As has now been well established, there was during the 18th-century in Italy a popular type of performer of poetry called the improvvisatore and improvvisatrice who could, as prompted, deliver extempore breath-taking sustained ottava rima poems on topics ranging from the glories of Italy to the tragic death of Hector. In the early 19th-century they caught the interests of other Europeans including the English, among whom were Byron and the Shelleys who heard in performance and knew personally the improvvisatore Tommaso Sgricci. These poets responded to performances or reports of performances with poems of their own—alluding to the improvvisatori, ventriloquizing them, quoting the favored stanza of the Italian performers. What was the nature of their interest? My answer falls here on an issue of Romantic poetics: why did some of the so-called late British Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, Keats, Bryan Procter, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Felicia Hemans, the Coleridge of 1825, and Laetitia Landon all write poems with direct or indirect reference to the improvvisatori and to poetry as improvisation? What was it in the poetry of the improvvisatori that the British poets wished to incorporate or translate into their own, written, poems and to what end?

One could easily imagine—and indeed I initially surmised—that the English poets were presenting a second-order engagement with spontaneity and experience, a reflective and interpretative one, an instance of Friedrich Schiller’s sentimental, rather than naïve, poetry, Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” In a poem like Hemans’s “The Dying Improvisatore,” for example, the performer speaks from his death bed, mourning the vanishing of his art and livelihood. Besides, how could one actually write that which by definition vanishes with its very speech and gestures? But, in brief, poetry from Romanticism on has found ways of “translating” that essential ephemerality into written equivalents.

Literary history, particularly in recent times, has associated improvisational poetry with Byron’s Don Juan—but dismisses it finally as a wonderful aberration, but hardly anything that one would define as the poetry of Romanticism. I propose, on the other hand, that the above-mentioned poets, of whom Byron was one, in fact attempted to wrest improvisational poetics from the periphery and into the center of Romantic concerns. Other poets and writers of the nineteenth century have turned to the possibility of improvisational poetics in their works: to name a few—Pushkin in Russia, Thoreau in North America, and Adam Mickiewicz in Poland. And with over a century of experiments in improvisation (such as the “automatic writing” of the Surrealists, the aleatory poetry of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low) and the “theory” to go along with them, it now seems possible to begin to describe with greater clarity than ever before the earlier Romantic presence of improvisation. Behind the argument of this paper lies the possibility that improvisational poetics may be defining for “later” British Romanticism.

Traditional notions of Romantic lyric, and lyric poetry in general, encourage a definition of the Romantic response to improvisational poetry as sentimental. Unsung as a kind of zeitgeist poetics for the post-Revolutionary era, Schiller’s distinctions, in On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, between a poetry of immediacy and one of self-conscious contemplation and recollection quickly became and continues to be for standard literary histories a paradigm for thinking about poetic possibility during Romanticism and on to the poetry of our present. Thus although he associates a self-conscious poetry with the world of Romanticism, I nonetheless find Schiller useful for initiating a discussion about the fate of improvisation in Romantic poetry: indeed, improvisational poetry could be said to fulfill the conditions in the present of Schiller’s apparently irretrievable naïve.

The naïve, according to Schiller, rejoices in the “living presence of the object,” encourages “serene spontaneity” and “the naïve of surprise.” At times it is difficult to distinguish between childish and child-like innocence. In the naïve poem signifier and signified are one. Schiller, describing Homer as, of course, the quintessential naïve poet, observes that his method in the similes is juxtaposition, which he carries out in a “heartless” way, without sentiment. Moreover, Homer and other naïve poets could be considered negatively capable, losing themselves in the referent. The sentimental (emotion-driven) poet, on the other hand, stands at a distance from such “perfection,” dwelling in a state of striving, desiring, and progressing towards what he or she perceives as ideals. Elegiac by temperament, the sentimental poet looks upon the vanished world of the integrated self and nature as something to be mourned but its eventual return in the present in a new more complex form something to be hoped for.

Similar to Schiller in England,Wordsworth, defining poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” sums up the conditions of the sentimental: 1) “emotion”— that is, affect replaces the referent, is at the basis of it, but emotion itself stands at a remove from the present; 2) if the world and the self that produced the emotion define “experience,” then poetry not only refers to experience that has already happened, but it appears in the poem as a recollection: the mental recuperation, the “drama of the lyric subject,” is privileged over the experience itself; 3) similarly a tranquil state is preferred over the startled, emotional, state of encounter with the other. (The naïve poet, says Schiller, by contrast, “runs wild.”) Apparently the predominance of the recollection of “emotion” or affect as a subject for poetry precludes the possibility of a poetry of the referent. When emotion and the drama of the lyric subject flood the poem’s landscape, the world itself, including the world of other voices vanishes.

