Jeff Dolven and Justin E.H. Smith assay the hoard of poetry’s riches in this month’s episode: Is poetry a way of grasping at the treasures of language, past and present? Or might there be something that is particular to poetry, something unlike the pleasures and possibilities of other forms of literature? Countering Justin’s more extensive notion, Jeff offers that poetry is language that wants to happen “all at once.” Will Jeff and Justin be able to reach an agreement? Or will the goat bleat at the buzzer, before they can settle their differences? Listen in to find out. Along the way, they’ll discuss Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” epic poetry versus novelistic prose, and the poetic doppelgängers Frank O'Hara and Thomas Wyatt.
Justin E.H. Smith [00:12]
Hello and welcome to “What Is X?” My name is Justin E.H. Smith and I'm the regular host of this podcast for The Point magazine. As regular listeners will know, the rules of this game are rather simple. I like to describe it as something like a cross between Plato's Meno and Bob Barker’s The Price Is Right. I have on a guest who is in some respect or other and authority on the X in question for the given episode, and the guest and I discuss in a more or less dialectical fashion, the x in question and we see if we cannot, by the end of the dialogue, come to an agreed-upon definition of what the x is. My guest today will be investigating the question “What is poetry?” with me. He is the professor and poet Jeff Dolven. He teaches English at Princeton University, is a scholar of the work of Spenser, and also has a recent book out from 2017, four years ago, from the University of Chicago Press called Senses of Style, which investigates from numerous different approaches the work and the lives of two poets: Wyatt, in the early modern period, and Frank O'Hara in the twentieht century. So welcome, Jeff, I'm excited to talk about this particular x with you.
Jeff Dolven [02:05]
Me too, Justin.
Justin E.H. Smith [02:07]
So I was trying to think about possible inroads, and I promised you earlier that I wouldn't lay on heavy my favorite lines and my favorite poets, but a good way to start was rereading Seamus Heaney's introduction to his translation of Beowulf. And he wanted to explain what his motivation was for returning to Anglo-Saxon poetry and to the Anglo-Saxon language that he had studied as a student in Belfast, and he quotes a line from Beowulf itself in his own translation. And he says, "I felt it would be useful to me as a poet to assay the hoard," and I gather the "hoard" here is the English language, and that he is conceiving poetry as the work of assaying the horde. Is that an understanding of poetry that makes sense to you, that speaks to you? Must a poet assay the hoard? I guess that's a question about, well, it could be a question about how much poetry a poet has to read to be a poet. Do you have to, in some aspirational or asymptotic sense, read all of it? And I would agree with him on that—that is, the poet's appetite for reading has to be enormous, has to be expansive and radiating and traveling. And at the same time, in that little formulation, "assay the hoard," there's a lot to hold you back or turn you back. What does he mean by "hoard"? You know how that's spelled, but I don't. H-O-R-D-E, H-O-A-R-D? So it could mean "assay the horde" in the sense of getting into this the martial spirit of Beowulf itself, or encountering the whole range of poets out there, among whose works one has to find one's place. Or it could mean sort of trying, trying everything in the treasure chest. "Assaying" in that etymological sense of "try," and there I think, just in the fact that I've paused over those, that line, I've, I've sort of prized out a double sense of that word. I've kind of turned it back on myself. I've gotten stuck a little bit with it. That's, that's an important counter-impulse. It's not perhaps part of the argument of Heaney's line but it's an implication of that line, that even if we have to try everything, we also have to be paradoxically arrested by everything. Uh huh. That's fascinating. You know, I hadn't even picked up on the danger of homonomy that lurked in that little word "hoard." I'll give it away. It's H-O-A-R-D, it's not H-O-R-D-E which, to me, has Central Asian Turkic Mongolian resonances that I wouldn't expect to find in a translation from Old Norse. And the way I saw this line, the way Heaney was using it, is that he was thinking of poetry as—or an exercise propaedeutic to poetry as—opening up the treasure chest and counting out all the gold coins in the treasure chest, where the gold coins are words and their ancient word roots. And it seemed like a beautiful way to summarize his description of what he's hoping to get out of this work.
