Expressing the Unexplained
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
A conversation with Erik Gray
By Caroline Hurley
Editor-in-Chief Caroline Hurley sat down with Professor of English Erik Gray for this month’s Conversation, where they discussed everything from rap music to love to mid-20s emotional indifference. Professor Gray, known for his expressive lectures on poetry, holds an esteemed gold nugget rating on CULPA and his Romantic Poetry course is a must-take before graduating. Gray’s most recent book, The Art of Love Poetry, was recently released in March 2018.
The Blue and White: I have a couple questions here, but you are welcome to talk about whatever you want.
Erik Gray: I have nothing to say. No particular axe to grind.
BW: I always think it is interesting how professors came to end up at Columbia. Do you want to speak to that a little bit?
EG: My first job out of graduate school was at Harvard, where I had actually spent my freshman year of college, and I was miserable there. I think a lot of people are miserable—a lot of people are miserable anywhere. But I think if I stayed I probably would’ve come to like it more, but I left and went to Cambridge instead. But then many years later when I finished my PhD I got a job and was a professor of English at Harvard, and then I loved it, I have to say. I had always loved the classes, but my classmates when I was a freshman seemed to be not very interested in academics. Since that’s what I was really interested in, that was really off-putting. But as a teacher, I found the students absolutely wonderful I would say. I spent some time there and then applied for the job at Columbia, and I have been here ever since 2004.
BW: That’s interesting because when I was a freshman here I absolutely hated it … It’s funny, I took your Romantic Poetry class when I was a sophomore, but it was back when I was afraid to go to office hours and engage with professors. I loved the class, though. Recently I read your article, “The Races of Poetry,” and I am also on a sports team that spends a lot of time racing. In the article, you point out how poetry often equates ‘racing’ with ‘living’. You bring up the contradiction of this, that races are supposed to be completed as quickly as possible, but living, maybe not so much. In my time here, I have felt that contradiction of wanting to race through college and get on with the next step in my life, but then I also want to freeze moments in time here. You bring up how this phenomenon relates to reading. Because poetry speaks to this contradiction so often, what do you think students can take away from the study of poetry?
EG: Can I ask you a question first?
BW: Of course!
EG: How did you come across the article?
BW: Just on Clio, doing research and trying to show up prepared for this interview.
EG: Oh of course, that makes sense. I only ask because there is this great resource at Columbia which is the Columbia Archive, I can’t remember what it is called, but it’s the online archive. Anybody can put anything that you have written—senior thesis, whatever, there, and it is searchable. The Academic Commons, the Columbia Commons. So faculty are encouraged to put their published material on there, so that it is accessible to the world that does not have a research library. I get this update every month of how many people have read my work. And far more people than I would have ever expected look at these various articles. And that one, because it has … I like the name of that particular article, but I am thinking of changing the name online to something like, ‘Chasing Identity in Homer, Vergil, Ovid and Dante.’ Because nobody reads it because it just says, ‘The Races of Poetry’ and that doesn’t tell you anything.
BW: I thought it was so interesting once I started reading it.
EG: The reason that I am particularly glad that you read that is because that article came directly out of my experience teaching LitHum. Every junior faculty member in the humanities, I think that is right, but certainly in the English Department, you have a three-year commitment to the Core when you come here. Most people in English teach LitHum. So I spent three years teaching LitHum. And that’s a hard course—it’s a hard course to take and a hard course to teach. Nobody is an expert in all of these things, so it is very hard. At the end of it you do get a year leave. And the whole time I was teaching it, I thought, ‘Oh, I see these connections,’ even though Ovid was not on the syllabus at the time, but I saw all these connections somewhere in my mind. It was in the year of my leave afterwards, somebody asked me to give a talk, and I thought, ‘I know! I’ll talk about this thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while.’ And then I just sat down, I reread a little bit of things, I went and did a little bit of research, but it wasn’t the way I usually write. I just sat down and started writing out my thoughts for this talk, and maybe because I was writing as a talk and not an article at the time, but I wrote faster and more easily than I have ever written anything in my life. I think I wrote something like 12,000 words, or 40 pages or something like that. I’d never done anything like that before! And then I had to fix it up and it took me years before I decided to send it out as an article, but the point is – that is a pure Columbia article right there … what was the question?
