On the Subject of Truth (with a Captital T): Q&A with Troy Jollimore

Troy Jollimore

In ordinary conversation, the terms “poet” and “philosopher” tend to be applied arbitrarily to people with artistic and intellectual capabilities. But in the case of author and philosophy professor Troy Jollimore, they’re not hyperbolic descriptions but hard facts.

Jollimore rose to literary prominence in 2006 when the National Book Critics Circle named his first book of poems, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, the recipient of one of its annual awards. Since then, his second poetry collection, At Lake Scugog, has appeared, and his poems have been published in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, and other journals. Concerned with both the hypothetical and the actual, the real and the surreal, Jollimore’s work skirts a multiplicity of suggestive meanings. At times lighthearted but never tongue-in-cheek, his pieces often achieve nuance and complexity without sacrificing coherence. Two of his most recent poems, “Death by Landscape” and “Second Wind,” appear in the Fall 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA.

Currently a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico, Jollimore received the university’s Outstanding Professor award for 2009-2010, and, in addition to his poetic projects, has authored philosophical articles and books. His most recent book is his monograph Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press). Today, he continues to publish a number of reviews in periodicals nationwide, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and others.

Recently, he corresponded with ZYZZYVA about his intellectual and artistic processes, the decline of the humanities in higher education, and the notion of truth in poetry and philosophy.

ZYZZYVA: In addition to carving out a reputation as a successful poet, you earned a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton in 1999 and now teach. Since then, you’ve received extensive notice for your work in philosophy and academics as well as your poetry. How do the philosophical and poetic sensibilities differ — if they differ much at all — in their approaches to interpreting experience?

Troy Jollimore: I doubt that they differ much at all. And every answer I come up with has something obviously wrong with it, so perhaps that’s evidence that they don’t differ much at all. For instance, I thought I might say something like “the poetic sensibility wants to know what it can use out of an experience—i.e. use to make a poem—while the philosophical sensibility wants to know what it can learn from an experience.” But of course the poet is probably as interested in learning from an experience as the philosopher (and some philosophers are more interested in categorizing experiences than in learning from them), and the philosopher might be as interested in using the experience to help make a piece of philosophical writing as the poet is in using it to help make a poem. Both of them are always looking for good material, I think.

Randall Jarrell once wrote, “The last demand that we should make of philosophy—that it be interesting— is the first demand that we should make of a poem.” Now, that may be right in an important way, but it’s important not to misunderstand it. I think that philosophers should concern themselves with interesting and important topics, not trivial topics. So I think it is a fair criticism of a philosopher that he wastes his time on boring topics. But I think that Jarrell meant something else: that having decided what the topic is, the philosopher is under the obligation to try to say what is true about it, whether or not the truth turns out to be interesting. If you go with the interesting answer to the question rather than the one you think is true, then you’re not a philosopher; maybe you’re a poet.

I’m not quite sure about that. I certainly don’t want to suggest that poets lie. I’m much too much in agreement with the Keats line “beauty is truth, truth beauty” to ever say that. I myself have often written things in my poems that I knew weren’t true: made-up facts, etc. My poem “From the Boy Scout Manual,” for instance, is just full of bad advice. But I don’t take myself to be lying in these poems, because nobody expects the poet always to stick to the facts; that’s not part of our contract with the reader. So maybe what Jarrell said is just a witty way of reminding us that poets are fiction writers, and philosophers aren’t. On a deeper level, though, I think that poets, as much as other fiction writers (novelists, short story writers, dramatists) and as much as philosophers, are trying to say what is true. But the truths they are trying to say aren’t the sort of things that you can just come out and straightforwardly say.

I realize that you asked about approaches to interpreting experience, and I ended up talking about truth, but I don’t know how else to talk about it: “interpreting” of any sort always carries with it the implied goal of trying to say what is true, of trying to be accurate, so if there is any interesting difference between the poet’s and the philosopher’s way of interpreting experience, I think it’s going to come down to a difference in the way they conceive of or deal with truth.