Jeff Dolven [06:13]
Yeah, I can see that interpretation. But I'm not sure it's enough to distinguish poetry, as opposed to other kinds of writing. I could imagine a novelist, particularly a novelist who's sort of careful with diction, careful with sentences—not all novelists, not even all good novelists are. But many are. Particularly such a novelist saying, you know, in order to write this book, I had to assay the hoard, I had to sift through my resources. So I think if we're going to come to a definition of poetry—what is poetry—we may have to we may have to look elsewhere. And I suppose in discerning that pun, I'm pointing in a different direction, or again, in a sense, holding us still steady vibrating in a particular lexical place. In order to be transfixed and transfigured by it.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:18]
Mm hmm. And you're pointing in another direction, away from this?
Jeff Dolven [07:22]
Yeah, or as I say, I want to think not about the sort of extensiveness of poetry, although, you know, we can get around to that, too. But I'm introducing the idea that there's something intensive about it.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:37]
Say more about that.
Jeff Dolven [07:39]
Well, I'm going to try out on you a definition of poetry.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:47]
Okay. Now this is properly Socratic dialogue.
Jeff Dolven [07:52]
It's internal to poetry to sort of keep trying out versions of what it is, keep making arguments for why I, the poet, or the poem speaking, am a poem, and sometimes why other claimants to the title are not. So I think an understanding—a philological understanding of poetry, or an ordinary language understanding of poetry—is probably going to avail itself of a lot of different definitions in order to capture the way we sort of talk about and talk in poetry. That said, here's my not unprecedented but idiosyncratic definition, see if it lands with you. That poetry is a kind of language that wants to happen all at once. That wants to be self simultaneous. And the force of that definition is its distinction from prose, if we understand prose as being sequential, unfolding in time and not doing a whole lot of looking back. Prose is getting somewhere. And it sort of doesn't pay the novel reader, let alone the reader of the lawnmower repair manual, to be sort of constantly returning to earlier moments. You have a kind of momentum moving through the text, that momentum is part of the pleasure of that kind of reading, and you keep going. Whereas a poem is always casting you backwards into itself. And this sort of radical limit of that freedom of movement, and especially retrograde movement, is an idea that it's so connected to itself that it wants to be a single moment.
Justin E.H. Smith [09:45]
That's an exciting prospect. Does it cover the whole range of traditions across the centuries that currently are classified under the name poetry? Or does it cover the kind of poetry that's most salient for poets working today?
Jeff Dolven [10:10]
Yeah, great question. I am basically, philosophically speaking—well, perhaps philosophically speaking, I'm a philologist or something like an ordinary language philosopher. I think like you in many ways, I'm just extremely interested in what words mean and how they're used. And so I don't actually think there's a higher court of appeal in definitional questions like that. Nonetheless, I think there are very kind of socially and intellectually important definitional language games that we play, momentarily allowing ourselves to suppose that we could arrive at the sort of essentialism that's perhaps implied in "What is X?" And that's what I'm doing now—playing this game to see how far it'll get us and how much it will light up. And so, in answer to your question, it's a definition that sort of borrows from and probably works best with what Western European poetics and Anglo-American poetics has come to call "lyric." But I think it's extensible to a wide variety of other poetic productions, and other traditions. You couldn't really say that the Iliad wants to happen all at once, because it's crucial that it tells the story it does. At the same time, so much of what inclines us to think of it as a poem has to do with the with its oral formulae, their repetition, the sense that the same epithets are accorded the same characters again and again, in order that the poem may reside in memory. And it's full of typology, in the sense that events are types of other events, that sort of moments in the narrative are connected to other moments, language is often sort of brazenly repeated in the sort of version of the text that comes down to us. And if you were going to try to inhabit my account of poetry at that limit, it would say something like, "insofar as it's a poem, you can feel it kind of pulling itself together around those homologies those similarities and even those repetitions." It's... there isn't prose on that moment. But it won't be all that long before we get Greek prose romances, and they're composed very differently, and rely much less upon those sort of forms of recurrence and reprise. Again, not that novels don't do that—they do that narratively—but they don't do it with quite the linguistic intensity. And I haven't even begun to speak of meter, which is one of the very most basic aspects in which a lot of poetry rhythmically repeats itself.
