Lyrical and Capacious: Timothy Donnelly Interviewed by Shane McCrae

Poetry with an epic sweep.

The Problem Of The Many6

Timothy Donnelly writes poems of impossible breadth. At least, they seem impossible to me. Invariably, I exit a Donnelly poem wondering how what I have just read could possibly have covered so much mind space, so much world space; invariably, a Donnelly poem will make me want to become a smarter, better version of myself. (He doesn’t know this, but after reading The Problem of the Many [Wave Books], I bought several reference books in the hope that I might begin to approach his breadth of reference.) They are unlike any poems being written in English today, and perhaps they are unlike any poems written in English ever, because at their most capacious they define a limit of capaciousness in the art. Over the past month, he and I exchanged emails in which I tried to come up with questions that wouldn’t seem small, and he replied with answers that were bigger than I could have imagined, though I expected they would be that big, because I know him as well as his work, and his is a mind of impossible breadth, too.

—Shane McCrae


Shane McCrae The Problem of the Many begins with what seems to me an invocation of the muse—which itself begins, as does Ezra Pound’s Cantos, with “and”—but the muse is figured as the circumstances of the speaker’s self made both continuous (as circumstances) and themselves (the circumstances) a continuous self. Is The Problem of the Many your epic? If not (and maybe even if so), what do these epic gestures mean to you?

Timothy Donnelly Early on, the art forms I was exposed to the most were movies, the Catholic mass, and music—non-static art that encompasses you, music especially when listened to with eyes closed or staring at the walls or trees outside the window, paying attention to all the separate tracks that came together to make whatever record I was playing or song was on the radio. The experience was mesmerizing, engulfing, and, for lack of a better word, complete. We’re supposed to be suspicious of art’s capacity to absorb us like this, to enchant and to beguile us; but I think I needed and still need it to do that to me on a neurological, non-negotiable level. And when I write, when I’m really in it, that’s just how I feel again—wholly engulfed, and as if everything somehow relates and fits together, the past and the present, the near and far, the mammoth and the infinitesimal. This is mostly why my poems go long, often, and books keep getting longer. The forms that correspond to this feeling, for me, and which to me is inextricably associated with what art is and what it does to me, tend to be longer, expansive, and inclusive, and patterned or formal in some way, no doubt to keep the verses bounding forward without running off the rails. And all these qualities are associated, even if not exclusively, with the epic, that much is true.

True, too, that we’re taught that proper epics begin in medias res, although when I started The Problem of the Many’s proem, “What Is Real,” with the word “and,” it just felt necessary to me in a way I didn’t stop to question. The greatest outcome of my education as a poet has been a deeper trust in my instincts. As for the word “circumstance,” what I have in mind there is the word’s etymological sense, i.e., “that which stands around (one),” which, again, in the flow of composition, comes to feel like everything. So when I write, “Hold on tight, my circumstance. Tonight we’re diving in”—which has a kind of “Born to Run” schmaltz to it, I admit—what I’m feeling there is: stay with me, reality, here in this mind space where the deep interconnectedness is perceptible, we have work to do. I agree that this is an invocation of a kind, you’re right. But at the same time, I’m reluctant to present the book as an epic per se, but rather as a collection that flirts with epic scale and conventions and occasionally epic subject matter (ancient battles, voyages, the origin of life, the building of cities, etc.). Lastly, the longest poem in the book, “After Callimachus,” borrows from the prologue to Callimachus’s longest work, the Aetia, which was a compendium like Ovid’s Fasti, and which is now mostly lost. We think of Callimachus as being strenuously anti-epic, but you also get the sense that he liked invoking Homericism in order to shake things up, and I like the spirit of that, like how he presents himself in propria persona as the intimate narrator to the Aetia in its prologue. Dante does that, too, come to think of it—although he also gives us a continuous through line, which Callimachus didn’t do. Callimachus also writes in the prologue that Apollo told him not to “drive (his) chariot in others’ footsteps,” but to make poetry his own way, and I like that as well.

SM Gustav Mahler once said, when walking with Jean Sibelius, “A symphony must be like a world. It should embrace everything.” With regard to your longer poems, especially, you write what I’ve been thinking of as a Mahlerian lyric: capacious, unfolding, as lyric poems most often do, from an engagement with a single subject—for example, in the title poem, which is one of the most exciting poems I’ve read in years, you begin with the encounter between Alexander and Diogenes—but branching out not only according to elaboration upon the initial subject, but also according to elaboration upon the mind considering the initial subject, and incorporating a wide range of cultural references. From what, in you (and in the world), does this lyric arise? What, in the world (and in you), does this lyric answer? 

TD Again, Dante does it, too; but for me, it was Milton’s movement through time and space in Paradise Lost that irrevocably blew my mind when I first studied him, as in the famous passage in which he relates to us the size of Satan’s spear: 

            His spear, to equal which the tallest pine
            Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
            Of some great ammiral, were but a wand,
            He walked with to support uneasy steps
            Over the burning marle….

