Lately when people ask me if like X poet or Y poet I find myself often responding, “Well, X (or Y) is okay, but s/he doesn’t take any risks with their poetry.” The sense of risk-taking has become crucial to me in my appreciation of writing.
But in nailing down what I like about poetry, I keep coming back to the question of, “What is risk?”
To me, risk encapsulates a form of experimentation. I don’t like the term “experimental” poetry because I think it degrades that process & experience, relegating it to an unfair margin of success. To experiment, I think, is to go forward blindly, to make what are potentially calculated risks, safe risks, or to be completely unaware of the risk taken.
That’s not what this is about.
I’ll try some examples.
One of the riskiest books I read in the past year was Patrick Donnelly’s The Charge. I’ll be honest: parts of that book are awful. I don’t know why some of the poems don’t succeed necessarily, although I suspect it has something to do with oversentimentalizing the subject matter. That said, parts of the book are fucking brilliant. Donnelly is an honest risk taker, and each poem toes the line between sentimental drivel and transcendance. He’s learning to walk that line, to live on it. He’s a risk taker because sometimes it works and sometimes it fails. If he’d never taken these risks, we’d never reach those transcendant moments with him–and those moments are worth any and all missteps in the book.
Another risky book that comes to mind is Maureen Seaton’s Little Ice Age. From a form perspective, the book is all over the map. Several of the poems are linked via title/subject matter into smaller groupings/smaller narrative threads. And the mishmash of paraphernalia in the book is awesome–high-order math, meteorology, classical music, lesbianism, urbanism, Iowa, marriage and divorce, theft, ressurrection, systems of belief…she’s everywhere. It is almost unclear why this is a collection: but ultimately, everything connects. Seaton really toes the line of making faulty relationshps between disparate things. Her language, at times, risks comprehension and image. It risks the personal. Seaton is obviously invested in her poems in a way that does not require the poems to be about her, even when they are. And this personal investment is ultimately the riskiest element of the book. She is there when she is not there.
My last risky example is D. A. Powell’s Tea. Tea changed my life in a way no other book ever did or has since. Everything in the book seems to be a risk. The investment level is palpably high, the language itself is a risk, and the collection, as a whole, both skirts and embraces the sentimental without degrading into melodrama (except where melodrama functions as a tool of camp or irony). Each element in the collection comes together so neatly that the entirety of the poems exist in a suspended state of risk–like a precarious game of Jenga, the movement or removal of a single element would cause collapses.
Risk is an energizer. Risk puts a value on poetry because it requires something of value to be put at stake or in a state of danger.
Poetry that exists outside of risk is nearly a form of vanity–
But the equalizing factor of risk is that anyone can take it. Risk isn’t reserved for the culture of power, although they do rarely employ it (because, really, what is at stake for those in power except losing it?).
I would like to see more poets of risk in the world, and furthermore, I would like to be one, although I’m certainly unsure if I’m there or not. I think I have moments of risk, and I can generally feel when these moments occur because my first instinct is to back off whatever I’m doing.
If anxiety be the music of poetry, risk on.