Justin E.H. Smith [13:32]
This is really exciting to me, as you're speaking. You know, I have this interest in the history of various artes memoriae, and of epic in other nontextual cultures, as a practice of honing the memory and transmitting knowledge across generations when you don't have written works to do this. But one thing that never dawned on me about such practices, including the early years of the life of Homer's epics, for example, is that once something is committed to memory, it is, in a sense, simultaneous, right? It's already all there in your mind, which is now something like divine relative to the unfolding of the story. Whereas no one memorizes a novel—I mean, I guess you could—and so the unfolding of the story of the novel from page to page is a kind of intrinsic temporality to the art form that was not there originally in epic poetry. Am I getting your account right?
Jeff Dolven [14:51]
Yeah, very much and, you could see how the sort of development of the short lyric poem in the West, metered and often rhymed, is most enabling of that promise of being held in the mind all at once—and held in the mind by virtue of not only of those recurrences which prompt memory, and regularities and rhythms which prompt memory, but because of the intensity of its interconnectedness, the ways in which it can be understood to be connected to itself, across gaps of words or time that would be legislated or enacted by recitation. I was thinking, just before we were getting on, of an example of this—a wonderful stanza from an enormous poem with which I'm obsessed, have been long obsessed, an epic poem of the late sixteenth century, by Edmund Spenser, called The Faerie Queene. And in its sixth book, which in modern additions means around its eight hundredth page, it looks back on itself a little bit. And Spenser says, "The wais, through which my weary steps I guyde, / In this delightful land of Faery, / Are so exceeding spacious and wyde, / And sprinckled with such sweet variety, / Of all that pleasant is to eare and eye, / That I nigh rauisht with rare thoughts delight," and it goes on from there. But it may just be that the ear is detained. "All that pleasant is to eare and eye," we've just heard "sprinckled with such sweet variety." And those two different vowels, the E and the I, are they they they weren't singled out, and that word variety, they're just sort of part of the part of the syllable flow of that word. But then "eare" and "eye" pick them out a line later. And if you're listening, then that question of the relationship between seeing and hearing the variety of those two senses, and the variety of perceptions and synesthesias that they enable, suddenly that problem is doubly activated. And it's, it's because in spite of the fact that those—that word and that phrase—are estranged from one other by an intervening passage of syntactic discourse, they're connected. They're on top of each other—you've got to think them together in order to know the poem, or at least the poem is provoking you to think them together. And then it's, you know, this poem is folded back on itself, in spite of the fact that line by line, it's sort of stretched out across those thousand pages. So that kind of operation, it can be sound, it can be semantics, it can be so many different cues to similarity, resemblance, identity. But that's the moment when time gets defeated, or the poem says, you know, chronology, chronology is going to wrong-foot you here, because the thing that was after is not actually after; the that was before is not actually before.
Justin E.H. Smith [18:27]
What… a question of ignorance here, what was the understanding that guided Spenser of the relationship between the written and the recited forms of his work? Which was primary?
