Thursday, September 22, 2011

Risk? The Irrational? Courage? Whatevs...

When we talk of the edge, the risk, in art, what are we talking about?  Leading each other to new forms? New forms of what?  How a poem looks?  How it sounds?  Content?  Approach to content?  New forms of disappearance?  Eh. 

It’s helpful that our bodies do many things without us having to consciously sign off on them.  And then the next move, how we can hold our breath but we can’t stop our hearts.  That’s for the best, yes, but thinking about how the body does these things with and without us allows me to think that those who conceptualize art making as a conscious process are missing a lot of the resonant possibilities of composition. 

I suppose I’m talking about improvisation.  A kind of anti-discipline stance.  Dean Young calls it recklessness.  There is that, yes, but there’s also, as in the best jazz improvisation, or in the semi-improvisation of some films, an attention to what is going on, a listening to what’s happening, to further it and move with it.  In acting, I think, they call it “yes and.”  The idea is that what you say next has to accept what came before it, pay attention to it, but then to add something to it, something new. 

This is an aspect of poetry writing I don’t hear talked about much, and I wonder why that is, as my guess is that all (or almost all? or a sizable number?) poets participate with some version of it. 

The completing incompleteness, perhaps.  The improvisation with what the day presents.  Which suggests to me the act of the irrational. 

It’s not Frost’s completeness that brings us back to his poetry, but his incompleteness, the ambivalence that undergirds the whole.  Form might be his net, but ambivalence is the court.  Likewise, it’s not Eliot’s fragments that bring us back, but the ghost of presence represented by the ruins.  It’s the way in which those fragments reflect a whole. 

The chance, the improvisation, the irrational . . . these are all ways to shake up the pull of the generic, the reductive nature of the statements one makes about living. 

It’s not one thing or another we love about whatever poetry we love, but the way in which they exists as a tension within propositions. To which Valery replied, “But my dear Degas, poetry is made out of words, not ideas!” Poems are made out of words, yes, but words are ideas too.  It’s another pretty sounding dichotomy that slides out the window. 

Shakespeare is a great example.  As is Gertrude Stein.  Wordsworth, if you prefer.  Name your favorite great poet and you’ll find a tension at the heart of the work that sets it as a site of the finally human, the improvised moment from what happens to be at hand.  There are always going to be poets who do this or that well, those who achieve dexterity in a mode who will sparkle for a time as people are thrilled by the reflections.  The landscape gets crowded.  What I mean, though, is that at one time Shakespeare, perhaps, might have been celebrated for his dexterity with the sonnet, but finally, it’s not because of his formal dexterity that we read him 500 years later.  It’s part, sure.  But at the heart of his work there’s a tension, call it a question, a desire, a fracture, a ghosted completeness. 

I see the same economy of desire in Whitman and Dickinson.  There it is in Plath and Ashbery and Armantrout, etc. 

It’s not about aesthetics or craft, so much as it’s the arc of the tension of the irrational improvising through the rational. 

This is the theme I see running through Dean Young’s excellent book, The Art of Recklessness.  And I believe we all kind of agree with this.  And in groups, workshops, etc, we try to deal with it in some fashion. 

“What’s at stake in this poem?” we ask.  What a terrible workshop question! What an inquisition leading the witness to a checklist of acceptable risks.  But we try.  Can we say “improvise more”?  Can we say “write better”? Is improvisation risk? Is form without improvisation risk? maybe I'm just allergic to the term risk.  Risk, in this way is like saying courage or heroism. I think they should be used for moments when one is facing bullets.

I’m drawn by temperament to poetry that begins in a state of fragment and improvises into a completeness (a work of art is always a completeness because it’s there).  In that way, I’m postmodern.  I believe in the ruins.  When I look around, I see shards of culture, experience, humanity.  For me, that’s the given.  So for me, a poet like John Ashbery speaks sensibly.  He makes beautiful use of the shards of experience we’ve found ourselves in.  The same with Armantrout, applied in a very different way.  But I don’t see these poets stopping there.  I see them work those with those fragments in ways that suggest a human, a humane connection, with the world as we find it. 

I completely understand someone not caring for that, for starting with The Waste Land as a given, and then walking out into it and dealing with it in that way.  Luckily for those people, there are other poets, poets who can also be profitably working with our condition, coming from a perceptual direction more like Frost’s, where a whole is presented, but with fissures, those roads that extend out, making all the difference, but being, for all that, pretty much the same. 


At 9/23/2011 8:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Stewart said...

These concerns are at the heart of my writing. I had a creative writing teacher at college who told us to do something called "emotional risk." I was 20 years old and I wanted to know what he meant. He said "come up with the thing you would least want the people in this room to know about you and write that." I was able to fake that so convincingly that it prevented me from understanding risk for a long time.

In any case, there's a really great panel discussion about improvisation vs. composition, jazz, and race in the US. A little snip:

[Hall] Overton: What was the difference between what Duke and what Lennie did? Duke wrote it out, didn’t he?