BW: [Laughs] I definitely felt that impulse when I read it—I absolutely feel the contradiction between racing through and slowing down. You connected it to poetry, and so I was wondering what can students take away from the study of poetry? Maybe that question is unrelated.
EG: No, no I totally see your question. [Long pause]. I feel a bit of conflict because I never like to claim exceptional status for anything. I don’t mind being a proselytizer for poetry, and to talk about its unique characteristics. I don’t want to say that there is something that you can only get from poetry, that everybody has to study it, or that everybody should like it, or something like that. But I guess that wasn’t your question—your question was, ‘What can you get from poetry?’ It does slow things down. You know, I am not very good, it turns out, at reading just for the gist of things. I’m not good at skimming, which has been a detriment. As you get further advanced in your career, the things that you are asked to read get bigger and bigger: ‘Read all the works that this person has produced,’ or, ‘Read a whole bunch of books and decide which of these people we should hire.’ I’m very bad at that. Either it’s because of my training reading poetry, or it’s because I read slowly that I like poetry. But it’s true—when we are multitasking and trying to get things done and trying to accomplish a great deal, to be confronted with a type of text that demands slow reading, and very much repays it, has a real value.
BW: That’s interesting that you talk about poetry teaching you to slow down. Another question I had was about the impulse in education these days to study STEM. I’m an English major with a Computer Science minor, because you ‘need’ technical classes nowadays. But the value in poetry, and in other humanities classes, History, Philosophy, Literature … I do think poetry seems to occupy a different niche in humanities education than a class like CC. I guess that’s more of a comment than a question. But poetry has been around longer than most other forms of literature. That fascinates me.
EG: It’s strange that … there is a fairly recent phenomenon that most people today can’t name living poets, in English. Even if you could name them, you haven’t read them. I don’t read much contemporary poetry in English, even though I read poetry from all sorts of earlier periods in English. And yet for a long time the poet was the representative of culture. There is also a sense in which the poet stands outside of culture, is counter-cultural, that sort of thing. But also, the poet is the bard, the spokesman of the nation, of the city, of the culture, and was celebrated more than any of the heroes of culture. So how to explain this moment where that seems to … and this was certainly true in the Victorian period. It’s not just that there were one or two figure heads. A major poetic book, everybody knew about them, for better or for worse. If you published something scandalous, but as a poem, it made big waves. I think that it is actually a misapprehension to see poetry as having disappeared from our culture, simply in the sense that it has just gone back to being associated with music again. Originally, poets, the bards who performed in Homer, were accompanying themselves on the lyre, and the idea of lyric poetry is that it had a lyre next to it, though that’s debatable if it was always or ever true. Nevertheless, the idea of the poet as a singer is an ancient one. Then it became merely a metaphor. The fact that Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature shouldn’t be surprising.
BW: I was still surprised though!
EG: It is surprising in some ways, but when you think about it a little bit more … if I say, 150 years ago there were lots of lines of poetry by contemporary living poets that people knew and could quote. Well isn’t that true now? Well of course that’s true now. If you think about it, popular song has always existed and people could quote popular songs for a long time. But especially when the singer-songwriter became a real figure and it wasn’t just Sinatra doing the classics, but Bob Dylan writing his own lyrics. Not that he was the first, but it is a different model. It makes sense, since it is much easier to diffuse recorded music, even easier over the radio than to diffuse written poems, that that should be where popular poetry exists. The line sort of breaks down when the popular poetry events that exist now are poetry slams and spoken word events. The difference between that and rap, though rap has given way to hip-hop which is quite different, but there is still a continuum there which suggests that of course it makes sense that we should think of popular musicians as our poets. That is not to say that there aren’t poets working in the more traditional forms who are also important, but it is true that their readership tends to be more restricted than it would have been even 50 or 60 years ago.