Jeff Dolven [18:45]
It's a, it's a wonderful question. And it is extremely complex across this moment in English literary history. This really is my scholarly home territory. So I'll try to give us a very brief sketch. And for readers who don't have, or rather listeners who don't have a special interest in this moment, let's think of it as just exemplary of the way poetry can dip into history, but also maybe wants out of history. I think both of those movements are important. We might want to talk about that more as we go.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:19]
Jeff Dolven [19:21]
But recitation and writing, hearing and seeing—Spenser is a avowedly strong, perhaps secretly ambivalent participant in the project of the English Reformation, just to say he's sort of Protestant and is extremely interested in an intensive culture of textual interpretation and the licensing of textual interpretation, for anybody. So it's not—reading the Bible is not something that's meant to be practiced only in church and mediated by clergy, and coming to the ordinary worshipper in Latin, but there should be English Bibles, and we should all be able to read them. And so Protestantism is in important ways a religion of the of the Book, but it's also a religion of talk about the Book—about sort of ordinary talk about the Book. So it might be said that it leans on—textuality leans on reading, and sets aside, at least a certain kind of oral performance, sort of preaching, preaching without reading. And that's, I think, a sort of powerful ambivalence at that moment: How much are we supposed to hear The Fairie Queene? How much are we supposed to read it? And this—it's a subject on which, you know, we could, I could certainly dilate endlessly—but maybe I'll, I'll close it here just by saying, in that question of whether you're supposed to sort of read through those lines: variety, eare and eye, and carry on harvesting the sense from the poem, or whether you're supposed to be haunted by echoes, is, among other things, a theological problem for Spenser.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:38]
For Spenser, mmhmm. You mentioned, you used this intriguing phrase, "wanting out of history," and in a sense, that was something you already hinted at, in your stab at a definition of poetry, right? It's the—it's the art form that strives to make everything happen at once, to make everything—to collapse everything down to an instant, in language, that's wanting out of temporal unfolding, at least, and history is temporal unfolding writ large. Then you come back to that same—a variation on that same point—and say that it wants out of history in a way that I think is in play in your book Senses of Style, in which you, among other things, treat Thomas Wyatt and Frank O'Hara as leading interlaced lives, as leading doppelgänger lives. I don't know quite how you would want to put it. But in any case, as being entirely of the same kind, not withstanding the fact that one is a twentieth-century poet and one is an early modern poet. But are they out of history in that reading of them?
Jeff Dolven [23:04]
Yeah, well, I think there's some sense in which every act of writing is an ahistorical gesture, insofar as it wants to travel beyond its moment, even if it's as trivial as a grocery list, which you want to be able to read an hour later in the supermarket. I think poetry is probably the form of writing most ambitious to last longest. It contains so much information about how it is to be read, so much information for the future, about its own decoding. It has that kind of meta-language of its own meter, for instance, to script later people in reciting it. If If we follow something like my account of this kind—of its intensive character—then it's built to be portable, across time, built to be read in relation to itself. It aspires in that sense—and I would say generically—to a certain kind of resistance to history, resistance to time. That said—and I think, I do think that's important. I think that's very important, especially in a moment when in literary criticism, I think in a lot of the writing about poetry, historicism remains a very formidable standpoint, and probably an orthodoxy. And it has very powerful effects, very powerful implications, yields. And maybe we can say a little bit more about that. But I think there's also a danger that it betrays something in the ambition of many of the objects it looks at. That it that historicism itself as a viewpoint, as a standpoint, as a hermeneutic presupposition is itself pretty historically constrained. It's not where we've always looked at poetry, by any means. It's pretty local to our moment. And it may be that historical sympathy involves a willingness to