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Matthew Gilbert Q&A: On Keeping Your Ear Close to the Poem

Matthew GilbertSTONY BROOK, NY -- Matthew J. Gilbert, a 2016 recipient of Stony Brook University’s distinguished doctoral student award, recently defended his doctoral dissertation, entitled, "The Music of Romantic Poetry and the Mediation of Romanticism." His research and teaching interests involve the literature and history of British Romanticism, poetry and poetics, and relationships among different art forms and differing media.

How did you come to focus on the Romantics – and music?

It’s funny, but I ask myself this question sometimes—especially now that I can look back and see a dissertation about romanticism and music in my wake. Music has been a lifelong interest. I majored in music as an undergrad at Clark University, studying classical piano performance and music theory – my second major was English. As for romanticism: I had always had brushes with the romantic poets, but I had planted my flag in modernism early on with an interest in modern poetry. Everything was going along fine until I opened up my Norton Anthology one day and re-read Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.” I was in awe, utter awe. I’d read it before, but something was different that time. I began reading more Wordsworth, more Coleridge, more Keats and Blake and Shelly and so forth. The rest, as they say, is history.

How does your work as a musician inform your work as a scholar and writer? And vice versa?

While I don’t think that technical expertise – being able to play arpeggios, for example – has made me a better scholar of literature, a lifetime of being fascinated by both music and poetry has had an impact on the way I think. It’s also made me a stickler of sorts. When a poem or poet uses the term “music,” I can’t help but ask, “hey, what do you mean by that?”—and that’s often where things start to get interesting. Once you start pulling at the “poetry and music” thread, a bunch of hidden questions start coming loose, because both of those art forms are bound up in just about everything—from popular culture to stuffy scholarly treatises.

Can you give one example of how this lens has changed your understanding of a particular poem?

One example: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Eolian Harp.” You could call it, as may do, a poem about “music,” but in doing that you’d also be inviting a very bland sense of the rich and at times unmusical ways it both creates and performs its “music.” The more we ask, “what is the music here,” the more we start to see how Coleridge arrived at a shrewdly multilayered sense of “music” that stretches across his editorial process, his experiments with genre, his thoughts on how his poem might be published, and a subtle competition between what the voice of the poem describes (the sound of wind moving over a wind harp) and the sounds that the voice uses to describe it (sibilant vocal sounds that sound nothing like a wind harp).

The poem itself tosses out huge questions about the very fabric of the knowable universe, but the idea of “music” that transports him through these visions ultimately seems to arise from a poetical music that can be printed, edited, and calculated for effect. That doesn’t sound much like what the music of nature does, and yet, it sounds an awful lot like what a composer does.

What excites you about your work?

I love finding new angles on well-worn texts. When you study the “music” of poetry, you have to keep your eye on the big ideas that are important in the field of literary studies, but you also have to keep your ear close to the poem and balance critical skepticism with faithfulness to the poem’s language. Also, I’ve found that music has a way of complicating some of the most well trod critical narratives in literary studies. Being able to weigh in on ideas that I read about as an undergraduate is enormously exciting.

I couldn’t have written my dissertation if I hadn’t been a teacher first. I would have been ill-equipped and too certain of my own points of view from too early a stage. Teaching shook up my views in many ways.

Your nomination letters for the distinguished doctoral student award touch on your work as a teacher – how has teaching changed or shaped the way you approach research?

I couldn’t have written my dissertation if I hadn’t been a teacher first. I would have been ill-equipped and too certain of my own points of view from too early a stage. Teaching shook up my views in many ways—including one very crucial way. I gradually came to find that students had a much easier time grasping a poem when it was read out loud. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s how the romantics often preferred to experience poetry—in their ears.

As I paid closer attention to the way I read poems in class, as well as to the often-insightful ways my students would read, I likewise paid closer attention to the vibrant aural life poetry enjoyed in the romantic era. If I hadn’t experienced the depth of that connection first hand, I’m not sure that I would have pursued it aggressively enough in my own work. My students made poetry real for me.

How did you settle on Stony Brook for your doctoral research?

Serendipity. I had a passion for literary study and believed that it didn’t matter where I went. That may have been a little obtuse on my part. But I got lucky. Stony Brook turned out to be a marvelous graduate experience. My advisor, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, is a renowned poet and scholar, and my dissertation chairperson, Peter Manning, is one of the most preeminent scholars of British Romanticism in the world. I had a wealth of teaching opportunities and a supportive community from day one. So, my sense of why I chose Stony Brook in the first place may be a bit blurry to me now, but over the years I had many reasons to remain confident in my choice.

How did your program help equip you for success?

My program did a lot of things very well, but above all, they gave us freedom and encouraged creative approaches. In fact, I remember sitting with the graduate program director shortly after orientation and being promised that creativity was encouraged, freedom provided. That promise has held true every day since.

What advice would you offer students pursuing graduate work in the humanities?

1) Do it. 2) Limit the extent to which you buy-in to professional anxiety. There will always be a chorus of voices that pronounces the state of the Humanities dead or nearly dead, and there will always be a cluster of fellow grads and recent grads who live in a state of constant despair over the job market, or the future of academia, etc. Here’s my suggestion: when you arrive at graduate school, talk to some people who have just graduated and who found an outcome that made them happy—a post doc, a tenure-track job, a job outside of academia, whatever. These are the people that just did what you are about to do, and in the way you hope to do it. Ask them what they focused on while they were students. How did they feel about their course work, their exams, their research? What were their habits? What advice do they have? What do they know now that they wish they knew? In the time it takes to type an email, or for the price of a cup of coffee, you’ll have some wonderfully useful perspective, and the collective anxiety you perceive and internalize will quiet down to an appropriate decibel level – not silent, to be fair, but not deafening either. Focus on the possibilities instead of the roadblocks.


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