[Cecil} Taylor: Oh…That’s another problem. What difference does that make? The only thing that we know about – the only thing that the listener knows about – is the sounds that he hears. I don’t think it makes any difference that the sound is notated because the symbol doesn’t make the music. It is the men striking the instruments, striking the pieces of wood or whatever. It’s the sound that we’re confronted with, not the symbol. Because in other cultures they don’t use our symbols, but they make music, they make sounds.

Overton: I would disagree on that one point because I would make a distinction, Cecil, between an idea that’s improvised and that just occurs at the moment, and an idea that is already arrived at, preconceived.

Taylor: How can an idea come, you know, into being without certain things happening? I mean, if you write a composition – all the great composers that you were talking about which happened to be in a particular school – all the great composers have been improvisors…


At 9/23/2011 8:25 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


That teacher's advice sounds like something that would fit into what people call "confessional" poetry. "Write what you know, what only you know."

Is there a difference between composition and improvisation? I can't really see any, save a few cases. If I'm using some sort of method to generate material, I'm "composing" according to some set of guidelines. Even this feels wrong, though, as I have no idea what will come out. The old Dada method of cutting up newspapers and drawing lines out of a hat, for example, never produces the same thing.

Maybe it's different when people write in more traditional forms, like Sestinas and Villanelles?

At 9/23/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thanks a lot for this link. It's an excellent conversation. I'm on Taylor's side on this one.

At 9/23/2011 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, yeah, in music there's absolutely a difference between composition and improvisation, although it's not as clear as what jazz mythology would have us think.

It's true that musicians aren't spontaneously inventing their language while they're up there, any more than you or I do when we have a casual conversation.

Jazz solos are made largely of pieces of conventional musical language (conventional broadly or in the lexicon of that particular performer). There's a lot of common vocabulary. Interestingly, in jazz "cliché" is not a pejorative ... it refers to common language elements that are useful, but not necessarily hackneyed.

But still, this is not composition. There's substantive response to the moment and to previous moments. There's reaction to the rhythm section's chord substitutions. There's reaction to the energy of the room. There's response to the soloist who went before you. It's much more like conversation than the recitation of a written speech.

Charles Mingus more than once punched a soloist in the face for playing what sounded memorized, canned. So he thought there was a difference. Argue with Mingus, even dead Mingus, at your own peril.


At 9/23/2011 9:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You say: “Well, yeah, in music there's absolutely a difference between composition and improvisation.” And you’re right, yes. But what I’m interested in is stepping away from the clear distinction. There are moments when one is writing, playing, painting, etc. where the line blurs. I mean, improvisation is just composition on the spot.

I would have hit Mingus back. An important part of improvisation is understanding the whole of the rhetorical situation. That includes what one already knows, has in one’s memory. It’s a small issue perhaps. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the metaphors we use, and how we talk about such things, creates a mindset that I’d like to see troubled a bit.

At 9/23/2011 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I would have hit Mingus back."

John, I agree with you, except for that part. Pretty sure you wouldn't have.


At 9/23/2011 10:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, a fella can dream. And I have this vision of myself as feisty. Or maybe Feist. Hm. I should look closer at that vision.

At 9/23/2011 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Mingus would have hit Feist.


At 9/23/2011 10:48 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


At 9/23/2011 1:58 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"It’s not Frost’s completeness that brings us back to his poetry, but his incompleteness, the ambivalence that undergirds the whole. Form might be his net, but ambivalence is the court. Likewise, it’s not Eliot’s fragments that bring us back, but the ghost of presence represented by the ruins. It’s the way in which those fragments reflect a whole.

The chance, the improvisation, the irrational . . . these are all ways to shake up the pull of the generic, the reductive nature of the statements one makes about living."


This glossy white we painted our kitchen
makes the cabinets and drawers look almost perfect,
but in the stark fluorescent glow I notice
how the shiny bright makes plain
all the scratches and the gouges in the grain
because the sheen reflects so perfectly the light.

From space this small blue ball seems also perfect,
smooth, without feature and unblemished
in the sun’s unyielding light, but when closer
these tiny wrinkles and errant stains
become mighty oceans and stretching plains,
the grandeur of great mountains touching sky.

The mutation of the genes makes imperfection
and these flaws are by Nature unforgiven.
Millions have died, mashed and mixed
in the relentless genetic blender,
thrashed and cut by evolution’s thresher
and this, in time, made all these creatures perfect.

People, too, are seldom close to perfect
and by these inconsistencies character is granted,
still I notice that none survive forever
no matter how beautiful or strong or clever.
It shows us how imperfect our perceptions.
It is the imperfection of the world
that makes it perfect.

Copyright 2008 – Softwood – Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 9/24/2011 5:44 AM, Blogger Michael Schiavo said...

Adam Plunkett talks about the (failed) "incompleteness" of Michael Dickman's work in Bookforum:

At 9/24/2011 10:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the link. I haven't read the Dickman book, so I don't have a comment, but I thought the reviewer did a good job. I just posted it with a few comments on the blog.

At 9/24/2011 1:16 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

I like that paragraph about Frost and Eliot. It's nice to see people emphasize the instability of Frost's surfaces ...


It was Mallarmé, not Valery, who said that to Degas — but interestingly, the source of the story was indeed Valery, according to Jean-Luc Steinmetz's biography of Mallarmé.


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