Sunday, July 20, 2008

Spontaneity and aesthetics

Spontaneity’s a quality roundly appreciated—bingo!—in ordinary experience and in art. OK, but do we know what it means? First, look at its Latin origin: sponte, an adverb applied to actions “done of one’s own free will, voluntarily.” The associations the adjective “spontaneous” calls to mind are freedom, youth, improvisation, surprise, absence of forethought or calculation; and by extension, absence of guile. At the opposite end of the scale are qualities like restraint, planning, discipline, editing, plotting, and even conspiracy. Spontaneity’s usually associated with humor or at least a fresh view of things. We like it when we encounter it in people because, hey, they don’t seem worried about what impression they’re making on us; they’re relaxed and help us relax, often through laughter. (Although: if all the world's a stage it must also be true that some people are good enough actors to seem convincingly spontaneous; clowning is a skill like any other.)

In poetry, spontaneity’s embodiments include informality, avoidance of sequential argument and compositional structure, use of jokes, non-standard grammar, and a vigorous delivery, all of it couched in a “speechly” tone and diction (even slang and cusswords). Yep, spontaneity’s down with interjections, contractions, & abbreviations, etc., abrupt shifts in syntax or subject matter, emotive italicization, and emotive punctuation—the dash, the question mark (or double question mark), and the exclamation point. And, like, why the fuck not, dude?! Why indeed.

Elizabeth Bishop once said the three qualities she most liked in poetry were spontaneity, accuracy, and mystery. Those sound good to me; but I recognize that there is some tension between the first and the others.

Common negative terms applied by critics to poems include: “plodding,” “stuffy,” “stiff,” “dry,” “academic,” “old-fashioned”; all of these are failures spontaneity can alleviate, with its vitality, its freshness, its unpredictability, its subversive humor.

Granted that spontaneity is a value in art, what needs explaining is that it has become the supreme value in our poetry, the one that trumps all others. It seems that the majority of readers now expect a poem to sound like improvisation, not shaped by revision, its words tumbling out of the mind directly onto the page. Allen Ginsberg even made an aesthetic credo of this approach with his “first thought, best thought” manifesto, where he seems to have thought the unrevised life and unrevised text were in harmony with Buddhist philosophy. The aesthetic behind Creeley’s poetry (and many of his followers) seems close to this. A poem is, what, just the uncensored record of your mental/verbal activity at a particular moment. Many of Frank O’Hara’s poems read like they're exactly that, which helps explain why his star is so high these days. And after all, even sobersides Wordsworth said that poetry is, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Just possibly the phrase “recollected in tranquility” will explain why Wordsworth’s spontaneous and powerful feelings found expression in words and lines so thoughtful as those in “Tintern Abbey” and the “Intimations” Ode.

The bias for spontaneity involves an assumption about the psyche and its relationship to artistic creation, in which the unconscious mind is regarded as unsurpassable, and the thoughtful, editing part of the mind is held to be an enemy to sincerity and vitality. This bias begins in the Romantic period, is upheld by the Surrealist aesthetic (at least in the practice of “automatic writing”), and finally by the permissive atmosphere of American art that began in the 1960s. We see it consciously or unconsciously supported in aesthetic manifestoes like Ginsberg’s, which devalue revision; by experiments of avant-garde performance artists like David Antin, who used to simply stand up and speak ad lib into the mic, and by a sizable critical literature that is dead set against the use of meter, rhyme, and verseform because these involve planning, second thoughts, and revision, an approach some critics spontaneously term “fascistic.”

Obviously, a first-thought-best-thought aesthetic rules out verseform composition, though perhaps not blank verse. There are many poets now publishing who can instantly produce pentameter lines without stopping to count on their fingers, pentameters more complex than “the University of Michigan,” or “So who told Kevin he should punch you out?”

It also rules out other kinds of poems: extended narratives; philosophical arguments; precise descriptions of natural phenomena, people, or artworks; close, dialectical analysis of autobiographical events and feelings about these; balanced self-evaluation or balanced perceptions about other people; textual “architecture”; verbal economy and distilled expression. Because spontaneity is almost inseparable from humor, its tendency is to undermine seriousness and to clash with tragic subjects. When writing about, for example, the death of someone you loved, you don’t want to sound like you’re, um, you know, a goof or whatever.

Spontaneity is one of satire’s strongest resources, and since so much poetry now being written is nose-thumbing, ironic, and deflationary, we get a lot of spontaneity among the new poets on the block. And it’s almost always welcomed as being “fresh,” (that word used to have a secondary sense, which might be relevant here), unpretentious, and, like, sooo not what academics want you to write. The fact that it has a sell-by date and stops seeming fresh after a few years is ignored year after year and decade after decade as new practitioners appear on the scene.

I’ve suggested before that the way we write reflects the way we live our lives. And our nation is—spontaneous us!—the world capital of spontaneity, of “whatever,” of impulse-buying, of fast food, of maxing out credit cards, of tactless comments, of road rage, of spontaneous combustion in public opinion, of Columbine-style massacres, of launching military operations without forethought and planning; and of rushing into publication.

I like humor in poetry and I like the spontaneity that gives the impression that a poem is--no, seriously--being spoken rather than written. I also recognize that, when this quality is combined with precision, nuance, careful reflection, interesting word choices and sonic texture, the quality is an artistic illusion, what could be called spontaneity of the most calculated kind. Given how long it took Elizabeth Bishop to complete her poems, their apparent and charming spontaneity can only be the result of long labor and careful revision.

No one seriously questions that the first source of artworks is the unconscious, the irrational, the realm of dream. But the best artworks are those that take impulses from the dark and fishy deep and combine them with elements of a conscious art. The unconscious is universally distributed, but not all people are artists. Only those who develop the skills and reflexes needed for art can hope to produce works of lasting value. I disagree with Yeats when he says the “only singing school” is found in “monuments of unageing intellect.” But certainly that is one of the places where we learn to (let’s avoid flowery poesy and not say "sing") write.


Riton said...
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Christian R. said...

Thank you for helping me clarify my current dilemma!