The sublimity of this isn’t just the effect of how he plays with scale, but also of the conceptual bouncing from the ancient fallen angel, to a tree in Norway, to a massive ship and back, which has a decentering effect on my mind that isn’t cheap or trippy for its own sake. It feels purposeful, profound. I saw an amazing exhibit last year at the Frist Museum in Nashville called Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century, and in the show’s catalogue the artist Simon Morley writes that many pictures in the show could be seen as “militating against the dominance of the clear and distinct world of the focused vision of the ‘ego tunnel,’” suggesting that work of this kind ultimately yields access to “heightened awareness of existential and universal connectedness between self, others, and the world.” I think that in the poems of mine you’re calling Mahlerian (I like that, though Mahler can be a hair too monumental), the longer ones and maybe in mid-length ones like “Unlimited Soup and Salad,” “Diet Mountain Dew,” or “Fascination,” I’m trying to engage in this kind of making, absolutely. And to me it’s more than just mixing high and low registers for snappy local effect, which I sometimes get asked about, so I appreciate the Mahler angle, which sort of raises the stakes. For a couple of decades now I’ve been obsessed not merely with the aesthetics but the conceptual exercise of moving great distances and accommodating vastly disparate elements in the space of a sentence, and what it does to the mind to hold more. The fast-food version of this kind of movement might be the History network’s Ancient Aliens, which I was totally addicted to while writing The Cloud Corporation. But now I feel like that show is far too willing to fill people’s heads with garbage.

Timothy Donnelly2

Photo by Ada Donnelly.

SMAriana Reines’s recent book, A Sand Book, is a little over two hundred pages long. Sharon Olds’s new book, Arias, is almost two hundred pages long. Richard Kenney’s new book, Terminator, is a little over two hundred pages long. Robert Hass’s new book, Summer Snow, out in January, is almost two hundred pages long. The Problem of the Many is a little over two hundred pages long. Only a few years ago, one hundred pages was considered long—or at least long-ish—for a book of poems. Generally speaking, what do you think is driving this increase? What has driven it for you?

TD You could add Tyehimba Jess’s Olio to that list, too, which is over 250 pages, but from what I can see, long books of poetry are still pretty much the exception, although it’s true that there seem to be more of them—maybe binge-watching Game of Thrones has lengthened our attention spans. But a quick scan of my stacks tells me most new books remain on the short side: under 100 pages generally, with few running longer than 150 pages. Of course there are innumerable factors that determine how long a poet’s book will be, or should be, yet I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most people who publish longer books like to stay in the zone of creation and tend to put off collecting and “finalizing” what they create, which calls for a very different mindset, while poets who write shorter books might already have a rough sense of their book’s shape even before they begin writing it or shortly thereafter, perhaps also a relatively straightforward sense of what belongs where and what doesn’t. There are infinite pathways, and great work can take any number of them into becoming. I remember hearing Jess discuss at an event how he had sent a box of loose material to his editor at Wave who then worked with him to assemble the book we now know. Anne Carson regularly publishes long books, and they often feel to me like galleries of related things that you can move through as you wish. Hass and Kenney strike me as poets whose relationship to their writing, at least at this point, isn’t too much affected by thoughts of how to package it. As for me, I had desperately wanted to write a tight, unified book of shorter lyrics after The Cloud Corporation, but I didn’t have the resources or quiet of mind to conceive of how I might go about it—I had to make use of whatever scraps of free time came my way. This, too, proves to be a factor. In a review of The Cloud Corporation that appeared in the Guardian after it was published in the UK, David Wheatley recalled Les Murray’s having joked that he didn’t have enough time to write a short poem, so he wrote a long one instead. I get that.

SM The Problem of the Many has a hidden track, a poem called “The Human,” positioned after the notes and acknowledgments (I am so jealous of that move). Why? And “The Human” begins in much the same way “What Is Real” begins, in medias res, with the phrase, “in the interim.” But that is a different kind of “in the middle of things.” The reader is not thrust, thereby, into the middle of the action, but instead begins the poem, implicitly, after (at least one part of) the action, in a space perceived by the speaker of the poem as being “in the middle of things.” Is this a gesture of welcoming the reader out of the book? If so, where would you hope the reader would go next?

TD Thanks for noticing! After I finished writing the long poem “Hymn to Life” (sick in bed with the flu in a hotel room in Tuscaloosa), I came to assume it would be the last poem in what was, at the time, a mostly unwritten book. It seemed conclusive to me, that poem, and writing it wiped me out. I couldn’t imagine what sort of voice I might use in the wake of it. But a few months after the book was finished, just this past spring, I decided to add “What Is Real” to establish a more intimate voice at the outset, a kind of welcome that set a tone and created a sense of occasion. Then it seemed that maybe I should add something at the end of the book as well, but I still didn’t want to break the silence after “Hymn to Life.” So, partly inspired by the surprisingly reassuring effect that the hidden tracks “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Tell Him” have on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, I thought maybe I could make an ultimately affirming poem that would show up after the notes, alleviating, I hoped, a little of the lingering gloom. Plus I thought it might be nice and even true to my “philosophy of life” to end not with extinction but with marveling. Then, when I tried to put my finger on what I thought was marvelous about the human, my thoughts slid all the way back to the beginning, back before it all went wrong, and I sort of daydreamed the first hominid to kick off the adaptation of its respiratory system into a mechanism for language production—the original homo loquens, which led me back to Aristotle. I also knew I wanted it to have the same rhythm and spirit as the poem that closed The Cloud Corporation, “His Future as Attila the Hun,” which begins, “But when I try to imagine what it might be like to live.” I think of this book as a continuation of that one in many ways, so I wanted to harken back to the source, maybe to say goodbye to it. Lastly, I had lived most of my life as a moon person as opposed to a sun person; but over the last few years, I’ve come to love the sun just as much, and I felt like I wanted to end this phase of my writing life by giving thanks to the sun. In particular, there’s a certain quality to the light in Dumbo close to sunset that just makes me feel like it’s worth it to be alive, and that’s what fed the poem, deep down—the sense that it’s worth it, or even beautiful, to be alive, and that’s a feeling I wanted to leave the reader with, too.

Shane McCrae’s most recent books are The Gilded Auction Block (2019) and Sometimes I Never Suffered (2020), both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

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