participate in the historical ambition of some of the poems. But I, you know, I was thinking about, about examples Wyatt and O'Hara were very important for me. Frank O'Hara in the '50s sort of reading Thomas Wyatt in the 1520s, 1530s, kind of compulsively. I was just reading a poem in the Yale Review a few days ago, by Terrance Hayes called "Maps of States." And I'll, I'll read just the beginning of it: "A map indicating the state of the union may / Yield the statues, static & statutes of grave / White men while a map indicating disrepair may / Yield colorful groundbreakers uprooting graves." Beautiful lines, and you can hear how that poem keeps reminding you that it's moving forward and not moving forward just with the alliteration, for example—statues, static & statutes, words that are themselves in such a kind of great relationship to one another. It's a, it's a poem and it goes on—there many of these stanzas, I think, 10 of them. They're kind of interestingly in the magazine paired with little diagrams. It sort of carries on revolving the relationship between these two words: "map" and "state"—especially kind of right in our moment, and having a having a grip on the poem, it really helps to know that this is this is a moment when, for example, Confederate monuments are being dismantled in so many parts of the United States. But Terrance Hayes is—is a sort of reader of the hoard. And an assayer of the hoard. And I'm sure he has Philip Sidney in mind. There's a great sonnet from Astrophil and Stella. Sidney, a contemporary of Edmund Spenser's, so writing these sonnets at the beginning of the 1580s—he's great. One of the sonnets is a sort of great kind of love poem: How do I write to my beloved Stella? Astrophil is the lover; Stella the beloved, according to that sort of scheme of love poetry at the moment. He tries on different styles. And then he kind of gives up, as he often does: "But thinke that all the map of my state I display / When trembling voice brings forth, that I do Stella love." And it's his modulation, out of love poetry, into the language of the political. And at the same time, his activation of that pun on the word state, which can both terrain, territory, pro-nation, but also kind of condition or affliction, what it is that I suffer. That's, I think, you know, that that's in Hayes's ear, I would be willing to bet. And it gives the poem, and there are other kind of moments later on—and I think that reinforces this sense—a kind of historical spaciousness that's interested both in the long history of braiding together love and politics. And also, just, I think in something like, Heaney's word again, "the hoard"—the planum of English poetry, that problems that have been passed from poet poet to take out. It would be quite not quite right to say that "Maps of State"—Hayes's poem—is a, is a commentary on Sidney's sonnet. But it's—I don't know, is it a friend to it?—it's a fellow traveler with it. And the historical distance there, I think, is sort of quite important. And then we could spend the rest of our time together, talking about, you know, sense of nationhood in England in 1580 and sense of nationhood at the moment of Black Lives Matter, now, for us.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:02]
It's a similar kind of commentary relationship that you've seen O'Hara taking up towards Wyatt, right? Which is why you…
Jeff Dolven [30:13]
Yeah, and and both the love of the distance and strangeness of the language. They don't sound like each other almost ever.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:25]
Jeff Dolven [30:28]
And I think that, you know, those moments when Wyatt gets quoted in an O'Hara poem, are moments when the diction seems super strange, odd, from elsewhere. So that there is on the one hand an affinity. Thomas Wyatt, a court poet, he's an ambassador for Henry the Eighth, he's in and out of the Tower twice in his life. And his fortunes rise and fall with the whims of his dangerous King. Wyatt, a kind of Petrarchan poet, in the sense that he is forever lamenting the sort of failure of the love project. And O'Hara, 1950s, scrambling to kind of keep body and soul together on the edges of the worlds of art and poetry, gradually finding his footing as he becomes a curator, actually, at MoMA in MoMA's early years, and also a Petrarchan poet: gay, testing the limits of the relationships that he can make in a New York kind of on the road to Stonewall but the road ahead is still a long one. Unrequited love for men straight and gay, and across that spectrum is his Petrarchism. And so that is to say that [chuckles] love trouble connects these two, in spite of the fact that O'Hara is extremely interested in keeping—keeping hearing the distance, as well.
