Prac Crit

We’re Going to Get Married

by Jeff Dolven

Interview

by Sarah Howe

At the end of October 2013, I caught Jeff Dolven for a couple of hours in a Bloomsbury café, which had opened that morning despite the severe storm warnings playing out across the news channels. Our conversation was punctuated by the rumbling of the milk-frother, counterpointed (so I imagined) by the wind-stricken branches skittering across the pavements outside. Dolven’s poems have been appearing in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The TLS for some time, but his first collection had appeared just that summer from US press Sarabande. Its title, Speculative Music, refers to the harmony of the spheres, or musica speculativa – the ancient concept that saw music and the proportions of the cosmos reflected in one another. Gavin Alexander’s essay in this edition on Dolven’s poem ‘Blazon’ picks up some of these musical themes.

Dolven’s poems are often expertly but unshowily metrical, their prosodic sense deepened perhaps by his long engagement with Renaissance poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics, especially of the English Renaissance, at Princeton University, and is the author of Scenes of Instruction, a study of poetry’s entanglement with schooling at the end of the sixteenth century. His articles and essays – on Renaissance metrics, Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare’s reading, Fairfield Porter, player pianos, and other subjects – have appeared in such publications as English Literary Renaissance, Representations, Modern Philology, Southwest Review and Raritan.

Yet in their chatty informality, Dolven’s poems are also fascinated by what he called in the course of our interview ‘a different kind of music’ – a mundane and fractured harmony ‘full of hisses and skips and pops’. While named for the music of the spheres, Speculative Music is equally ready to tune us in to the interior buzz of a refrigerator light, or the hum of a hummingbird which ‘doesn’t know the words’. Our conversation touched on some of the same questions to do with poetic liberty and constraint that crop up in the academic book he is presently writing, The Sense of Style, which explores literary style in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. We discussed at length the surreal situations these poems tend to take in their stride: the strange ‘wagers’ they strike with their readers. What if I married my sister? What would it be like to be raised by chairs? What if we’ve had God’s name wrong all along?

SH

Your work isn’t totally unfamiliar to readers on these shores, as you’ve had several poems in British magazines, including the TLS. The first time I came across a poem of yours was while flicking through past issues of Poetry Review from the early 2000s. Is it right then that this collection had quite a long gestation?

JD

It certainly did. The oldest poems in it are probably a dozen years old, and it really represents the harvest of everything that I could bear to read of my own writing over many years. I’ve been writing a lot of criticism along the way and other sorts of things – prose. Poetry is a somewhat fugitive late night or early morning activity for me. It’s stoppered a lot of the time, but I do find if there are a few spare moments when I can pull the stopper out of that bottle, there’s a good deal of carbonated pressure that’s accumulated! [The waitress at the bar has just loudly popped open a bottle.] And I like to write that way. I like to write… interruptedly, because it forces me always to be something like a new reader of the poem. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to write continuously, every morning get up and work on a poem – a couple of residencies – and I have mixed feelings about that. I think I am too much continuously myself in the composition…

SH

Your work is so interested in questions of personae and perspective – could it be that you’re trying to mirror that in your compositional processes? Constantly trying to re-approach the poems from new angles?

JD

I think so, and I think that some of my thinking about style – the subject of my next critical book – represents an anxiety about becoming too fluent. I think it is an anxiety for many poets who think about style. The new book is divided between Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara. Thomas Wyatt does not reflect explicitly on style – very few people do in the 1530s, at least individual style – but he is excruciated by it in obvious ways. Frank O’Hara is constantly fearful of adopting a style, because he understands that to be a constraint on his freedom. So even though he’s one of the most imitable and imitated poets of the twentieth century, he was very anxious about that.

SH

It’s interesting that you talk about style and fluency in terms of anxiety – as though you feel the need to somehow hamper or hobble your own skill. Like the prodigy Picasso who drew like Raphael at the age of six. There’s real virtuousity, in your handling of metres especially, but in all the crafted elements of your poems…

JD

There may be something to that, in the sense that I do feel like I’ve cultivated, over long labour, a kind of technical competence at least. And there is a danger that that will carry me away, and that I could just keep writing line after line. And that I would understand those lines too well – know too clearly where I’m going. That’s one of the dangers of being a poet-critic, I think, that you very rapidly see what you’re up to and follow it out.

SH

Second-guessing yourself?

JD

Or first-guessing yourself, in that you know immediately what sort of poem this is. The sporadic character of composition for me somehow seems to work to undercut that. What is done too fast, or too easily, seems very exciting in the moment, not least because of the thrill of speed. But later, coming back to it, it will seem shallow and in need of work by someone who doesn’t understand it as well, or who isn’t as convinced by it as the person who made the start on it.

SH

Does that desire for another eye ever extend to the way you share work? Are there readers you trust to look at your poems when they’ve reached a certain stage?

JD

I suppose I don’t often show poems in process to people, or until they’re relatively close to being done. I don’t have an MFA, and I’ve never really done a formal poetry workshop. The closest I have to a poetry teacher is John Hollander.