BW: I guess I’ve never really thought about the connection between rap music and poetry. That is a form of poetics then, right?
EG: Absolutely! Oh, absolutely! In fact, just today … I am teaching two different courses this term, both, as it turns out, on Victorian poetry. In both classes, we are studying Gerard Manley Hopkins this week. Frankly, Hopkins’ rhythms and his internal rhymes … he is actually a rap musician. Really! There is very little difference in terms of technique between Hopkins and early rap, like the sort of origins of it and the 1980s.
BW: I remember taking your Romantic Poetry class and we did Coleridge’s ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.’ The metaphor of the albatross from that poem, you hear it in songs, and I never noticed it or knew what it meant before. It was exciting! What would you say is the most exciting thing about poetry? In your class you get excited about it all the time.
EG: Oh, I do get excited about poetry. I think the moments in poetry that I get excited about are moments when a poem manages to express something, and to do something, that really just can’t be explained … it brings things together. A poem has multiple elements, which is true of all speech and discourse, but a poem really has multiple elements going on at once. It has a sound, it has a rhythm, and it has paraphrase-able meanings, the simple denotation signified by the words, but then they bring with them, as all words do, but they are more at play in poetry and more present to our consciousness, all of these connotations and associations. And when a poem—it doesn’t have to be a trick—but just manages to bring these elements together so that they combine to express something that I recognize as true, and that I could have not otherwise expressed but it all works together. And then I can diagram it and draw it out in lecture and say, you know. But then I get excited about it all over again! It is exciting to me that language is able to do that. So often when I am trying to answer your question or when I am speaking, what I am conscious of is the frustration and the limitation of language. It is nice to have it as a tool, a very effective tool; I use it every day, so I feel like I am pretty comfortable. I am using it to work with, and sometimes when it does things for me, or when I notice it in somebody else’s words doing something that I would not otherwise have been able to conceive or crystallize in that way—that’s exciting.
BW: You mentioned poetry being clever. One of the things that I love is that poetry seems so smart. Shifting gears here, though, your new book is out, The Art of Love Poetry. I was at the event at the Heyman Center to launch the book, and Kathy Eden (Professor of Classics at Columbia) brought up Catullus 85. ‘Odi et Amo, I hate and I love.’ So much of poetry seems to sort of conclude or end in paradox, dichotomies, contradiction. All of these things are very central to poetry, which you point out in the Introduction to your book. Is this constant back and forth of poetry frustrating to you, or do you appreciate it?
When we are multitasking and trying to get things done and trying to accomplish a great deal, to be confronted with a type of text that demands slow reading, and very much repays it, has a real value.