Justin E.H. Smith [32:28]
I'm reminded of, there's a novel I often invoke. It's a novel that involves a lot of poetry stuck within prose, not Nabokov's Pale Fire, but Halldór Laxness's World Light. And a lot of it involves this poor young man who's kind of an aspiring Romantic poet, always on the verge of suicide, and always hypochondriac, and always in love. He's being led around rural Iceland by a kind of folk bard of the classical style. And the rural bard keeps lecturing him on how to write poetry. Like, "Listen, son, it's easy—all you got to do is find some words that rhyme and put them in order." And the kid is really upset because he thinks that, no, in fact, it's some kind of struggle with some kind of internal daemon that yields up some truthful bearing of the soul. And to the rural bard this is just completely, completely, off the agenda. And this is, I think, maybe a tension that you could speak to, drawing on what you've already said, about both O'Hara and Wyatt, and also about the formal elements such as meter and perhaps rhyme, and so on. What is the claim of a young romantic like the one I just described, to know what poetry is, as against the the bard?
Jeff Dolven [34:37]
Yeah, it's a great question. I can't help briefly referencing Spenser again, not The Faerie Queene, but an earlier poem, of 1579, called "The Shepheardes Calendar," which involves, has at its center a poet who takes the name Colin Clout, who's a shepherd's lad, a shepherd boy. And he is an ambitious poet, in a pastoral setting, where his companions are also singing shepherds. But they sing shepherd songs to one another, they sing songs in four-beat lines [marks out the rhythm of the lines]. They sing ballads stanzas—it's a kind of rural, rustic music, and Colin, looking towards the future, praising the Queen, writes in, or sings in, but really he's writing, iambic pentameter—those long lines that I was reciting from The Faerie Queene. He takes on that, what becomes for centuries, that kind of basic line of an English middle or high style. He wants to get out of the country, he wants to go to the city and the court. He wants to be a poet who is sort of adequate to the noblest subjects. And the poem "The Shepheardes Calendar" is such a poignant one because it dramatizes, in the very sound of the verse, this conflict between singing with your friends, in the old idiom, the old sounds, and trying to make something new, and make yourself new. And there's—it's an argument within that poem about poetry. And it's a it's an old, an old argument about poetry, and a new one and one now, and one way of paraphrasing it might be to say that it's, it's really about sort of two different—not even two different definitions, but two different kinds of definition. Because there's one sense in which we really do want to say, "Poetry is what we say it is." If a kid sits down at a moment of kind of heightened experience, and writes a few words in fragments with a ragged right-hand margin for a teacher, and it's all, you know, it's nothing but poetry words and phrases that she's heard about: roses and rainbows or whatever it is. You know, you don't want to live in a world where we can't say that that's a poem. It is a poem. And yet. And so one of the language games we play is to say that that's poem when Calvin Trillin writes occasional verse for the New Yorker, that's a poem when we sort of pull the lyrics out of a Broadway show or rap, then that's a poem—and, you know, you can kind of say interesting things in each case about why, why we say that, point to different aspects of each text or each performance that incline is to say it's a poem, not prose, a poem, not anything else. We're being very tolerant, we're being very open, there's nothing—there's no value statement implicit in that. And then, and then, just by way of setting up the contrast that I'm driving at, there is another sense of poetry that is a—that is a strong value judgment, that's like, "Ahh," you know, "Poetry, this is language that transforms the language. This is language that once you've heard it makes it difficult to write the same way again, this is new, this is news for the language." And, you know, that only, only language that does that counts as poetry. And that, you know, I take it that's a little bit more of the bard's position—saying, I am, I'm after something that sort of transcends my moment, I'm after something that that's sort of unrecognizable, except as poetry. And I think, I think that, in a sense, that the safest thing to say is that, you know, we each of us have to work out a humane relation to those two definitional possibilities. That sort of accepting anything that wants to be called poetry as poetry would be sort of risking that we would sort of lose language, or a feeling for those moments that just truly shock us. But constraining ourselves to those moments that truly shock us would leave out so much of what's written, and written with sort of feeling and intensity and has perhaps no other home but in poetry. If poetry turns out verse, what home does verse have? You know, verse, verse who needs needs a home.
