Auburn News

Philosopher to Poet

On the sixth floor of the Haley Center and a left turn past the elevators are the campus dwellings of the Philosophy Department. Their “homes,” or offices, are decorated with obscure quotes and pictures of philosophers long ago.

Office 6078 belongs to Professor Kelly Jolley. The door is decorated with old photos and adages, but one quote is placed in the middle. “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne…” A quote from Chaucer, a well-known English poet, seems out of place on the door of a philosophy professor, but to Jolley poetry and philosophy go hand in hand.

Professor Jolley has taught philosophy at Auburn for 23 years. His office boasts an accumulation of aging philosophical novels along with the occasional volume of poetry. His love of philosophy also began with a book.

“A teacher I had in ninth grade read a book of essays I wrote and she handed them back to me with her comments and a copy of Plato’s dialogues,” Jolley said. “She told me this is what I should be writing about and after I read the first page I knew. I’ve never really wavered in the conviction that philosophy was what I wanted to spend my life studying.”

Jolley categorizes himself as an old fashioned philosopher who believes philosophy is centered on wisdom and living the best life.

19574_professor_colorp“Philosophy to me is about living the best and happy life,” Jolley said. “I’m here because I would like to be able to do that, be a good person living a good life and it’s important to do that.”

In addition to philosophy, Jolley has another passion; one that was unknown until recently.

Jolley acknowledges that a philosopher who also writes poetry is a little strange, but he cites Plato and his book “The Republic.”

“In his book, Plato talks about an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry that had each other see themselves as in some sort of competition,” Jolley said. “In the afterward of my book, I say that characterization is not clear and that one person can do them both without trying to serve two masters that have been shown not to like each other.”

Jolley continues by showing how philosophy and poetry are not that distant from each other, it’s all how each are perceived. He believes people see philosophy as logic and poetry as feeling, which he says are false simplifications of each.

“One of the things I’m always interested in working on in my poetry is the supposed boundary between two things and how you can come at that boundary on the side of poetry without collapsing into philosophy and vice versa,” Jolley said. “I’m not going to say they’re both the same, but they are not quarreling with each other.”

Jolley recently published a book of poetry titled, “Stony Lonesome.” He drew inspiration from a civil war plantation, Noble Hall, formerly known as Stony Lonesome.

“Many of the poems were written on pathways at the farm,” Jolley said. “I had a friend, Ward Allen, who lived in the overseers house there and we would walk two or three times a week on the paths at the farm. The conversations I had with him and the walk all got wrapped up in the book.”

Allen was an English professor who also worked at Auburn University.

Jolley was so inspired by the location that he named the book after it. He said the cover of the book is reminiscent of a bluegrass album and that he was paying homage to his father and brothers who were bluegrass musicians.

“Wooded paths are places where poetry come to life and a line of poetry is like a path through the words and through the woods,” Jolley said. “It’s not an accident that the book opens with following a path uphill and closes with following a path.”

Jolley admits it is strange to carry a book of his poems around now that it is actually published, but said the excitement starts to fade as he begins to throw himself into a new project. He said the day he held his first published philosophy book in his hands was “a remarkable day.”

Jolley credits T.S. Elliot with his poetic inspiration and has been reading “Four Quartets” constantly.

“Elliot is a poet that I revere,” Jolley said. “There is a line in ‘Four Quartets’ where he talks about poets that he could not even hope to emulate and I think of him that way. I’ve drawn a lot from him and my poetry is influenced by him, though there is an infinite gap between us as poets.”

The oldest poem in “Stony Lonesome” is 14 years old. Jolley had been writing poems and sticking them in a manila folder on top of his file cabinet for years.

“One day I pulled the folder down and saw that there were about 45 poems in there,” Jolley said. “I don’t even think my wife knew I was writing them on that scale and when I showed them to some of my friends they encouraged me. I never had any intention to write a poetry book when I started.”

Jolley writes lyric poems in free verse and infuses many of his poems with philosophy.

“The poetry bears the mark that I am who I am,” Jolley said. “I think of my poetry as ultimately concerned with moral character and they are often of self-chastisement. They’re aimed at moral characters that are attempts to engage the moral imagination.”

Jolley has submersed himself into writing another poetry book with the working title, “Flirting with Death.” He said that poetry in itself is a way of flirting with death and the book will illustrate that. He is also working on a philosophical paper focusing on Epistemological Skepticism.

He advises his students and others interested in poetry and philosophy to read and write all that they can. A special joke he always tell students is “read, read some more; write, write some more and suffer.”

Jolley credits the environment that Auburn, and the University, provides with the person that he is today.

“I’ve really come to love Auburn and teaching here,” Jolley said. “The philosopher Thomas Davidson had a list of maxims for living and said something like don’t look in other places for saints and poets, but be assured that they are around you. That was confirmed by my time here at Auburn by all of the remarkable people I have found here.”

Jolley sits comfortably at his desk. He has a paperweight with the work “Think” in bold sitting beside Twining’s Gunpowder green tea and a “War Eagle” mug. Directly past the fern that hangs from the ceiling is the lone window in the room. From the window, the path that leads to Samford Hall can be seen. Almost as if it was a path straight to the heart of Auburn, a place that Jolley, philosopher and poet, is proud to call home.