EG: So, it’s a very good question. The various elements that you’ve just mentioned, both with the question, and then what you were saying a moment before about the cleverness of poetry, both of those ideas, I have to say, are products of a very particular school of criticism, which is, however, the one in which I was trained. Let me explain what I mean: poetry was, for a long time, images or metaphors, but it wasn’t even metaphorical because it was thought of being literal, as I said, before song. The power of it lies in its ability to soothe, to waft away, to take you elsewhere—not necessarily to challenge, or even to surprise. And this wasn’t the only concept of poetry, but this was one of the main ones. When King Saul brought in the young David to play his harp and sing to him, it was not so that he could be delighted by the paradoxes, and the Psalms do not work by metaphor. So that’s a version of poetry. And then New Criticism, which sprang up in America, and England but that particular school called New Criticism, capital N, which sprang up in America in the 1930s, valued wit, paradox, ambiguity, and multiplicity of meaning. It looked to poets like John Donne, and metaphysical poets of the 17th century as the model of what poetry is and can be. And it was clever, or at least if this was all the intention of the poet, then you get some sort of riddle. The poet might be aiming at an actual truth, Donne aimed at some divine truth, but it allows the critic to say clever things. I don’t think that that is the only essence of poetry. It is one of the ones I focus on in the book because the ability to be in two states at once, or the fact of feeling multiple things at once without being able to resolve them, without having a logic to them, is true of erotic experience as well. That’s the connection that I draw in The Art of Love Poetry, between the dualisms, the paradox inherent to poetry that we find in love as well. I don’t find it frustrating in poetry because it is not the only aspect of poetry. The problem, or one of the major problems with the New Critical approach that was introduced in the 30s and 40s and then percolated down through college instruction by the time that I was in middle school and high school, this was the way we were taught to close read poetry. It meant that there were plenty of poets who just don’t fit, who were not particularly interesting to look at in this way, but who are great poets. When I was in high school I couldn’t understand why you would want to read Walt Whitman, because there is nothing clever there! But it turns out that Whitman is one of the great poets, and an erotic poet too, and worth thinking of as a love poet. But not one who fits any simple paradigm of paradox always appearing in poetry.
BW: Another thing with your new book is that in the description it says, ‘Love begets poetry; poetry begets love.’ Maybe I am nitpicking the language too much, but I think the use of the word ‘begets’ is interesting because the idea of ‘begetting’ seems more intrinsic than ‘producing’ or ‘creating.’ It is used that way in the Nicene Creed. I know that seems to be sort of the point of the book, that there is this intrinsic connection between love and poetry. All of the copies have been checked out of Butler since it came out, so without spoiling the ending, do you want to expand on this connection that you saw?
EG: So that’s the blurb on the back of the book, which I wrote as well, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t thinking about it, but you’re right. The idea that it is a question of being, ‘begotten, not made.’ I hadn’t thought of that. I was thinking of it more in terms of just the genealogical tables at the beginning of Genesis. But it’s true. It implies a connection without necessarily priority, a deeper and more intrinsic connection, which as you say, is the point of the book. I should say, by the way, the book grew directly out of the love poetry classes I have taught at Columbia, which I have taught four times. Some of my favorite classes that I have ever taught, because who doesn’t want to read about love? It teaches itself. We have brilliant students here, and so I wrote a lot of the book directly out of the notes I had prepared for class because it was such a stimulating environment. My question that I began with before I even started teaching the class is: Why is that? Why could you read a poem about a snowflake to somebody and they would think that it’s romantic? Just the fact of you reading the poem. And people who have never written poems before want to when they fall in love. Why? Why is that? Is it simply because we are trained that there is connection? Even that, there must be an origin for this cultural cliché. Poetry is not alone in this; music is the food of love as well, says Shakespeare. I do feel that there is this close connection between poetry and love. And so the aim of the book, not to explain it, but just to tell you what it is, is to go through some of the theories of love and poetry. How have people defined it over the centuries? I want to examine what the intrinsic qualities of each seem to be, and then places where they intersect, that is to say, looking at love poetry to seem what forms does it take and what are the tropes or the devices or the images that keep coming back, and how do they express themselves in Western love poetry.
BW: Well your other book is The Poetry of Indifference, which seems to be the complete opposite. That seems a broad swing in the other direction. What prompted that?
Frankly, Hopkins’ rhythms and his internal rhymes … he is actually a rap musician. Really!
