Risk and the Rebellion of Poetry (American-style)

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.

14 Replies to “Risk and the Rebellion of Poetry (American-style)”

  1. This post is fucking brilliant! You just said what I have been trying to say for years. What you call risk others call the “power of investment” or “interest.” Donnelly is brilliant, and I marvel at his “risks”, especially when he, as you put it, tows that line between the genuine and the sentimental. I have been thinking about this for some time. Justice used to argue that poems that didn’t risk failure couldn’t be great. Anyone can write a good poem. Anyone! But the great poem? One must risk failure. I think of “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Kelly’s “Song,” Phillips’s “As From A Quiver of Arrows.” These are poems that could have failed in the worst ways possible, but they are great. What if these poets just wanted to write a safe poem? Thank you Charles. Today, I am in love with your mind! You rock!!!!

  2. I agree with C. Dale. Brilliant. And I rarely post, so you’ve pushed me to tell you this is brilliant. I love when you say: “But the equalizing factor of risk is that anyone can take it.” Brilliant. I have printed your post and have saved it in my notebook.

  3. Word. I think the “risk” can be characterized as that of intimacy or novelty. Indeed, greatness comes from braving the risk of surrenderingly intimate verse and from this surrendering comes the flourishing of wonderful new directions.”Experimental” verse often risks the latter novelty without the greater and prerequisite risk of self. A teacher of mine once aptly called this best type of writing “braveheart” poetry.

  4. louise is right, expand it and send it off. I love this “Poetry that exists outside of risk is nearly a form of vanity.” There are poets I admire who don’t necessarily write poems that I like but there is an element of risk which puts them on another level. Brilliant post.

  5. As someone who is lucky enough to be a friend of Patrick Donnelly, I heartily agree about his wonderful poetry. For me the key about experimentation is that it tries to find new ways to achieve the traditional purposes of art when the old ways aren’t working so well anymore. And when I think of the traditional purposes of art, I think of a quote by Nabokov I love from the afterword to LOLITA: “For me a work of fiction [think poetry] exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” I think genuine experimentation tries to find new *paths* to those states of tenderness and ecstasy. But if it tries to redefine the *ends* of poetry as, say, callousness and apathy, then it no longer is poetry. Sorry, I got carried away and went on too long!

  6. Wow! Thanks everyone–I really appreciate your comments and encouragement.I was on cloud nine all day yesterday because your comments.I’m still happy about it–probably at a cloud eight–And I will continue to flesh this out a little more with examples and such.

  7. I’ve been thinking about your discussion about risk. I’m not sure I agree with one thing you say, which is that “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.” I think that poets who take risks can be calculated about taking risks. I don’t think that risk-taking is necessarily “unmanaged,” it’s not necessarily “planned,” but it can be managed. I also think to experiment, one can be both aware of the risk and unaware of the risk taken. It’s the conscious component of risk-taking that I’m unsure of. Does risk need to be unconscious? To be aware of or to manage risk–does this constitute risk still? Can risk be managed? I think I argue yes.

  8. Victoria, I think you’re right. My initial commentary on experimentation wasn’t planned out well. I do think, however, that experimentation entails an uncertainty of success. But then again, I guess that’s what risk involves too. I don’t know why I don’t like that word–maybe because it’s so often APPLIED to people instead of self-selected. Risk seems more personally motivated. Thoughts?

  9. Experimentalism and risk are related, but there are some subtle nuances, I think. In the process of taking risks, a poet might experiment, and by experimenting, a poet might be taking certain risks. However, to experiment, by definition, means a “test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something previously untried.” For example, one might experiment by writing a sestina; but that is not taking risk. Neither is risk simply about writing on taboo subject matter or about deploying disjunctive syntax. The point of poetry is not to write about something already known or to examine a hypothesis; it is about the exact opposite—to discover something unknown. Discovering something unknown can use tools of taboo subject matter or disjunctive syntax, but using those tools does not necessarily constitute risk. Experimentalism can be about danger; but risk is about danger. (what do you think?–I’ve written a class on risk that I have to teach, and I’m thinking through these issues.

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