SH

I had wanted to ask you about John Hollander and his teaching…

JD

Well – an extraordinary, great teacher. I was very fortunate to take his advanced verse writing class when I was an undergraduate at Yale – which was avowedly not a course in writing poetry. He brought us all in and sat us down around a seminar table and said, in his gruff way, ‘Now, is anyone here a musician?’ And some people raised their hands – and others not, abashedly.

SH

Did you?

JD

I did… So I was feeling good at that moment, thinking ‘I still have a place at this table’. But he went on to say, ‘I asked that not because I think there is a necessary link between versification and music making, but because those of you who’ve studied an instrument know what it’s like to practise and get good at something. And that’s what we are going to be doing in this seminar.’ It was a series of exercises in various formal and tropical challenges that arise in the course of the history of English poetry – with examples from the history of English poetry, and not from the students. So we were writing exercises every week, submitting them to John; he would hand them back. But it was defiantly not a workshop. And that was a frustration to some of us – not to have a chance to have our work out on the table. But I think, ultimately, a great blessing.

SH

Hollander’s teaching sounds like it was modelled on quite an early modern way of thinking about pedagogy (which, of course, is your own specialist area of scholarship). Could you tell me a little bit about one of these exercises? What kind of thing were you doing for him?

JD

Well, at the beginning of the class, I think the submission that he asked us to provide, for him to judge who was in and who was out, was a re-versification of some passage from the Iliad or the Odyssey. You didn’t have to be working from the Greek, but you had to take ten lines and re-point them, re-rhythm them. So we began with just the formal business of writing, and there were various challenges – Sapphics and so on – and, as we went along, different stanza forms. We would also write debate poems, and we read Milton’s Prolusions, and L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and other poems of specific argumentative agon. So there was a mix of purely formal and structural wagers, always within some metre, or metrical control. He had a magnificent ear, so we were always tested against that.

He quoted a remark about Auden… now I cannot remember the source of this, but about Auden having ‘an ear for metre like a moral sense’. At first, and for many years, that impressed me as being simply an endorsement of Auden’s ear for metre – that is, how fine it was and how important it was that it was fine, morally important. And now I tend to see the comparison as running both ways, and being quite… complicated; that metrical life, rhythmical life, might be as difficult and equivocal and fraught and hard to judge and unsure in relation to its rules as moral life. And that what Auden was able to do was not test his rhythms against some strict moral sense, but make his rhythms open to the vagaries of moral life – responsive to them. And I think John was trying to teach us something like that… although it took me a while to figure it out.

SH

That set of thoughts makes me want to turn to the poem at hand, ‘We’re Going to Get Married’, which seems concerned with ‘rightness’ of various sorts, aesthetic and moral. That last line: ‘It just isn’t right: we can do better’. When we encounter metrical disruption in your poems, might that signal a break in the ethical, as well as the rhythmic order? Or is it never as straightforward as that mapping might imply?

JD

I think there’s a sort of first order encounter with metrical rule and variation that looks for the significance, the trope, of particular departures from the norm. And I think that’s a question that’s always worth asking in metrical verse. I’m a little bit more interested though in a function of metre that may be illuminated by that maxim about Auden and the sense of metre as an ethos, or even metre as a ‘form of life’. So that it’s not particular occasions and their tropical possibilities – their possibilities for meaning-making – that are of interest, but rhythm as the making, in a sense, of the culture of the poem.

I come back to that phase, ‘form of life’, which is a Wittgenstein phrase. Wittgenstein is a thinker who is much with me all the time. Metre will set the boundaries for everything that’s said inside it – create a sense of the larger, as it were, cultural permissions and strictures under which the speakers of this poem have to operate. So, as I say, a little bit more of a sense of metre as culture, rather than metre as rule. And that we might inhabit it more as we inhabit the sort of tacit forms of life that embrace us and hedge us around as participants in a culture. We might inhabit it more that way than we would as rule followers. And that again feels like a very basic sort of Wittgensteinian orientation towards the world. To think not in terms of the rule installed in the black space behind the eyes, but rather the total participation in – that phrase again – a form of life that we don’t experience as rule following, even though it can be construed that way, from a vantage outside. So sometimes it’s very useful to see metre as rule following and rule breaking, but I think there are deeper ways of thinking about it.

SH

It seems obvious that your immersion in early modern literature and thought has been important to your poetry. But would you be happy to talk about any more contemporary influences that might behind this poem, or your work more generally?

JD

It’s partly because – and partly in spite of – my interest in style, that I’m shy of that question. It doesn’t sound much like Ashbery, but I think there is Ashbery there for me.

SH

Actually, the poem’s last line again – ‘It just isn’t right’ – did remind me a little of the undefined Ashberian ‘it’: where you’re not quite sure what exactly the pronoun is referring back to.