EG: It is a good question. When I was dedicating The Art of Love Poetry to my wife, I was thinking that maybe I should make something of this switch in the dedication or the acknowledgments or something like that. Because you write about what you’re interested in, and everything you write is to some extent autobiographical. There is no way for that not to be true, and it probably wouldn’t be very interesting if it weren’t true. You could give a sort of basic biographical reading, which is that I was interested in aloofness and this whole concept, and then later in my life I became more interested in love. And that’s possible. I don’t think that that’s not true. I do think that it is not particularly interesting as an explanation unless you happen to be me or my wife. There is also another explanation which might also not be particularly interesting or revealing about the nature of those two things, which is just that at the beginning of your career, when you’re writing a dissertation (which is what The Poetry of Indifference was, before it became my first book), you need to be making a critical intervention. That’s the point, to show that you can assert something new. If you’re working in a literary field, preferably about familiar works, to give them a new reading. As with any paper that you write for an English course, the slight counterintuitive thesis is going to be more interesting. So, The Poetry of Indifference, how was romantic poetry about its opposite, that’s what that book is about. Whereas there is a different type of book which is not necessarily more advanced, but I guess would be more dangerous to write as your first book, which is to take something that everybody already knows and to explore it. Everybody knows about love poetry, here is my book on love poetry. I am not surprising anybody by saying that love poetry is very important in Western literature, or that love and poetry are connected, but that’s not the point of the book. The point is to give an explanation of why this is so. Two different genres. In a way, that doesn’t explain anything, because they didn’t have to be indifference and love. I think I have just always been interested in both. They took that order just because they took that order. I’m not not interested in indifference anymore. It still seems like a crucial element and one that is harder to admit socially. It seems like something that needs to be balanced in our lives, lack of feeling, hardening of heart; it’s just what we do, and yet it’s the last thing you can say, ‘I don’t care.’ You can care about everything, but it’s not physically possible to care about everything. That’s the tension at the center of that book. And that does still interest me. There might be reasons why, in my mid-20s, that that seemed particularly interesting to me, but I can’t remember what they were.
BW: Were you always interested in literature and poetry?
EG: Yes. I loved poetry. I don’t remember when I started reading it all the time, but I loved poetry starting in middle school. We did Latin in my middle school and high school, and the literature that I studied in Latin was poetry, and it just occurred to me that I was studying a foreign language specifically so that I could read the poetry. The rest I could read in translation and not feel that I was missing as much. That got me interested in the academic study of poetry, and then I was a Classics major that freshman year at Harvard. But then when I went to Cambridge and I had to study only one thing, because you can’t take courses outside of your field. You go there to study one thing from the moment you arrive. I became an English major, to put it in American terms, and most of what I studied was poetry. To me that was the essence of the literature that I really wanted to study. At some point during my undergraduate time there, I realized that I’d like to continue after I graduated.
I think the moments in poetry that I get excited about are moments when a poem manages to express something, and to do something, that really just can’t be explained.
BW: Was it difficult going from Harvard to Cambridge?
EG: It would have been, but there is a bit of a backstory to that, which is that I spent my senior year of high school at an English boarding school, simply because I wanted to do something different. I had this idea, and I spent a year in England, which is what gave me the idea when I was miserable my freshman year, the way you said you were, the way most people are, of going for a transfer to a completely different system. That certainly eased the transition. There were very few American undergraduates at Cambridge. Half of the graduate students were Americans, but I think there is 10,000 undergraduates and people who were there full-time getting a degree rather than just study abroad, I might have come across one or two other Americans. It’s relatively rare, which means that you have to be able to adapt. There is an international population, but it’s smaller than it is here, of undergraduates, so you wouldn’t be alone, but you don’t get much support.
BW: I’m not familiar with the system over there. Were there things that they did at Cambridge that would seem, not better, but different than at Harvard or Columbia? What was special about it?
