10 Questions with Distinguished Honors Faculty Member Emily Grosholz
Professor brews conversations over tea with students
By Nicole Mateer ’14
College Relations Intern
Dr. Emily Grosholz speaks a few languages. She publishes books of poetry and philosophy. She studies mathematics and science in addition to philosophy and literature. She frequents Paris.
And she invites Schreyer Scholars to her house for tea.
This year, the professor of philosophy, African-American studies and English in the College of the Liberal Arts continues her participation in the Schreyer Honors College’s Distinguished Honors Faculty program, which is where the invitation for tea fits in.
But sharing tea and conversation is only the beginning of Grosholz’s plans. During the 2011-12 academic year, she hosted dinner discussions that included a visiting British poet and a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. This year, she plans to lead field trips, dinners and fireside chats—events as different as her varied interests. Her first event: a trip to New York City early this month to tour urban parks, each of which gave new life to abandoned industrial space in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Read our Q&A with her below.
- You study mathematics, science, philosophy and poetry. What inspired you to pursue such a unique combination?
I’ve been interested in philosophy, mathematics and poetry ever since I was a little kid. Everybody in my house wrote poems for special occasions. My mother and aunts wrote verses for birthdays and anniversaries, and my father edited the literary magazine in high school and at Haverford College. My grandfather wrote love poems, and my great-great grandfather published books of poetry. Everybody wrote, so I was off and running as soon as I could hold a pencil.
I became interested in philosophy at my church. I belonged to reading groups that introduced me to theologians like C.S. Lewis and Paul Tillich. One thing led to another, and by seventh grade I was trying to read Kierkegaard.
As for math, I always loved science fiction, like my father. Some of the best science fiction stories make use of ideas like non-Euclidean or higher dimensional geometries, Einstein’s relativistic treatment of space and time, or the addition of infinities to number theory, thanks to set theory. As soon as I heard about these things, I was really interested in them, though I didn’t learn more about them until I went to college. Still, I was looking for them, so that when I applied to college, I wrote that there were two things I wanted to study: mathematics and poetry. I ended up being a double math and philosophy major who wrote a lot of poetry.
- How are math, science and poetry similar?
I think that math is to science as poetry is to fictional and historical prose. Prose constructions are more empirical and more concrete, just like science, while poetry and mathematics take you up a level of abstractness. They’re also very concentrated—you can only read a few pages of poetry or mathematics at a time since you have to pay attention to every single thing that’s happening on the page.
- In addition to math, science, philosophy and poetry—what else are you interested in?
One of my Distinguished Honors Faculty sessions will be on translation. Something that interests me is that many poets, especially among my contemporaries, do serious translating on the side. I think it teaches you a great deal about your craft. Also, living in another language teaches you something about your language and your world you couldn’t learn otherwise.
- How many languages do you speak?
My Spanish and modern Greek aren’t very strong, but I know a whole set of songs in those languages. I lived in Germany for a year. French is my strongest language because I started with French, and now participate in a research group in Paris that studies the history and philosophy of math and science. I try to go there about every three or four months. In fact, I was just there for five months on my sabbatical.
- How does knowing foreign languages help you write poetry?
English is an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French with a sprinkling of Latin and Greek. You can learn a tremendous amount about English by studying French, Italian, Spanish, Latin or German.
When you’re composing a poem in English, it’s a real advantage to have our repertoire of words that originated from French and Latin, and words that originated from German so you can use them against each other in a certain way. There are two or three words for everything!
For example, as I’m writing I might want to say something high-flung, abstract and romantic, so I’ll use a high proportion of Latinate words. But then, I’ll want to come down with a clunk, so I throw in one of those great Anglo-Saxon words—like “clunk” or “clang” or “thump”—for emphasis and earthiness. The more you know where the words come from, the better you’re able to get these subtle effects. Learning another language also teaches you about language itself, and that’s truly useful.
- You’re also interested in pairing poetry with music and images. Why?
Some of the poems that have meant the most to me are attached to music, often set to music by significant composers. For example, the Episcopalian hymnal is full of great poetry, and so is the canon of traditional folksongs in English. Then I was in Greece off and on during the ’70s, where I learned that the most talented composers there regularly set important 20th-century poems by Seferis, Cavafy, Elytis, for example, to music. Even if the poet hadn’t written the poems as songs, the composers were able to make them singable, so that you’d hear ordinary people humming them on the street, in bus stations, in markets. The poems also had political uses—people would sing them to remind themselves of what they’d lost and the democracy they wanted back.
So, some of the best 20th century poetry was circulating in Greece forty years ago just the way country Western music or rap circulates here now, and I thought that was wonderful. I wish that happened more often. I think that’s what poetry should do—it should be part of everyone’s lives.
- Who is your favorite poet and why?
Keats. I suppose it's the combination of wisdom and earthliness in his poems, and also his great musicianship. That's the short answer; I wrote the long answer in an essay in the Hudson Review about 10 years ago.
- What do your poems tend to be about?
On the one hand, I write poems that are inspired by philosophy, mathematics and science. And, on the other hand, I write poems that are inspired by love or beloved places, and by my children and my old friends.
- What do you hope people take away from your poems?
Solace, inspiration, delight. Reconciliation with this world. A renewed commitment to life. A sense of adventure. Another song.
- Have you enjoyed working with honors students so far?
What’s impressed me is the intensity, intelligence and wit of the students. They respond immediately and enthusiastically, and their responses are surprising. I go to a lot of trouble to plan these events, but the students’ responsiveness makes it all worthwhile. What I remember most about our dinners is that I laughed a lot!