JD

Yes, that’s a nice observation. That fuzzy ‘it’, presumptuous ‘it’, as though to say ‘We understand, don’t we?’ Because there’s a lot of that in Ashbery, this carrying on – ‘We understand!’ There’s that book by Lytle Shaw about Frank O’Hara and the poetics of coterie. He’s interested in how we receive those names that we’re constantly getting, Jean-Paul and the rest, and the essentially arbitrary choice… well, not arbitrary at all, but it is a choice for us, whether we are alienated by that. ‘He’s just talking about these people I don’t know; he’s talking about places I haven’t been; a poem is supposed to be universal; forget this guy!’ Or whether we say, ‘Yeah, I know these people; I’m in with this crowd; let’s go!’ And that’s in a social register for O’Hara so often. For Ashbery, it’s in a much more… almost grammatical register: ‘We know what “it” is, don’t we?’ And you can decide to just go along, or you can baulk and say, ‘Wait a minute, what’s the referent of that?’ But the baulking is… you know, you’re just not going to be an Ashbery reader if you’re not prepared – a little queasily, but nonetheless – to accept the offer.

James Merrill is a very important poet for me. I feel like I resist his elegance, but I learned a lot from his craft. He was the first living poet whom I read carefully in college, and who opened up the whole idea of reading living poets to me. So he’s important. I love Marianne Moore. Charles Simic has a sort of Eastern-bloc surrealism and humour in his work that made a big impression. He’s not somebody I find myself reading a lot now, but I think early on… There are some poems of his that that I love. And Paul Muldoon. He’s just an amazing, amazing, amazing poet. He’s just got an unequalled ear. And Hollander, of course.

SH

‘We’re Going to Get Married’ is a new poem, but it made me think of an earlier poem of yours, ‘Cantaloupe’, whose final lines warn the reader about the melon’s personified wiles: ‘Think hard before you answer / its impossible overture: marry me, marry me.’

JD

The very end, ‘marry me, marry me’ – that feels like a sudden… whisper in the ear. You know, it seems silly not to have put those poems together, both of them ending with a marriage proposal, but I hadn’t really. They were written quite far apart. This poem, ‘We’re Going to Get Married’, is one of relatively few that arise out of an obvious circumstance in ordinary life. Most poems come from a strange phrase, or a peculiar idea that can’t be said to have happened to me in any ordinary storytelling sense. But in this case, I have a friend who’s been going through a terrible divorce, has two young daughters, and very early after he and his wife first split, the two daughters decided that they were going to get married. They were two and four. And it felt like such a touching effort to stabilize something that had suddenly become so unstable. I was very affected by that. I was spending a fair amount of time with the family at that point. And so I found myself turning that gesture… it’s partly transformed and partly interpreted by the poem.

SH

There is definitely a childlike innocence to the speaker of this poem, which is as you say very affecting. But at the same time there is a slightly more… sinister edge, which perhaps comes from the voice’s more adult intonations. Hearing that story does change the poem for me a little…

JD

Yes – and it was a question for me how much to try to introduce that history into the poem. I finally decided no, that it had to take the risks that it takes… For me – and I’m glad to hear that it has at least some of that for you – it has an innocence at its heart, and I can say a little more about that: what struck me as touching about that promise by the two of them was that they were already sisters, so they already had a connection.

SH

They wished for an extra bond?

JD

They wished for an extra bond, as though what was given to them – the accidental fact that they were born of the same parents and grew up in the same household and had this name and the structure that put them together – seemed not enough suddenly, because there was no promise involved. It seems to be the predicament of this speaker that she stops trusting the given coincidence of things and wants a promise… wants a promise with her sister, and looks around at the world and all of its coincidences and just thinks it’s not good enough that way. You know, who’s to say that ‘the haystack and the hay-harvest weather’ will stay together? Even though it seems so much in the nature of things that they will… the nature of the world, the nature of the sound of the words – they fit – but they never made any promise. And she doubts that, she suspects that, and wants something more than that. And that even extends to the relationship between beholding and being beheld – even that merely visual relationship to the world is not good enough. Just an accident that we see what we see, which involves no promise, no contract, no necessary care.

SH

That makes me want to take you back again to those lines from ‘Cantaloupe’ – to ask you in what sense is this poem an ‘impossible overture’? From ‘A sister like mine is harder to find…’ onward, it borrows the structure of the adynaton, a figure of speech that stresses the impossibility of something by means of a hyperbolical comparison – like the passage from the gospels that gets so delightfully mangled here: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19:23-24). But also, of course, the marriage vow is Austin’s quintessential example of the speech act. The conditions for this particular speech act are never going to be felicitous: the marriage of sisters is impossible.

JD

Absolutely. It has some relation for me to ‘Horse Lessons’, the long poem that’s a third of the way through Speculative Music, which is likewise very uneasy about the contract between two people, and in which likewise only one of them speaks. So the question of who’s listening and what she or he understands – she in this poem, he in the other – is urgent but unresolved. You never hear the other side of the argument… There’s a bit of my critical book, Scenes of Instruction, which begins with a very general question about teaching and learning, ‘How do I know that you understand?’ It puts this epistemological challenge at the centre of the classroom. In order for me to teach you, or you to teach me, and for it not to go on forever and ever, we need to make some implicit contract – implicit or explicit – about what’s going to count as good evidence that the learning has happened, and that we can go home. That book unfolds that problem, and the agonies that a few Renaissance poets have in confronting that problem. There’s another Wittgenstein aphorism, ‘How small a thought it takes to fill a whole mind’. And I do feel like that problem comes up a lot in these poems.