EG: The main difference is the one I just mentioned, which is that everyone chooses what they are going to study before they come. For a lot of 18-year-olds, or 19-year-olds because a lot of them had taken a gap year (which makes a big difference), they had already applied and figured out what they’re going to study. It just meant that they were coming in with a better sense of who they were for spending that year working or traveling. Nevertheless, for a lot of 18 or 19-year-olds, deciding then what you are going to major in, rather than after two years of higher education is problematic. On the other hand, if you do have a clear sense of what you want to study as I did, the liberal arts system really is not compatible with that. That’s not to say you can’t get as good of an education, but it takes longer until you get into senior seminars and things like that. For me it was ideal to be in a system where you were studying with people doing the same thing from the beginning. The difference at Oxford or Cambridge from even the other British universities is that they work on a tutorial system, so there are no classes for which you take exams. There are general exams at the end of it all, and there are lectures that you can go to or not, but then the bulk of your work happens in very small groups or, at Cambridge, one-on-one tutorials. That’s a very expensive system. It works because these are highly-endowed colleges. It doesn’t work for everybody, but it really means that you are working with a teacher very closely and you can go at your own pace and pursue your own interests and nobody is setting the syllabus. It’s not a system that could possibly be replicated, but it has wonderful advantages.
BW: That system seems intimidating, but I could see how it would be very effective.
EG: That’s something going to a boarding school prepared me for. They don’t try to make it less intimidating either; that’s not the British way. It’s not to nod, and comfort you and encourage you; that’s not the way they teach. They do it by looking skeptical and disdainful most of the time, and then grunting in approval as the highest form of compliment.
BW: You mentioned earlier how you’ve taught seminars on love poetry. What would you say is your favorite course that you’ve taught here?
EG: Wow, I don’t know. I love teaching love poetry. I taught a seminar last term called ‘Romantic Margins,’ which I had never taught before, and the idea was to look at marginalized figures, and the margins of texts; it was basically an idea I had for teaching stuff that isn’t in my Romantic Poetry course. I had no idea how that was going to work, it was my first time doing it. It was my first time teaching an undergraduate seminar in quite a while. And it was just so much fun. Everybody was so brilliant. That one is certainly fresh in my mind. But I have not taught an undergraduate seminar that did not thrill me, I can actually say that. Teaching LitHum the first time was hard; I had just moved to New York and just moved to Columbia, and your first year at Columbia, even if you are a faculty member rather than a freshman can be very difficult. That’s true anywhere. That was really hard, but the seminars that I have taught have all been a pleasure.
BW: Shifting gears again here, you are definitely a very popular professor on campus. A common theme in all of your reviews from students and interviews, is how much you obviously care about your students and about undergraduates. I think as an undergraduate, sometimes it can be hard to find professors who are devoting as much time and care. Columbia often is criticized for caring more about its graduate students and its status as a research institution, but there are a lot of problems in the undergraduate community. What would you say is the role of professors in all of this?
EG: I think Columbia has a deep history of undergraduate teaching. I can’t quite remember the history of this, or maybe I never understood it correctly, but I feel like there used to be a graduate faculty, and then an undergraduate faculty within let’s say the English department for a long time. If that wasn’t an official designation that was a sort of de facto designation, and the prestige lay with undergraduate teaching. Lionel Trilling, who was the great public intellectual of the 1950s, he was teaching LitHum. That was his calling, that’s where he belonged. We have a lot of senior faculty who choose to teach in the Core. I think there is a great deal of dedication. There is also encouragement, pressure before tenure, to publish and to have an active research agenda. That’s how you get tenured, and it’s something that you want to do if you are here. That can take away time and make it harder to make office hours and things like that. But I don’t think that there is … I can only speak for the English Department. I don’t think that I am distinctive, actually. I say that with good evidence, because I was Director of Undergraduate Studies for a couple of years, so I met with basically every graduating senior. I had a lot of people in my office. I think it is fair to say that for every single one of my colleagues, at least one person that I was talking to in the course of conversation, one student would say, ‘His or hers was my favorite class that I took at Columbia.’ These are undergraduate courses and it comes across that we have extremely good and extremely dedicated teachers. I can’t talk about other fields. In fields where the introductory courses are taught by graduate students or lecturers, who are also dedicated, but there is a desire to get to a point where you are studying with more senior faculty. There, the relationship is probably going to be somewhat different. I don’t know about that. But yes, it’s one of the things I love about Columbia, actually. That we have this deep dedication to undergraduate teaching.