February 1st, 2010 / 4:35 pm
Craft Notes

Animal Instincts: Destroying the Cult of Reason

Wolf in a Cage by Josh Grigsby

“One major lesson I had to learn was to become empty and dumb and trusting enough to write every day. For this I needed, at times, blind patience, no theories about art.” –Larry Levis

Thinking about the intangibles of writing is like walking around, drunk, in a pitch-black room the size of an airplane hangar, with ghosts, with disembodied voices, with naked doppelgangers, choking on the fear of bumping into something much larger, much hairier than yourself.

I believe that’s why we talk about craft, the building blocks of a piece of art—light, shadow, line break, sentence. These are necessary to the physical architecture of the thing, certainly, and they’re quantifiable. Humans, we, desire formula and quantitative resources, names and registers. These are easier than dark, open spaces.

But what about the intangibles, the anti-craft, anti-move, anti-self-consciousness of making? What about the inexplicable creates lasting art, something more than pop culture referentiality, more than tricks-of-a-trade? What a friend of mine calls irreducibility?

Many poets and artists have tried to define the “it” factor. Many, to my eye, have succeeded in some way but never in a flesh-and-blood way. Never in a follow-these-eight-easy-steps way. For that, I’m glad.

Garcia Lorca had his duende, hovering at the lip of the wound; Ginsberg said, “the only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.” Keats sought the capability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” I could go on forever, maybe.

There’s an interview with Aline Kominsky-Crumb in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of The Believer. In it, Kominsky-Crumb describes a similar abstract quality to her comic-making:

“I’m so emotionally charged when I’m doing that, I can’t really control what comes out. It just comes out in a very direct form. In a way, I’m lucky that I can access that. In another way it’s horrible because I can’t refine it or improve it and make it look more, like, acceptable.”

Craft is a given, right? You love an art form so you study it; you dissect its structure. You practice, you imitate. You count syllables, maybe. You look at possible moves, maybe. Sometimes you go to school to understand and synthesize the great traditions in the company of other humans so you don’t have to read poems to your dog all the time. Sometimes you benefit from school. Sometimes you are ruined and reborn [see the Kominsky-Crumb interview for more on that].

But then what? Inevitably, you ask yourself, why does this poem make my heart sing? Why do I feel like I could jump off a building after I read this book? Or, like Dickinson, why does this thing make me feel physically like the top of my head has been taken off?

You don’t answer your question by saying, this thing I love is really acceptable.

Blackbird has posted an essay by the poet Larry Levis (1946-1996), originally published in FIELD called, “Some Notes on the Gazer Within.” In it, Levis grapples with this dilemma of reconciling craft to the strange magic of creation. Early on, Levis quotes Margaret Atwood as saying, “I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck…you may improve your so-called technique, but only at the expense of your so-called soul.”

It’d be easy to stop there, you know? Bam. Fuck you and your technique. I’ll admit that I sometimes (most of the time; I’m a rebellious bastard) want to stop there. End of story: I do what I do. Fuck you and your lists. But that’s about as childish as thinking you can make art out of a series of rules or steps or tools or whatever you want to call them.

What Levis did in this essay is grand and mature and complex. He writes,

“What interests me here is a deeper poetics, one that tries to grasp what happens at the moment of writing itself—not a discussion that indulges in prolonging what Marvin Bell has called the pointless ‘dualisms’ of form versus content; nor a poetics that praises one kind of poem as organic while denouncing another as artificial. Ultimately, the trouble with such classroom determinations is that they do reduce poetry to technique, to something stripped of vision, something which gives the illusion of being soluble through either/or choices; they make poetry harmless. And in doing so, they lie….We know that a poem made to order from theory is slave labor, just as we also know that a poem, any poem, is artificial in one huge respect—if only because, as Eliot’s character so famously complained, ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you’.”

Levis’ solution to the problem of negotiating this weird territory is to get outside yourself. To be the observer, the gazer, in the world and then to reinvent yourself through this outside experience of landscape, of animal. He spends a significant portion of the essay talking about the poetry of animal life, looking at actual poems, thinking about how animals won’t be reasonable, how “poets thirst after what is pure and other and inhuman in the animals, in the poem animal, anyway.” Could it be that we are really so complex? That we’re not black-and-white creatures? That we want quantitative analysis and mystery? That we don’t always need to name our gods?

I don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe. We seem to be creatures who need definite answers. But the best art doesn’t answer a damn thing, does it? Maybe that’s why we like animals: they show us our opposite, the creatures we wish we could be: “this honesty and taciturn otherness.” [If you watched Heather Christle’s streaming poetry reading on Thursday night, you might think back to the animals of her poems, the way she constructs an other world through them.]

To get past mere observation, to create oneself and one’s art through observation and imbibing and maybe even assimilation, to tap into folklore, animal, imagination—these aren’t quantifiable tricks.

I studied briefly with Peter Jay Shippy in grad school in a workshop that really pushed my boundaries as a poet. Shippy had us creating poems in ways I’d never imagined, from scraps of conversation and encyclopedia entires. A series of games, really, but the games meant something, meant stretching boundaries, meant asking myself questions I wouldn’t have asked otherwise. This is not a tirade against learning craft or practicing making. I know there exists a tinge of hypocrisy in a theory of anti-theory. That’s why the Levis essay is suddenly very important to me. Ways of making do exist. Practice must exist. But none of it is possible without the Other.

Toward the end of his essay, Levis writes,

“To write poems that come back out again, into society, to write poems that matter to me, I must become, paradoxically at the moment of writing, as other as a poet as any animal is in a poem. Then true craft, which is largely the ear’s training, can occur. Before this, my ear can hear nothing—or it plays back whatever rag of a tune it caught that day since its true desire and purpose is to thwart the world and hear nonsense, which it will do in the end. Unless this absorption into the other occurs, I am condemned to be immured within the daily ego, the ego that lives in the suburbs.”

Who wants to be jailed with the daily ego, suffering the constant, immovable boredom of that shallow Self? I can’t speak for you, but I surely want something deeper.

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