Justin E.H. Smith [40:37]
You know, I've—on other episodes, I've said that, well, ideally, we'll find some necessary and sufficient conditions for counting as x. But I have this really strange feeling today, for the first time that this is a an undignified enterprise. That we really shouldn't be doing this, when it comes to poetry. "What is it?" is the wrong question to ask. And I wonder why that feeling comes up so sharply out here, as opposed to with say, other very abstract and difficult to manage concepts? Like nature, for example, or beauty. Here, I feel like I'm just being too much of a—I'm forcing Platonic inquiry to go too far.
Jeff Dolven [41:38]
I think poetry—I think that's, that's true of poetry. And one reason for that might be that for, you know, this culture, by which I mean, I guess, mostly the culture into which we're both speaking, but many others, what gets called poetry are translated as poetry or is recognized across cultural differences as poetry is elevated above the rest of speech. If only in the way that grace before dinner is elevated, or perhaps human dinner itself is elevated over the rest of the day [laughs]. But we, you know, we humans have kind of rituals of heightening and intensifying of relatively acute attention, of sometimes ritual, which I think is an important word to bring into that.
Justin E.H. Smith [42:47]
Jeff Dolven [42:50]
And poetry can often—is sort of paradigmatic of that capacity for heightened language. And, and if everybody needs that—needs that special language time, time made by language; needs, perhaps, not only to be able to experience it passively, but to be able to make it, to encant or intone it or compose it, then poetry had better be an inclusive, inclusive affair, because we'll just—we'll all need to fit, we'll all need to fit into it. And there is a sort of funny, crazy kind of language game that you play within that tolerance, which has something to do with ideas about inspiration. That is, you know, poetry is rare and uncanny and strange. And I don't know how to reconcile those two. And I don't think we should.
Justin E.H. Smith [44:07]
Let them orbit around one another in some kind of some kind of tension.
Jeff Dolven [44:12]
Yeah. And hopefully, let them not be used with violence against one another, let that sense of kind of vatic certitude that I think a great line of poetry can sometimes confer, or fold us into, let that not be used to dismiss other candidates, other possibilities for poetry. And likewise, let our kind of openness to the relative ordinariness of poetry to the modesty of its potential elevation in a given day, let that not cloud over the occasional glimpse of, you know, of a peak that we can't climb.
Justin E.H. Smith [44:53]
Are you speaking now in a way that continues to spin out from your initial conjectural definition of poetry as the linguistic art form that "seeks to make everything happen at once"?
Jeff Dolven [45:11]
Yeah, I think so. And I think, you know, that there can be a sort of tighter, or looser version of that claim. The tighter would be somehow asymptotically towards that perfect column in which every part is connected to every other part. There's no prose in it at all [laughs]. It has no momentum forward that isn't also momentum backwards, and sideways.
Justin E.H. Smith [45:44]
But I was just gonna say like, even in one sense, a memorized epic poem seems to approach that, in another sense in a very different way, experimental poems that rely on their textual quality, and the way they're displayed on the paper with, you know, mid-century typewriters or whatever, that also seems to be a clear aspiration towards a single moment, or the expression of a poetic idea and a single moment. Right?
Jeff Dolven [46:20]
Yeah, I think that's right. I think we have, notwithstanding the fact that we experience visual images in time and serially, because our eyes are moving all around them, nonetheless, that's a pretty common dream of the visual image, that it is simultaneous. And so I think there is a lot of contemporary experimental poetry, which uses the page space, in pursuit of something like that idea. I don't want the language to be kind of strung out in the ordinary cause and effect of syntax. I need it to be popped free of that, and allowed to kind of resonate in a different temporality. And that that, you know, if we're talking about the recitation of an epic poem, or if we're talking about narrative poetry, then, you know, we may be sort of not as far along that aspirational curve that I'm describing. But I think you could get a good ways saying that insofar as we tend to call it poetry, it's some way along that progression, sort of out of the kind of, if you like, complacent seriality and syntacticity of prose, sort of towards the kind of sonic and semantic simultaneity of poetry.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:52]
Well, you know, time is just about up right now. And I think, you know, your mention of the shepherds' songs really made me want to hear [BAA] I've just craving to hear a beast bleet [BAA]. I think that's the problem.