SH

Parts of the poem are made up of a string of aphorisms that all blur together: the ‘eye of the needle’ melts into the ‘eye of the beholder’. And then the Gospels’ camel gets lost in quite another needle’s proverbial haystack. As those images get muddled in the mind, it’s as if they come alive again – a little too alive even. The way so many of your poems take received language, conventionalized metaphors, and push them through cliché and out the other side – is that something you think consciously about?

JD

Yes… well, I think of John Hollander again and his interest in re-awakening of the dead metaphor: trying ‘to wring the neck of the bottle’ was his canonical example. I suppose I had had in my notebook somewhere some jottings about the needle and the haystack and the rich man and the eye of the needle. They just felt to me weirdly related, without knowing what to do about that. And the sense that these little aphorisms – we rely upon them to orient us in the world, and to solace us from its characteristic troubles. They have an often contradictory relationship to one another, considered as a body of knowledge. They infect one another. There are these illicit crossings – the needle doesn’t mean in one what it means in the other. But if one allows them to consort a little bit more freely than we ordinarily do, some very peculiar things can happen.

So there’s some sense that in bringing those together, that whole edifice of common sense is a little bit shaken. And that’s something that I think the speaker in a way wants to do, if you think of aphorisms as being the most authoritative, self-reflective… what’s the word I’m looking for?… almost the puncta of our culture. They’re the moments that this dissonant enterprise might most want to resist. Aphorisms are a great site for eternal patriarchal authority, and that authority is not doing the speaker and her sister any good. So if she can allow these to contaminate one another, or illuminate how they contaminate one another – how fractured that patriarchal edifice in fact is – then you know what’s going to happen is going to be something like a poem.

SH

That patriarchal edifice – its proxy in the poem seems to be the eye of the ‘beholder’, the envious eyes, the eyes the onlookers who disapprove…

JD

And those do feel like supervisory gazes. Again, the kinds of freedom that the speaker is arguing for are in many ways political freedoms, freedoms to take this dead language and bring it to life – to allow new promises rather than continue passively to confirm the old contracts.

SH

In this poem, the ‘eye of the needle’ (like the eye of the storm?) is the shelter where the two characters can meet and be married. That enclosing space, with its absurd diminution of scale, reminded me of Donne’s flea and its tiny sacrament. How useful is the ‘conceit’ as a way of thinking about your work? Is it something you have in mind?

JD

I don’t, I don’t. I don’t often think of it in terms of conceit, but it’s probably not an inappropriate word. I sometimes think that the poem comes out of a strange wager; I think that’s the word. (I owe it to my friend Maureen McLane, who uses it a lot, or used to.) What would it be like to be raised by chairs? – as in that poem, ‘Faith and Hope’. That was a suggestion I think I made accidentally over lunch to someone who was talking about being raised by wolves.

SH

Oh yes, that’s the one where a character is saved from orphanhood by chairs.  I love the chairs in that poem – I think you call them a ‘serious tribe’! The way they seem to ‘spend a lot of time at prayer’…

JD

So that’s very much a question of, ‘Ha! What would it be like to be raised by chairs?’ What an austere upbringing that must be, and yet their laps are always available to you. And so the conceit – it is a matter of inhabiting it, taking it as seriously as I can. What would that be like? Affective charge emerges out of that. The speaker of that poem, I think, feels like he’s gotten a certain kind of love from his family, the chairs, but it’s never been forceful enough, aggressive enough. It’s always been austere and exemplary, and so when that poem ends, ‘Make me put my head in your lap’, it’s wanting something that it hasn’t got.

So, that’s to say, perhaps it’s a little bit more of a ‘situation’ than a ‘conceit’, in the sense that it’s not so much unfolding the significances of a fixed figure – a compass, or whatever it would be – but it’s trying maybe again that phrase, to explore or articulate the ‘form of life’ that would have to surround this strange fact. ‘Okay, if you were raised by chairs, what would happen? How would it get started? What would it be like day to day? Where would you end up?’ A small observation turns out to have quite substantial consequences if you follow this logic out. That poem, ‘Rituals’ – what are those for? They’re very small things – I’d always been interested in that Borges question, what if we’ve had God’s name wrong? And what if we’ve never gotten his attention? It seemed as though these activities might be entirely meaningless to their supposed audiences, and intelligible to God, or recognizable as directed there, only because of their otherwise gratuitous, senseless character.

