painting of an orchard
Book cover of Tom Thompson in Purgatory
A still lake reflects the mountains in the background
Book cover of At lake Scugog

Poetry often strikes me as being an exceedingly (perhaps even an essentially) formal enterprise that unsurprisingly at times seems more closely aligned with the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) than its immediate literary kin (prose, essay, drama). Do you consider this a fair characterization? Within the well-worn Form vs. Content debate, do you think there is a stable center to be held between the purely phonaesthetic heights achieved by the apotheosis of “cellar door” and the depths plumbed by William McGonagal’s The Tay Bridge Disaster and the lesson it seeks to impart:

“For the stronger we our do houses build,
The less chance we have of being killed.”

That’s a great question. But I think I’d want to say that all of the literary forms you mention are highly formal, and highly conventional; it’s just that the conventions are more noticeable in poetry, because there they are further from the conventions we tend to use in daily conversation. Essays are written largely in the way we talk, except more articulately, better organized, etc., and with all the boring stuff left out; novels, too. Although that’s more complicated than it at first appears, isn’t it? It seems true of formal poetry: people don’t speak in sonnets or sestinas. And it seems true of the stuff at the other end, highly fragmented postmodern poetry, ‘Language’ poetry, etc. People don’t talk like that, either, unless they’re having a stroke or have ingested something. The formal stuff is more coherent than our everyday talk; the most postmodern stuff is more incoherent. But then there is the stuff in the middle: free verse that carries sustained thoughts, but allows for digressions or interruptions, and that doesn’t fit an established conventional form. That can be pretty close to the way we talk. If we transcribed our conversations, they might actually sound more like that sort of poetry than like a section from an essay or a novel.

As for the Form vs. Content debate—well, there’s so much to say here. If I could only say one thing I’d say: let a thousand flowers bloom. There’s no reason every poem has to do everything, so let poems be specialists. Some can be completely meaningless (in the stricter senses of ‘meaning’) and just sound beautiful; some can focus more on content than on form—though I think if you have no formal thought going on, no attention paid to the form, then what you have really isn’t a poem. In the McGonagal example, while there is form, there isn’t any interesting form: nothing new or creative is being done with it, it doesn’t even feel like he’s feeling it; and the words are assembled as they are only to preserve the rhythm and rhyme scheme. It’s a paint-by-numbers poem. But more than that, the content here is also dead: it’s an obvious idea. This isn’t so much a poem that valorizes content at the expense of form; it’s a hilariously bad poem that skimps both on content and on form. It has nothing to say, and it says it awkwardly and poorly.

A really good idea, a really new, perceptive insight, can carry a poem, can make it worth reading even if the poem’s formal characteristics aren’t all that special. But the ideal, of course, is to have a strong idea expressed through language that sounds both unexpected and inevitable, so that form and content are firing simultaneously on all cylinders. Few poems, few poets, ever achieve that. Yeats got there; a poem like “Sailing to Byzantium” or “The Second Coming” would perhaps be the ideal example of what I’m thinking of.

In your book Love’s Vision, you defend a view of love according to which love can be reason-guided without it thereby being legitimately subjected to rational evaluation. This view reminds me in spirit of the traditional conception of artistic creation (as distinct from that of mere craft) as involving some special (or divine) kind of activity that while surely reason-driven somehow lies just beyond rational scrutiny–i.e., art-making as a fundamentally inspirational rather than motivational enterprise. Do you think there is something to this distinction or is it merely yet another case of overly mystifying (and romanticizing) poetry specifically and art-making more generally? Do you find the creative process for your poetry substantially different than that for your philosophical work?

Two lovers lay in bed, one watching the other sleep.
Book cover for Love’s Vision
A figure wades into a lake towards a canoe in the distance.
Book cover for On Loyalty

The one thing they both have in common, actually, is that they both rely so heavily on inspiration, and that because of that (and maybe for other reasons) I really don’t feel in either case like I know what I’m doing, or know how to do what it is that I do. That’s to say, they both feel like something not entirely under my control. I can sit down and write for an hour, hoping a strong poem, or the beginnings of one, will emerge, and it might be that nothing happens. Similarly, when I’m out of philosophical ideas I can’t just make myself have one. I know there are things I can do to make it more likely that a good poem, or good piece of philosophical writing, will happen, but it’s always a matter of probability; you can never guarantee it. Which is why I’m always nervous about accepting assignments, promising writing to people in advance of the actual inspiration, because the inspiration might not come. And it also means, of course, that you can’t choose what you write about. People ask me why I don’t write political poems, and it’s simply because when I try, they’re usually awful. The muse isn’t speaking to me there. Or, that muse isn’t speaking to me, if there are different muses.

There’s a reason why talk of ‘the muse,’ in one form or another, is always part of the discussion about poetry, and it comes from that lack of control. You’re not in control here because you can’t make this stuff happen, so of course it feels like it’s coming from outside. Really, it’s probably coming from another part of you. But then, what’s part of you, and what isn’t? That’s a deep philosophical question. Lately I’ve read a few references, here and there, to the fact – I don’t know if this is a recent discovery or just something that has recently become widely known beyond the scientific community – but apparently a very large proportion of the biological matter of our bodies is made of bacteria whose DNA is not human. Now, this is pretty interesting. And the way a lot of people seem to respond is to say, that stuff isn’t you; it turns out that a whole lot of that body isn’t you, because it isn’t human. But that isn’t my response at all. I want to ask, what’s so special about DNA? So there are parts of my body that don’t have human DNA – it still seems pretty obvious it’s my body in the relevant sense, so the right response is to say that I’m largely made of bacteria. As are you. It isn’t as if it’s an a prioritruth that we’re human. If your doctor ran some tests and said “My God, we’ve double- and triple-checked and it turns out that you aren’t biologically human, you’re a completely different species, biologically speaking,” she hasn’t said anything conceptually impossible. Her claim might well be true.