Z: On the subject of “truth”—can there be such a thing in poetry? Raymond Barfield, in the preface to his 2011 book, The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry (Cambridge University Press), quotes Ben Mazer: “Poems are but evidence of Poetry.” There are multiple ways to read this, I think, but the one most intriguing to me implies something tautological about the insights Poetry with a capital P can reveal, unless we suppose such a Poetry is some all-encompassing quality. Do you think the latter is the case? Or is poetic “truth” unattainable in any universal sense, an antiquated idea lost to postmodernism? [UPDATE: Ben Mazer informs us that his quote, as it appears in the print version of Barfield’s book, misquotes a poem that appears in his 2010 volume, Poems (The Pen & Anvil Press). It should read “Poems are but evidence of poetry,” no capital P.]

TJ: That’s a nice quotation, though I always hesitate a bit at that sort of usage of the word “poetry” in a sense that doesn’t actually seem to denote poetry at all, but rather something, I don’t know, mystical? That is, I suspect that where Mazer wrote “Poetry” what he really should have said is something like, “magic.”

Truth in poetry, or truth anywhere, is such an interesting, complex, and contested topic. The first thing to note is the common-sense point that we can’t get away from talking about it and aspiring to it, no matter how skeptical or post-modern we might take ourselves to be. For instance, when you ask, “Do you think the latter is the case?” that’s just another way of asking, “Do you think the latter is true?” People might complain about that and say that the interesting questions about truth are not about that sort of common, garden-variety truth, but about Capital T Truth—which again, is something magical or mystical. And for my part, I’ve never understood what that sort of truth is supposed to be. (Similarly, I don’t know what the phrase “all-encompassing quality” means, just as I usually don’t know what words like “universal” and “absolute” are supposed to mean.)

On the other hand, if someone reads a poem and I say, “I love it, it’s so true,” it’s obvious that I don’t mean “true” in the most straightforward sense: if someone says “Ottawa is the capital of Canada,” I don’t say, “I love it, it’s so true.” What’s more likely going on is something like this: the poem is depicting a certain sort of experience, and it has done a good job of it, so that I recognize the experience and hence recognize and regard the poem as accurate. The poem is “true,” then, in the sense that it has managed to be accurate in the way that it depicts an experience. That’s one way a poem might be good, though not at all the only way, and not even the only way that can be signaled by the word “true.” (Sometimes, after all, we care more about the experience the poem causes or evokes than the experience the poem describes or represents; though perhaps in those cases we are less likely to use the word “true” to try to capture what we think is good about it.)

Auden once wrote a poem that contained the line “We must love one another or die.” Later he amended it to, “We must love one another and die.” The second version is better because it is more true. Is the truth that that line represents tautological? I don’t think so, though it is something that is pretty commonly known—but something that, even though most of us know it, we may not often think about, or may not think about in the context of a poem. At any rate, the question about tautologies might be one that tends more to throw us off the scent than to lead to something interesting, because the question of whether something is tautological seems quite separate from the question of whether it is interesting, or can represent an insight, so even if the only things poems could say were tautologies (and I’ve yet to see a strong argument for thinking that), that still wouldn’t at all suggest that they could not say anything interesting, or even that the interesting things they said could not be interesting by virtue of being true.

Z: Your poem “Death by Landscape” investigates the idea of duality, the perceived separateness of the individual from his or her environment: “And what if the matter of your body/were suddenly to remember all/that it has in common with the atoms/that comprise these oaks and alders…” The poem culminates with a reflection on “the sadness of hands, of teeth.” What about the struggle to realize the self as its own entity results in this sadness, this tragic sense?

TJ: I’m not sure that the struggle has to result in sadness, but it’s something I’ve felt, at least at times. Part of the idea of the poem, I suppose, is that our separateness from our environment is an illusion, but it’s a necessary illusion, one that makes life possible—as if the inevitability of death is really the inevitability of the eventual realization that that separation is merely an illusion. Beyond that I sort of hesitate to try to answer the question, perhaps partly because I find myself wondering whether the poem is trying to describe so much as to invent an emotion—an emotion that is familiar enough for us to get a purchase on, but at the same time something we have not felt before in this precise form.

Z: It seems to me that your poem “The Solipsist” is also invested in demonstrating the fallacious, illusory nature of seeing the “one” as separate from the “all.” But to what extent, then, is there room for understanding human beings as individuals? Does the lack of true separateness imply a sort of determinism—or is there, as a compatibilist might argue, some room for the negotiation of free will? Even if solipsism’s theory that the self is all that can be known to exist isn’t necessarily the antithesis of determinism, how do you, if only in your poetry, understand the singular human being’s place in terms of the part to the whole?