SH

‘Rituals’ is a poem that’s interested, structurally and thematically, in repetition – in actions that take on significance (or not) by dint of being repeated: 

Washing your hands, trying the lock,
burning a hundred head of cattle
not to eat, washing your hands
again, trying the lock again,

                                               (‘Rituals’)

Can I ask about repetition in ‘We’re Going to Get Married’, and how it works there? So for example in the opening line, ‘We’re going to get married, married, she said’. That repetition of ‘married’ straight away, and then again in the second line too. It feels like a song lyric – the redundancy that you have built into song lyrics. But then it could also signal excitement, or desperation in the voice?

JD

There’s a kind of incantatory urgency to this poem. It’s like a lot of the poems in the book, written in a loose tetrameter line – and I really like that, you know, ‘like camel and camel, like nickel and quarter’. I am trying to work in longer lines now, but it’s hard for me not to feel that the pentameter is slightly mannered in my hands. I don’t think that’s by any means inevitable to the pentameter, obviously, but I find myself evading it, in the direction of four or sometimes six. And in this poem I do love the access to song. There is something of an over-exuberant, almost ecstatic harangue about it. She is really trying to sway her sister, and you can imagine a slightly sort of fever-flushed urgency. The rush of the dactyls: there’s a lot of triple rhythm. And that’s difficult – you can do too much of that – but I’ve enjoyed it enormously when I’ve gotten into it. So that poem, ‘Splinter’, is probably the one that gives itself most completely to that dactylic impulse. As I say, I feel like you can get carried away with that. You wouldn’t want to string too many poems like that together – it would get exhausting. But it is exciting – literally exciting.

SH

When you write in triple metres, do you ever think about the baggage (I should probably say ‘history’!) of dactyls in Classical epic, or anapaests as, say, a component in limerick? Or are those the kinds of rationalizations after the fact that interest scholars more than poets?

JD

I confess I don’t think a lot about them, or haven’t written a poem that thinks a lot about them in relation to the Classical metres, as much as I’ve thought about that as a scholar. I don’t feel it’s a vein that I’ve consciously tapped, or would claim much credit for unconsciously tapping. So it’s more the song, and even nursery rhyme quality, that I feel like I’m interested in. A slightly obsessive adaptation of that rollicking comfort. I think that’s a very playful sound, often, in English verse. In cases where I have invoked it, I’ve managed to overgo that playfulness into something that is a little bit like mania… There’s something obsessively unstoppable about that in the poem ‘Splinter’…

SH

Which is another poem interested in childlike perspectives –remembered childhood pain in that case…

JD

That’s right. So it is a sort of deep fever nursery rhyme. There’s a flywheel effect to the triple metre… and that has so much to do with the irreversible, unstoppable roving of that splinter itself.

SH

Splinter’ has that repeating anaphora, where each of the stanzas begins ‘I am singing… I am singing…’. It starts to sound like a knowing nod to the ‘I sing’ that kicks off Virgilian epic: ‘I am singing now of the splinter of wood / you got in your knee as a child and never / got out’ (‘Splinter). Except that this singer’s materials are a splinter and a child-sized knee rather than ‘arms and the man’. At first it seems like the bathos of mock epic. But then you come round slowly to thinking that this song’s subject is a loss – a sorrow ‘without homecoming’ – that’s not actually so incommensurate with Aeneas’s…

JD

That was advised, for better or worse – that sense that this was sort of somewhere between the two modes of Homeric progress, one of which is the teleological epic, and the other the roving, the ceaseless roving of Odysseus.

SH

Many of the poems in Speculative Music did make me think of those kinds of winding, restless, circling effects: so in your hands, a ‘winding sheet’ becomes a ‘wending sheet’ (‘Symmetry’).

Turning back to music, we haven’t spoken yet about the title, Speculative Music, which ties together so many of the book’s ideas. I love the way you’ve taken ‘musica speculativa’ – the music of the spheres – out of Latin and into English to create this newly resonant phrase: the music of the heavens, but also the music of thought or imaginative experiment. What happens at those moments in your poems when the music of the spheres and the music of the fallen, mundane world seem to come together? (I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’ll have the tune of ‘We’re going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married’ ear-worming away after they read this poem!)

JD

That is the kind of question that I wanted to raise with the title, as you suggest. The interaction of the music of the spheres with the music that the poems make. I love that interference. I would like the poems to be a curious and tolerant, and sometimes wry, situation for the encounter between our ideas of who we are, and who we are. My father is a social worker, a therapist, and I think his work in some ways is helping people to recognize the relationship between their ideas of themselves and who, in their behaviour and relationships, they turn out to be.

And there’s a sense in which that’s some kind of staticky intersection between speculative and mundane music. You know, at some point the concentric circles start to touch – the restless circles that we run in. A different kind of music emerges out of that, and it’s full of hisses and skips and pops. And I like that too, I like that a lot. Again, to think about Scenes of Instruction, the critical book… That’s a book about really not learning anything, and at the same time it’s a book about, in a sense, what life is like and what we get out of it, which is very different from the lesson that we were supposed to learn. So again, it’s the intersection between that mixed circumstance of our supposed apprehension and the dreams of order that officially sponsor us. That’s where things get interesting. It sounds, as I’m saying it, a little bit like Sidney [Editor’s note: Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (c. 1580)]: you know, it ain’t philosophy and it ain’t history. It ain’t the perfect dream of the order of things, and it ain’t the miscellaneous actuality. Poetry is the intersection of the two of them, and the interfering music that is made there.

