larry levis

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?


Craft Notes / 43 Comments
February 1st, 2010 / 4:35 pm