Jeff Dolven [48:15]
I hear it.
Justin E.H. Smith [48:17]
I think I might have imagined this goat into existence. But I'm just really in the mood for some good old fashioned rustic shepherds' songs, and a simple explanation of poetry that says, "It's what you do with your language. When you're out with the goats or the sheep passing the time. It takes time to compose, it takes time to recite it, it takes time to put one rhyming line after another." So, we're ending in disagreement, but…
Jeff Dolven [48:49]
Justin E.H. Smith [48:49]
Just, just for fun, though. Just for the hell of it. So, but no, seriously though, everything you've said, is in fact really compelling. And I never really considered that—I mean, I had thought… In particular, I think you've done some translations, kind of, Ezra Pound-style from Chinese, or drawing on Chinese idiographs And that was, I mean, you described this to me a long time ago, and I'm, I'm sorry if I'm misremembering, but that was a kind of exercise in looking at single calligraphic symbol as itself the bearer of meaning, right?
Jeff Dolven [49:38]
Yeah. And that is, it should be said that's an important part of the genealogy of the idea that I've been describing: the conversation between Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa about the kind of simultaneity of ideas in Chinese characters insofar as they're often both polyvalent—they mean different things—and they're also the juxtaposition—graphic juxtaposition, one on top of another, of simpler characters. And I, you know, although I would like to hold on to my definition, I also think, you know, that the movement of poetry back into time, and its sort of holding on to its temporality, you know, is vital to it, in a way. A poem, in order not to vanish in the purity of its own poesis, kind of has to keep itself stretched out. And you could say that rhythm is one basic way in which it does that, even as rhythm gives us a way of piling the poem on top of itself: "Ah, this is a bunch of iambs." It's also a way of stretching it out, because the iambs follow one another. And then there's also time like we're spending now, talking poetry or interpreting it, pulling it back out into time, and I just love a moment in the Alexander Nehamas book, Only a Promise of Happiness, when he's talking about interpretation, as a project, it's, you know, getting at the sort of kernel inside the husk or various, various other figures for what it means to get the meaning out of something. And he says, Well, you know, I'm not sure that's really the way to think about it. What if interpretation, were basically a way of spending time with something. If you love something, you can't just moon at each other, you and the painting, you and the poem, you're eventually, you're going to have to find a way of passing the time together. And interpretation dilates that experience. There is another basic way in which I think poetry, if one thinks of it as kind of fighting to be all at once, gets sort of pulled out by us talkers, into something with extension, something shepherds might spread out over the course of an afternoon under a tree.
Justin E.H. Smith [50:11]
I think of light verse in the style of Ogden Nash, doggerel that intentionally kind of stretches a single line…
Jeff Dolven [52:33]
Justin E.H. Smith [52:35]
…Ridiculously far in order to make the hearer yearn to get back to what's kind of like the root note, if you want to use a musical analogy, and it's like, maybe doggerel is where you thrust the poem itself rudely into time. And this seems like a sacrilege that reminds you what the, what the true nature of the art form is. Maybe.
Jeff Dolven [53:05]
I like that. And of course, that's—the pleasure only builds as the line gets longer and longer.
Justin E.H. Smith [53:11]
And more ridiculous. Yeah. Yeah. Listen, thank you so much. This has been incredible. I think, I always insist that, unlike Bob Barker, there's no way of winning "What Is X?" And disagreement is, to my mind, its own sort of winning. For one thing, we got to hear the goat sound effect. So thank you again, Jeff. Is there anything I'm missing, anything I forgot to say?
Jeff Dolven [53:46]
I don't think so. We could go on.
Justin E.H. Smith [53:49]
We could indeed, yeah, we could indeed. Thanks so much.