SH

We’re Going to Get Married’ is a poem you’ve written since the book was published, but it contains so many rings and circles – the eye of the needle, the implied wedding ring – that I started to wonder, might they point towards concentric spheres, wheels within wheels? And the ‘nickel and quarter’ – a small circle set next to a slightly larger one – also have a mathematically proportional relationship: twenty five cents is five cents squared…

JD

Hah!

SH

…in a poem written in triple metre whose stanza form is tercets. Am I being too ingenious? Or might these things, even subconsciously, gesture towards the kinds of mathematical and musical proportion the title Speculative Music implies?

JD

Absolutely! [laughs] I do think about these things, and it’s always a question how far forward to bring those sorts of speculations about order and structure. I tend to keep them, or try to keep them, relatively muted. The question of nickel and quarter and the squared relationship between them is not something that I gave a thought to. But I’m very glad to have written a poem in which a reader might be inclined to think that, a poem that might provoke a reader to think that way. And I think there’s not a whole lot of difference between those two possibilities. In a way, I think it’s more important for a poet to create a poem that incites certain kinds of interpretation – that’s what’s really of interest. It spares us tedious questions about whether I intended a reader to think particularly about five and twenty-five.

That’s a trivial question I think, whether I meant it or not, but the question of whether it’s appropriate, interesting, meaningful to speculate in that direction is a big question. I often think about that teaching Edmund Spenser, because every stanza is such an extraordinary field for specific interpretation. In some sense, Spenser’s achievement is to have created a poem that incites us to do that. So he need not take specific responsibility for each insight. What he takes, what he properly bears responsibility for, is making of us into readers who will pursue those questions, and will trust the poem to pay us back for that pursuit. So, in a way, that’s what’s exciting about hearing you make such an observation. That’s the kind of reading that I would love these poems to ask for.

SH

I was intrigued by the penultimate stanza’s list of similes, which sound, despite the speaker’s chariness, like a love song’s ‘list of things made to go together’:

like camel and camel, like nickel and quarter,
like hayfield and haystack and hay-harvest weather,
like mistress and master, beheld and beholder

At the same time, I think this stanza picks up on some of the more uncomfortable questions this poem raises – not least incest taboo. An excessive closeness… the notion that simile – and maybe love too – should depend on difference as much as similarity, and so there’s something troublingly Narcissus-like about ‘sister and sister, / properly married’. What’s the work of the similes here?

JD

It occurs to me that if I were… that one approach to writing an essay about this poem [laughs] would be to think about metaphor and metonymy. Where metonymy is the figure of representation by accidental collocation, metaphor is the figure of representation by substitution – substitution but also identity. And that this is a speaker who is restless with, and suspicious of, mere metonymy, and sees the world as sadly metonymic – metonymic without making the metaphoric promise, the promise of identity. And the world has so much metonymy. You know there’s just a lot of metonymy around, but it serves us pretty well. We reserve metaphor for special occasions! – if we use it too much, it becomes just ordinary language, idiom. And so the poem is a protest against the merely metonymic character of so much experience and so much talk. That would be one way of thinking about it.

SH

I wonder how that works in relation to the sound patterns of the poem? Thinking about these end rhymes – I would almost describe them as ‘very fuzzy feminine rhymes’, for want of a better term. ‘Needle’ and ‘middle’, but also those repeated –er words – ‘richer’, ‘truer’, ‘beholder’, ‘quarter’, ‘weather’ – which colonize the line endings to the extent that they’re all that’s present by the last stanzas or so.

JD

I think that part of it is that I just love that sound. And so as it gets going and makes more of itself, that’s one of the ways it makes more of itself – the excitement of thinking through the sound patterns. I think those near-rhymes also could be said to partake of the poem’s worries about resemblance and contract. That is, are these fundamental affinities that might rise to the level of a promise between us? Or are they merely accidents of sound that count for nothing, just tease us, count for nothing without some promise behind them or added to them? So I think that those internal rhymes might be said to worry that problem as well.

SH

Can I ask a question about nonsense? Your poem, ‘Hummingbird’, contains the lovely – and very funny – thought that ‘The humming of a hummingbird / is because it doesn’t know the words’. A lot of your poems – and the nursery rhyme-like quality we’ve already talked about here – seem to want sound almost, but not quite, to overpower the sense. Are you treading that line?

JD

I think that there’s a double dream in the poems of, on the one hand, having their sound sublimated into the music of the spheres, becoming sublimely and unspecifically articulate. That is, having a meaning that is purer than the syntax of the language as actually spoken. Or, on the other hand, falling into babble. So, escaping up or down from the conditions of communicative meaning in this language.