TJ: Of course in some sense I do think the self is separate from the rest of the world. I mean, there are lots of senses in which I am separate, and lots of senses in which I’m not. And then the question becomes: which of these senses matter most, for the purposes of understanding the world and of understanding myself?

Solipsism is complicated, because in a way it’s the ultimate expression of the view that there is no separation: if I am the only thing that exists then the world is me, so there is no separation. I think that poem is more interested in refuting the idea that nothing else exists beside myself than in refuting the idea that there I am separate from the rest of the world. (And even more than either of those, it’s interested in being entertaining.) And the connection with those sorts of issues and determinism is, again, not clear. You could be a determinist regardless of what you thought about solipsism or about whether you are separate from the rest of the world. I suppose that having free will would be one way you might be separate from the rest of the world, if it made you metaphysically special –most things in the world, after all, don’t have free will—but beyond that I’m quite reluctant to assert any sort of direct connection.

I will say that if we ever do get a satisfactory solution to the problem of determinism and free will, it is as likely to come from a poet as from a philosopher, because it’s going to involve, in the most literal sense, a new way of seeing ourselves and the world—a way of seeing that dissolves the distinctions and assumptions that make the whole free will/determinism issue so problematic for us. Whoever it is that is going to come up with that answer, if it comes, is going to be a far greater poet than I am, and a much greater philosopher, too.

Z: In your review of Martha C. Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, you lament the state of public universities and the decline of the prevalence of arts and the humanities in academia, a shift symptomatic of the larger culture as well. Given this view, does the poet (or the writer, the painter, the musician, and so on) have any obligation to advocacy in addition to artistic practice?

TJ: Yes, but within limits. The responsibility doesn’t fall only on poets, and thank God for that, because how much power do we have, anyway? It falls on everyone with a stake in literature, which means all writers, all readers, and, really, everyone, because even if you’re so undeveloped or thin that you’re unable to find any sort of direct pleasure yourself in the act of reading, you still benefit from the fact that that culture exists. The idea that you have a right to be treated with certain forms of respect, for instance, which is an idea that few people I have met would be willing to give up, is an idea that some educated people had to come up with at some point; these ideas, as natural as they seem to us, aren’t just floating around in the cosmos. They had to be invented. They don’t occur naturally, like coconuts.

But then, the entire life we live had to be invented. The absurd and very harmful resistance to paying to educate our children in this country seems to be rooted in resentment, in the idea that to fund education, or anything else in the public sphere, means that somebody out there is getting something for nothing, so that those who pay taxes are somehow being victimized. Because of course they’ve never gotten something for nothing; they’ve pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. And I think this is sheer idiocy. These people live in a world of streets and buildings that they didn’t build. Every day they make use of thousands of inventions that some genius—not them—invented. (Including language itself.) Put a baby on a desert island and it’s not going to figure out, alone, how to make eyeglasses or a sew a shirt or how to treat itself when it gets sick. To be born into a culture like ours, to come after the centuries of people that have created things to make our lives better and richer, is an incredible gift. And to think that whatever paltry work each of us might do during his or her life here somehow entitles us to that large a gift is the height of absurdity. So we all get something for nothing. Above all else, this current animus toward public education, toward public anything, seems grounded in a colossal lack of gratitude.

So we all should advocate for a more educated society, a more literate society. But poets already do this, to a degree, by doing the things they do as poets. Writing poetry, reading other peoples’ poetry, buying poetry books, giving readings, spreading the word, being visible, helping other writers and writing be visible—these are forms of advocacy. Other forms are good—voting well, supporting libraries, that sort of thing. But there are limits to what overt advocacy can do in this age of special interest politics. The poetry lobby will never have the resources of the oil lobby. And of course I am sympathetic to Thoreau when he said, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make it a good place to live, but to live in it.” You don’t want to waste your whole life on politics.

Z: On the topic of culture—you’re a native of Canada, having spent your undergraduate years at Halifax universities. Do you perceive any major differences in the social treatment of poetry, or any other art form for that matter, between the United States and our northern neighbors? Narrowing the consideration further, are there any elements that seem to delineate a particular “West Coast” literary sensibility or aesthetic to you?

