I suppose this is one reason I've always so envied jazz musicians--their world where improvisation flourishes. For them, the off-hand has the upper hand.
But attempts by poets to utter extemporaneous poetry are almost always unmemorable--at least, if we're lucky we won't remember them. And I think the same is usually true when poets, whether on workshop panels or in classrooms or in blogs, speak on-the-spot about their craft. Where poetry's concerned, the thought worth saying is typically the one that has been revised and revised.
So in this--my first attempt at blogging--I've concluded I'd better provide myself with a little structure at the outset. I plan to meditate briefly each day on a different word or idea. My topic for today--January 17, 2010--is Inefficiency, or Inefficiency and Poetry. The rest of my week will go as follows:
Jan 18: Efficiency
Jan 19: Deceleration
Jan 20: Acceleration
Jan 21: Conservatism
Jan 22: Innovation
On my last day, Jan 23, I'll try to synthesize some of these ideas, and perhaps make a few unverifiable predictions about the future of poetry.
Though adopting a framework, I am aware that blogs generally appeal by way of a free-flowing, conversational ease. So I promise now and then to pursue the unsubstantiated and the scarcely relevant, and to attach no footnotes.
Belatedly, let me offer all potential readers a warm greeting. I welcome your comments, and would be especially grateful for quotations from poems that seem to corroborate or contradict the points I'll be trying to make.
Today's topic is inefficiency, which may engulf us all, since scientists sometimes tell us we live in an entropic universe--one in which attempts to create order inevitably beget greater disorder. There's something unnerving but also comforting to this notion. Surely a poet's not completely unjustified in thinking, "The mess of my personal papers is a reflection of a rich, cosmic verity."
But I'm chiefly interested in another sort of inefficiency. I've always been drawn to poets who, despite a reasonably long life, display mastery without prolificity--people like Elizabeth Bishop or Louise Bogan or John Crowe Ransom or Charlotte Mew, each of whose Complete Poems have the graceful heft of someone else's Selected. In tone, in structure, many of their poems show a brilliance and composure that seems extra-human in scale--the serene self-enclosed perdurability of gemstones. But peer into a biography of such a writer and you're apt to uncover tumult and inanition; whole unfulfilled years may elapse without the completion of a single poem.
These are poets--bless them--who represent an extreme of unproductivity, but inefficiency is generally the poet's lot. I was once asked (while sitting on one of those workshop panels I dismissed a couple of paragraphs ago) what virtues were most essential for a young poet. Well--I hardly knew where to start. Perseverence? Inspiration? An appetite for experimentation? Then it came to me, something far less likely sounding but no less valuable: a high tolerance for inefficiency. For if young poets don't have this--if they can't accept the notion that a poem is typically a piling up of mistake upon mistake, a tireless process of trial and error--they're unlikely to follow the poem to the end it yearns to achieve. With enough persistence the young poet will learn that even when you're feeling inspired, you're apt to go wrong. Inspiration may be the surest guide a poet has, but usually it's got a faulty sense of direction.
I'm reminded of the old physicist's joke in which a light bulb is described as a heating device that happens to throw off stray illumination. Yes, Edison's indispensible invention remains painfully inefficient: much of the energy it consumes is never translated into visible light.
Pretend for a moment that poets, like light bulbs, are little machines. How well do they function? They are likewise highly inefficient. Most of these poet-machines can't manage the creation of one good line a day--seemingly the work of a couple of seconds.
The machine that *could* average one good line per day would achieve an extremely rich output: the equivalent of some twenty-six sonnet-length poems a year. Most flesh-and-blood poets couldn't stand the pace. To try to keep up with our machine would be a little like hammer-wielding John Henry in the 19th-century ballad, whose body broke in a battle with a steam drill.
I chose Inefficiency as my first topic partly because it sounds undesirable and cold; I do tire of all the warm-hearted attempts to "celebrate" poetry. (My suspicion is that a society's urge to celebrate an art form is directly proportioned to how moribund they think it is.) Actually, I think there's something hugely heartening about poetry's inefficiency. In a world that is constantly bent and shaped by an overwhelming modern impulse to streamline, to regularize, to homogenize, poetry is beautifully idiosyncratic and resistant. It dislikes assembly lines; it does not wish to be franchised.
I suppose most people who, like me, have been writing poetry for years share a sense that poetry-writing doesn't get any easier; if anything, it gets harder. Poetry is unusual in this regard. If you put a lot of effort into other pastimes--playing tennis, say, or learning Spanish or mastering chess--the once-difficult becomes easier with time. In other words, you get more efficient. Not so with poetry.
And if you do feel you're growing more efficient as a poet, you're probably repeating yourself, you're falling back on familiar images or cadences. Yes, to feel inefficient may be dispiriting; but to feel efficient may be self-destructive.
And so we learn to embrace our faultedness, our fumblingness.