I think that there is a possible relief in both directions. I had in third or fourth grade, I think, a very brief experience of that relief or remission as I was sitting in class. I can place myself very specifically in the room. The teacher was speaking, Mr. Wiener, and his language suddenly stopped being intelligible. For probably as few as 10 or 15 seconds, but it was an exhilarating moment. Terrifying and exhilarating. Exhilarating because suddenly the language was sound, in a way that it must not have been since I was very, very, very small.

And that was thrilling and weird and terrifying because it didn’t seem that there was any obvious way to get back out and return to decoding. And then it passed, and I’ve never had it again, but I’ve always wanted to go back there. And also worried what the cost of going back there would be. You might have to have a stroke to get there. I don’t know. But I think that that was a… well, I was going to say ‘significant’ experience for me, but precisely not – or only in the higher sense. Such a longing may find its place in several of the poems.

SH

That’s a state people sometimes associate with repeating a word over and over again: Robert Hass’s ‘blackberry, blackberry, blackberry’. Maybe there’s a touch of that in this poem’s repeated words: ‘married, married’, ‘wander, / wander’.

JD

Yes, repetition is an engine against sense. It’s very interesting, both because we often use it when we’re sort of desperate to make the meaning clear, but it simultaneously undermines that meaning. What do I want from you at that point? Blackberry, damn it! And yet it’s so impossible to get the blackberry in my head into your head that I may just as badly want the word simply to stop. To stop teasing us and just forget it.

SH

In this poem, ‘the eye that’s so ready to put them together’ (that is, the string of preceding images) is also, in another sense, the synthesizing imagination of the poet. Apart from the surreal situation or counterfactual, you mentioned that it’s also often a funny phrase, or a pattern in sound, which comes to you first when you you’re writing your poems. Can you tell me a bit more about that process of inspiration and association, and how it advances for you?

JD

Well, a recent provocation came from a student of mine who was writing about Goethe’s colour theory. There’s a sentence in which Goethe describes ‘die Taten und Leiden des Lichts’, which is often translated as ‘the active and the passive capacities of light.’ In Goethe’s crazy colour theory, his basic claim is that Newton’s notion that all colours of light are prismatically contained in white light is wrong (it’s not wrong, but Goethe bravely asserts that it is), and that in fact light and darkness are of equal presence and, as it were, equal ontological status. Blackness, shadow, is not the deprivation of light, but is its own positive quality. And it is the interaction between the two of them that creates colour. So dark and light come to the situation of seeing as equal partners in the creation of colour. Wrong, but beautiful. And so ‘die Taten und Leiden des Lichts’, you could also translate that as ‘the deeds and the sorrows of light’, in the same way as ‘Die Leiden des jungen Werthers’ is the ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’. [interviewer laughs] Yes – right! And so, yes, ‘the deeds and the sorrows of light’ – I’ve got to do something with that!

And so it became a kind of associative, speculative, partly analytic project of asking… what could that mean, how could I build a house for that. And I found myself starting to think about the Cupid and Psyche story, where Psyche finally can’t bear not knowing who her lover is, and brings the lamp to the bedside and accidentally spills a drop of oil onto Cupid’s shoulder. So I re-read Apuleius, and have been continuing to think and elaborate a whole bunch of like questions out of that. It’s become interesting to that poem, which is a long poem, that light is a wave and a particle. So I think the poem is called ‘A Wave and Parting’ – so there’s one of your puns…

SH

[laughs] Puns as accidental convergences of sound in language, that nevertheless feel like they have some kind of significance…

JD

And again, I feel like something is working in the poems when there is the promise of that kind of supervenient metaphysics. So these things might, you know… they’re not accidents. But also a sense of their contingency, arbitrariness, unreliability, or mere musicality. I suppose there’s a lot of tension between speculative music and mere music. Wouldn’t it be good if everything down here were ultimately consonant with those orbital harmonies? But then again, maybe not.

SH

Perhaps this wasn’t at the surface of your mind, but on one reading this poem felt like it might be gesturing towards certain debates currently floating around the US’s political climate: one being rich men and the accessibility or otherwise of heaven for them, especially post financial crisis; the other, indirectly, same-sex marriage. Do you feel that politics makes an appearance, however oblique, in your poems?

JD

It certainly is something I think about. The poems are rarely overtly political. I think they are more… ethical, although I think they also, at their best, or as I would hope for them, can think a little bit about the relationship between the ethical and the political. There’s a wonderful book by Susanne Wofford about epic, The Choice of Achilles. It has a really good big Spenser chapter. And she is very interested in the way in which Spenser keeps blocking our perceptions of the political by focus on the ethical, and that this is something that the Faerie Queene does advisedly and wisely, as a way of showing us our tendency to displace properly political thinking into situations of individual ethical relationship. So I think that there’s some of that going in this poem. It certainly has both political and economical concerns – and also concerns for same-sex marriage and those latitudes. Those are important… and, in some respects, politically heartening questions in the States right now. There are a lot of things that are going wrong with the way the American government functions, but the courts are moving steadily in the direction of greater liberties in some matters of civil rights. We had the simultaneous, or very nearly simultaneous, decisions in the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage very positively, and the Voting Rights Act, in which some important provisions were struck down. So it’s all… you win some you lose some. We’re not in the clear.

