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on spontaneity

By Stephen Burt

I’ve started tweeting regularly now (@accommodatingly), in part because it’s a way to stay connected to the rest of the world through my phone, without getting caught up in unfinished longer-form work; I’m following S. B. and D. A. Powell, like the rest of the US poetry world, and I’m proud to say that Rachel Zucker retweeted one of my tweets.

I’ve also become devoted to the daily messages, statements of purposes, confessions and heartfelt rambles you too can get if you sign up for daily emails from Stephen Elliott at The Rumpus, and I’ve joined the Rumpus Letters in the Mail club, where the highlight so far is a stunning letter from Matthew Spektor about writing and/or memory and/or a phone call from Marlon Brando.

And I spent slices of Wednesday and great hunks of Thursday rereading Tim Alborn’s INCITE!, one of my favorite fanzines, from the late-1980s and 1990s, just-before-the-Internet-got-big years when fans of obscure pop music had to use dead trees to contact one another. I’m going to write about it elsewhere soon. INCITE! wasn’t just one of the most reliable in terms of the music it praised (Tim also ran the Harriet Records label); it was well-written, as most fanzines were not well-written, and yet it still felt like a zine: spontaneous, personal, uninterested in scholarly depth, or in deadlines and word counts.

All these things have their own forms, forms that speak to, and forms that depend on, the moment: they’re live, and feel “real,” if ephemeral, they’re supposed to be rough and spontaneous, and they’re addictive. They may or may not make you feel like the top of your head has been taken off (as Emily Dickinson said about poetry), but they’re a fresh breeze, and they do feel like they came off the top, from the top, of someone’s consciousness: they are sparklers, mayflies, alive for today, preferring the present moment to the potentially endless search for le mot juste.

In this you might say they’re the opposite of poetry, which needs the best words in the best order, needs to last, and needs (as Allen Grossman put it) to “departicularize” the person and the experience in the poem in order to save it for some other readers. Poetry can record anything, say anything, you might decide, but only if that thing has been sufficiently transformed, troped, defamiliarized, pared down, carved to gem shape, “packed in ice or salt” (Yeats).

Or you might say the reverse: that poetry now and always aspires to the condition of the time-sensitive, informal, spontaneous media: that’s what makes poetry personal, unpredictable, hard to handle, the unruly opposite of plain heteronomous prose.

To say the first—to say that poems should not be like twitter, should not be like spontaneous morning email—is to stand with Yeats, and with Eliot, and also with Russian formalist critics who wanted poetic language to be weirder and harder to understand, at first, than prose; it is to take the side (in Heather Dubrow’s terms) of poetry as inscription, written on stone, rather than poetry cast on the air as song.

To say the second is to side with Shelley, who likened the inspired mind to a fading coal, and also to side with the Beats, and to seek poets and writers of poetic prose right now—Eileen Myles, for one—who place immediacy among their first goals.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry must be, right now, as popular as it has ever been, both among various sorts of fast-reading elites and in the larger American readerish public: he’s taken, not the place that Frost once had, but the place that Eliot once had in American culture, the guy you can quote if you want to be mildly hip, to readers under a certain age. Why does O’Hara stand there now? Because he’s superb—his poetry can do that job—but also, perhaps, because his volatile spontaneity suits our twittering, distractable age, and yet if you read and reread him, the best poems (“Meditations in an Emergency,” the TV hit, among them) give you something that lasts.

The very most ambitious models of what poets do (though you might say now, who needs models?) leave room for the spontaneous and for its opposite: Wordsworth, for example, declared that arose from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but he didn’t stop there: he said something weirder about how real poems form, something still worth taking to heart.

“All good poetry,” Wordsworth claimed in 1800, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated.”

Go home and tweet that, or at least tweet the link.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by Stephen Burt.