TJ: I’m not sure that I am in a position to answer the question about Canadian culture, given that I haven’t lived there since 1993. My general sense is that cultural differences between the two countries tend to be exaggerated—not to say there aren’t any, but these days it’s more productive to talk about them on the local level than on the national level. And maybe I feel the same about the idea of West Coast culture. There are differences in terms of personality and the feel of everyday life—I used to live in New Jersey, for instance, and that is much more aggressive, much faster-paced and more defensive than the open, casual attitude I experience here. But as for differences in poetry, I’d hate to generalize. Writers move around so much, they go where the jobs are or, if they can afford it, where the weather is good; and wherever they go they’re going to be able to stay in touch with the people they see as their fellows and get copies of the books that they find aesthetically tantalizing … they’re going to carry their culture with them, in other words. Of course, when they live in a place that’s large enough to have an actual literary community then they are affected by the writers living nearby, the ones they actually see. But that’s not going to give you a regional or coastal culture, that’s going to give you a local culture, a city culture or even a neighborhood culture. I think of D.A. Powell’s Cocktails as being, perhaps, the paradigmatic San Francisco book for this moment.

Z: Like “Death by Landscape,” your poem “Second Wind” draws on a terminology of nature—oceans, suns, trees—but one that’s distinctly characterized; there’s a “sun at the heart of the earth,” and a tree-shaped shadow over the ocean that holds “darkness… at its core.” By the end of the piece, it’s clear there’s something troubling about the attempt to reconcile the disparities between real and perceived identities. You continue: “These things,
/however they might terrify, are nonetheless
/true. …I will kiss the unholy curve/of your neck. I will try to take your mind//off the shadow. It is the shape of a tree.” When I consider the fable-esque language the poem begins with, these lines seem to me to hark back to Eden, though you denote parts of your poem as “true.”

TJ: Yes, it’s important somehow, in a way that I don’t feel I understand yet, that at least some of the things said in this poem be clearly false—the sun at the heart of the earth, for example. That’s something I’ve played with before. “From the Boy Scout Manual,” for example, is a parody of the kind of language you find in Boy Scout Manuals and other such books, which is composed almost entirely of false statements about how to survive in the woods, how to tell which direction is north, etc. I was thinking about how as a child I would read those books and believe every word of them, I would grant them this special authority on very little basis other than the fact that, well, it was a printed book and surely the people who had made it wouldn’t lie to you, right? I mean, I had no idea who those people were—but on the other hand the adults I did know seemed to trust the book, as far as I could tell. And the point was, anyway, that it didn’t occur to me to question those claims—I didn’t even draw the inference “It’s in a book, ergo, it’s true”; that was just automatic. There were some other poems in that book that were concerned with that kind of trustingness, too; it seems to me very emblematic of childhood, and maybe it’s something I miss now that I’ve learned, allegedly, to question pretty much everything. When I used to sign copies of that book, by the way, I would often write “This book of lies and bad advice.” Though sometimes, in a different mood, I would write, “Keep this book with you at all times—it could save your life.”

Z: You’ve written a number of reviews in addition to your creative works. How does frequent reviewing play into how you see yourself as a writer? Is it ever a hindrance to other goals—or maybe a boon?

TJ: The best thing about reviewing is that it’s a place I can go when I get stuck on a poem, that lets me keep writing without the pressure of having to make a poem work. Making a review work can be a challenge, too—and there is a different kind of responsibility there— but the rules of the game are different. It’s almost like taking a break from poetry and going and playing tennis for a while.

One of the rules that are different is that in a review, as in philosophy, you are allowed to make clear claims, to utter sentences that you intend as straightforwardly true. And sometimes it’s a relief to be able to do that! But after working on a review for a while it can be a relief to go back to poetry, where you are allowed to say things that aren’t true, or to use language that doesn’t make claims at all. You can do anything in a poem, as long as it makes the reading experience rich or memorable in some way. The rules of poetry are that there are no rules. And this is both liberating and intimidating. It means that you never feel like you know how to write a poem, no matter how many you’ve written. The next one will be different and make demands of you that have never been made before. This isn’t true of reviews, or else it’s true to a much lesser degree: reviews vary from one another in the details, but the general procedure, the strategy, and the goals, are pretty much the same each time.

