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.