The point is that we have a very complex, slippery understanding of what we are and of where the boundaries are. So this talk about inspiration and the muse and so forth, which is a way of talking about inside and outside, is a deployment of a lot of metaphors to try to grasp or accommodate a complex phenomenon and answer, or if not to answer then to let us live comfortably with,  some highly difficult questions, like: when is my poem mine, and when is it not? What does it mean to put my name on it and call myself the author? When is an ideamine, and what does that mean? As for whether acknowledging the significance and necessity of inspiration is objectionably romanticizing or mystifying—well, I doubt it has to be. The questions themselves are mystifying. The very notion of a human agent-in-the-world doing any of the complex things human agents tend to do is kind of a romantic notion. I don’t see it as problematic unless the acknowledging of the mystifying nature of the questions becomes a form of deliberate mystification. We shouldn’t let the recognition of the fact that things are going on here that are profound and highly mysterious, or our attachment to certain ideas of human agency, become an excuse for not even trying to understand these things, or for accepting needlessly fuzzy thinking about them. There is no project more worthy of undertaking, I think, than the project of trying to understand persons and the things they do—including, but obviously enough not limited to, their artistic endeavors. Being too unromantic about it, or too anti-mystical—for instance, assuming simply as a matter of conceptual necessity that it all must reduce to something straightforwardly mechanistic, something that looks more or less like, say, Newtonian physics, particles knocking against one another in the void, that sort of thing—I think that can be as big a mistake as being overly romantic or mystical about it.

Just as love is often left out of the philosophical debates surrounding the emotions, poetry likewise receives little philosophical attention within the philosophy of literature [save extensive and excellent work on the subject by Anna Christina Ribeiro (Texas Tech)]. Perhaps the reason for this is that love stands in relation to those garden variety emotions for which cognitive activity plays a more central if not fundamental role in much the same way that poetry stands to those forms of literature for which issues of meaning, truth, and reference seem the central philosophical focus. What do you think philosophical enquiry into the emotions misses out on by leaving love out of the debate? Similarly, what contributions do you think increased philosophical attention to poetry might yield for philosophy of art and literature in general?

I’m happy to say that love is getting a lot of philosophical attention recently, which is certainly a departure from the tradition of the last century or so. What you think philosophy misses by ignoring love depends on your view of love. If you share Harry Frankfurt’s view that a person’s loving commitments have a strong influence in determining what they have reason to do—and I do share that view, though I disagree with him about a lot of the details of it—then you’ll think that we need to get smart about love in order to get clear about practical reasoning. If you think, as I do, that love is largely a cognitive matter, and a way of arriving at understandings of the world, then our picture of how belief, knowledge, and justification work is going to be incomplete, and probably pretty screwed up, if we misunderstand love. At any rate, I take love to be a strongly evaluative emotion (Frankfurt doesn’t, that’s a place where we disagree), and a lot of my philosophical work is concerned with questions of value, of what value is and how it works and how we can come to know it and make judgment about it. And questions of value—what kind of life is worth living, what’s worth our time, what’s good and what’s not so good, etc.—these are places where philosophical enquiry really makes contact with everyday interests and concerns. Who doesn’t care about those questions? Some people might manage to avoid thinking about those questions very much; they get into a rut. Maybe it’s a little bit like the rut analytic philosophy was in during the time when it didn’t think much about love. But really, these questions are significant for everyone, so if thinking about love can shed any light on them—and I think it can shed a lot—then it’s worth thinking about, too.

As for what increased philosophical attention to poetry might do—here I’m a bit more hesitant to make a prediction, largely because I think that the deepest value of pure enquiry, be it philosophical, scientific, or any other sort, is that you don’t know at the outset what you’re going to find. So many of the great discoveries, the things that have made our lives what they are, are side effects. This is something so many people today, especially in government or other forms of administration—university administration, certainly—don’t understand; they won’t give a green light to anything unless you can say up front what positive results you can confidently expect to produce. But the projects that let you confidently predict positive results are almost always less interesting, and less promising, than the ones where you really don’t know what you’re going to have at the end. Those are the projects that, in the long run, have always turned out to be most important. It’s a bit like writing a poem, or writing philosophy: it’s best not to know, at the beginning, what you’re doing, because your feeble intentions are almost guaranteed to aim at a target less interesting than the one that you might hit if start with something that feels inspired or exciting to you, and then just follow it wherever it leads you, putting aside your expectations and desires and your memories of how this has happened before or beliefs about how this is supposed to work. You might hit a target that, outset, you couldn’t even have imagined. That’s why intellectual integrity is so important in philosophy: you have to follow the reasoning where it goes, not make it go where you wanted it to go.

So who knows what philosophical attention to poetry will result in? Personally, even more than philosophers subjecting poetry as a genre to philosophical scrutiny, I just wish more philosophers would read particular poems. Human experience is a constantly moving target, it’s so difficult to think or talk about at all clearly, and there is so much human experienced captured and examined and enacted in this body of literature. I think philosophers could only benefit by paying more attention to it, as to any body of literature, or any neglected aspect of human life.

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