Z: A handful of philosophers—namely ancient—wrote in verse, including Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles. A Berkeley professor, during a lecture, once told me that some of the genre’s built-in ambiguities proved “problematic” when attempting to understand what they meant. Do you agree? Is there a reason why philosophy as a discipline no longer utilizes poetics in its discourse?

TJ: Yes, that professor’s comment strikes me as largely correct. It’s so hard not to be ambiguous when writing philosophy—actually, let me rephrase: it’s impossible not to be ambiguous when writing philosophy, so really our task is to try to get the level of ambiguity down as low as possible—that the last thing one wants to do is to place additional constraints on the language one is using. That is, you want to have all the linguistic resources there are at your disposal to try to combat the ambiguity, so you don’t also want to be worrying about the fact that the thing ought to rhyme, or needs to meet a certain structure in terms of repeating words or lines or stanzas, etc., or that sentences need to be at least x words long or no more than y words long, etc. In this sense poetry is a bad medium for philosophy in the same sense that, to take an extreme case, Twitter is a bad medium for philosophy — you don’t want to be limited to 140 characters since it might turn out that you need 150 characters (or, more likely, 150 words, or 1,500 words, or maybe 15,000 words) to really be as clear as you need to be.

I take this to be related to Randall Jarrell’s point about conflicting demands on poetry and philosophy: poetry needs to be interesting (and in particular, to be interesting in a literary sense, which has to do largely with the sensual and even material properties of the words themselves) whereas philosophy has to be, as much as it can be, accurate and clear.

That’s not to say that there can’t be any such thing as a philosophical poem, but the large majority of those poems are not actually doing philosophy in the sense that an article in a philosophical journal is at least intending to. Rather, most of those poems are playing with philosophical ideas, or transmitting them to an audience of non-specialists, or something like that. And I think all of those activities are very valuable. But to write a poem that has any kind of explicit form, and to actually do philosophy in that poem, is pretty much impossible; I think you’d have to be extraordinarily brilliant and extraordinarily lucky if you managed to compose a sonnet or sestina or what have you that actually turned out to be the best possible expression of the particular philosophical idea you are trying to get across.

But that all has to do with the form of poetry. If we think of metaphor as being in its own way inherently poetic, then we will have to say something very different. Because philosophers can get by without poetic forms, and indeed should if they want to be as clear as possible, but they need metaphors—in fact, as Wittgenstein rightly observed, coming up with a metaphor that lets the reader see the world in a different way is often more significant, and even more convincing, than offering the kind of argument or proof that some analytic philosophers have been trained to think is the main product of their trade. And I think there are quite a few poems that are genuinely philosophical in this sense, in the sense that they offer metaphors that express profound ideas or urge us toward a radical shift in how we conceptualize the world. There’s no conflict at all in this context between philosophy and poetry. Poetic forms tend to get in the way of philosophizing, but metaphor is where philosophy and poetry come together.

One thought on “On the Subject of Truth (with a Captital T): Q&A with Troy Jollimore

  1. ADK,

    I’m amazed. You are a fantastic writer and deep thinker. I tremendously enjoy reading pieces. Do continue to write and think freely. You’re determined resolve, unwavering bravery, and thorough investigation in, as TJ aptly puts it, ‘boring’ philosophical inquiries is captivating, impressive, and refreshing all at the same time! It is a breath of fresh air to read your writing. I stop often to mull over the philosophical cross-roads of relating, and thus reconciling truth and experience. I’m filled with joy to see a piece subtly echoing the sentiments of DFW both implicitly in the investigation and explicitly in the title. In a past life I used to attend the Berkeley Philosophy Forum led by graduate students in Moses Hall to hear graduate philosophy students present their theses. I believe you would have found this forum to be tasteful. I live on campus and have finally settled on majoring in Neurobiology (not a far ways from philosophy, in my humble opinion) but enjoy blogging, writing, photographing, and cooking with my free time. If you ever would like grab an arbitrary type of food or coffee on campus shoot me an email or text.


    Sam Greene
    [email protected]
    (650) 815-5405

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