That funny poem, ‘Morning Czar and Evening Tsar’, is very gamesome, but it has its eye on some political questions. And, we’ll see: I’m actually writing now – I just don’t know if it will work – a series of short madrigals that might stand to be a little bit more overtly political than anything that I’ve written. They’re a sequence written for a composer friend of mine.

SH

They will be set?

JD

They will be set, if he likes them. They are patterned after some Orlando di Lasso madrigals, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a medieval collection of prophesies of the various Sibyls – the Cumaean sibyl, the sibyl of Delphos, et cetera et cetera – all saying ‘a child’s gonna be born, it’s gonna be great!’ My madrigals are attempts to make similar prophesies based upon the statistical incidence of a child being born into various good fortunes and bad fortunes in different cities in America: asthma, college education and so on. So it’s playing with ideas of prophecy and probability in the language.

SH

So far I’ve been treating ‘We’re Going to Get Married’ as if it were continuous with the poems of Speculative Music, but in what sense does this poem mark a new departure for you, post the publication of the book?

JD

I would like for it to be. It feels early yet to know what ‘post’ that book means. Although I feel a strong impulse to make things different, and a bit more politics – or a certain kind of politics – might be one way in which they go, although that’s not necessarily characteristic of ‘A Wave and Parting’. We’ll see. That’s been a very interesting poem to work on, because it’s in sections and the first section does sound different… and sounds exactly right to me. And so I’ve been trying to figure out how I did it. The funny business, much more self-conscious than ever before for me, of trying to imitate myself. Now that I’ve done something that’s not me, how do I imitate it in such a way that it becomes me?

SH

I haven’t yet asked you about your own practice as a musician, and how that feeds into your work.

JD

Very amateur jazz guitarist and pianist. Although I’m a very avid listener to all kinds of music. I love rhythm. It’s a fantasy of my next academic project, after the style book, that it will be about rhythm some way or other.

SH

As we draw the interview to a close, maybe I can ask you about closure. The endings of your poems often feel like a surprise, but one which, once you’ve tracked back through the poem, feels like it makes sense. I’m thinking of a poem like ‘Folding Star’, whose last lines ventriloquize Lear, but with an intriguing added glitch: ‘O I have taken too little care of / care of this.’ How do you go about bringing your poems to a close?

JD

The close of a poem has always a special standing, whether you like it or not. The Spenserian stanza with its Alexandrine is the exaggerated from of this – that is, you have a kind of sententious close each time the poem takes a break from itself. I feel that pressure, which I think every poet feels, to make that last line propel a re-reading of the poem. It wants to carry you back. It proposes itself as an interpretation, or as a crucial element of an interpretation, of what’s gone before. And I also really resist that, or at least feel like that can lead you into melodrama… can change the pitch of a poem in ways that can make me wince sometimes. The ‘Splinter’ poem that ends, ‘or sometimes before’ – that feels like the right kind of ominous diminuendo:

I am singing the truth that your skin tries to hide:
that within you are only the wound that you got
as a child on your knees on the splintering floor,
or sometime before.
                                                  (‘Splinter’)

I would like to almost have the readers starting to stand up, and then – it feels like a very controlling image, but I’ll just follow it – lay my hands on his or her shoulders: ‘Sit back down.’ I’m now trying to remember the very last line of the very last poem in the book, ‘Snow Apple’…

It’s hard to know, although it does occur to you.

It’s a very modest line, and it’s intended partly to activate, quietly, a double sense of ‘occur’ – ‘idly entertained as thought’, but also ‘happen’. It’s a poem that is much about how everything happens to you whether you know it or not. And that kind of insistent quietness of that conclusion felt very good to me, and is one of the reasons why it felt like the right ending to that poem and the right ending to the book. It feels like it doesn’t shout the meaning of the poem at you, but there’s a way in which you want the last line of the poem not be the end of the poem, because you want the reader to go back and keep reading. If you’re not ready to end, but the poem stops giving you lines, then you’ve got no choice but to plough back into the beginning of it again.

We’re Going to Get Married

by Jeff Dolven

We’re going to get married, married, she said,
going to get married, me and my sister,
and I don’t care what it looks like, she said.

A sister like mine is harder to find
than a needle lost in the high cactus-desert,
than a hay-colored camel lost in the haystacks.

We mustn’t let go! We’re going to be richer
together than any old rich man, and truer,
true to each other, and damn the beholder:

he gets the needle, right in the eye,
and then she and I will be left free to wander,
wander right through the eye of the needle:

ring-fingers first, we’ll meet in the middle,
and there we can linger, sister and sister,
properly married, not lying together

like camel and camel, like nickel and quarter,
like hayfield and haystack and hay-harvest weather,
like mistress and master, beheld and beholder

and the eye that’s so ready to put them together.
What have they ever promised each other?
It just isn’t right: we can do better.

First Published by Prac Crit.

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