It follows that the mistake of looking at improvisation through the category of the sentimental—in the works of Schiller, Wordsworth, and their followers—is the assumption of the originary status of the naïve and of improvisation: that either is in some sense “pre”-poetic. Rather a poet of improvisation simply chooses a different emphasis and intention in poetry: that of participation rather than recollection. The politics of a poetry of participation accommodates to the politically radical temperament. Sgricci, who had a reputation of being a scurrilous person and a homosexual, seems to have embraced a social identity of marginality with his performances, as if to insist on a link between his lower and peripheral class and his art. He performed or enacted, through his poetry of participation, the mingling of his lower class with an art pitched to the middle and upper-classes. This disruption of class boundaries redefines and brings into present possibility the problematic notion of the naïve as permanently fixed to an unretrievable past. In Marxist terms, according to Georg Lukacs, the bourgeois “harmonious man” is no longer (if it ever was) available as an ideal of integration and serenity: one needs to write or perform from within the tumultuous, changing present.

It is important for a discussion of improvisatory poetics, however, to realize that proponents for the sentimental in poetry don’t disregard the features of the naïve and the features of the referent; they rather place it in an inferior or distanced relationship to the lyric subject. Some elements of improvisational poetry, such as the participatory and the non-semantic, still reside in a self-conscious, reflective poetry even when they are not prominent. Allen Grossman, for example, observes that every poem of “closure” (poems that feature the growing precision of the drama of the human subject) contains within it at least a moment of “aperture,” in which the poem itself participates in the present, a “now” in which the poem becomes coextensive with the world. And Susan Stewart observes that in lyric poetry in general the sound or music with which lyric has long been identified has become a trace or memory of its original self. Thus the non-semantic elements in poetry remain but at a remove from the semantic elements, those aspects of a poem linked directly to human thought. (On this last point, think of the powerful tendency in criticism—evident in a Romanticism panel at the 2006 MLA--and in teaching to account for the non-semantic in poetry—figure, alliteration, etc.—as instrumental in re-enforcing the semantic, the “meaning-ful.”) An improvisational poetics, that is, reverses the priorities: “the referent” is more important than the speaking subject, the non-semantic more, or at least as, important as the semantic.
The characteristics of improvisation transferred by Romantic poets to their own work include: spontaneity and participation in the present, the stress on the non-semantic elements of language including sound and gesture, the speech of persons other than that of the poet (indeed, the speech of more than one person), and a focus on the mind-in-motion. To elaborate:

1) Improvisational poetry collapses the traditional temporal distance between decisions of composition and their enactment in the poem. As Byron says in Don Juan, “I never know the word which will come next.” Shelley’s word for this is “unpremeditated”: his skylark pours forth “profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” and his Mercury knows “the power of unpremeditated song.” The poem, that is, doesn’t refer to its event but is the event itself.

2) Performance poetry, whether that of the eighteen-century improvvisatori or of poetry slams today, makes its effect upon the audience through sound —consonance, assonance, rhymings — but often such poetry doesn’t serve meaning as much as come in advance of it. The dominant metaphor of cataracts or flowing waters often ascribed (by, for example, Mary Shelley) to the improvisations reinforces this centrality of the non-semantic and erotic elements in poetry; and similarly of its supplemental, even its wasteful aspect with respect to meaning. It works by the force, the sound, the movement of the event, in a way that both improvvisatore or improvvisatrice and audience seemed to stand in its astonished and bewildered grip.

3) The poetry of improvisation links spontaneity with a more various consciousness, with impersonations and ventriloquisms, with quotation and translation in the largest sense of carrying across from other cultures and other subjectivities stories, myths, expressions and idioms. The staggering improvisation in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in which the nephew of the composer Jean Philippe Rameau performs an opera by himself, taking on the various roles as well as the various orchestral instruments, in rapid succession, anticipates the inherently dispersive reach of the improvisational performance. The narrator says after the nephew stops speaking, “Worn out, exhausted, like a man emerging from a deep sleep or a prolonged reveries, he stood motionless, dumb, petrified. He kept looking around him like a man who has lost his way and wants to know where he is.”

The characteristic state of mind of the improvising performer seems identical to that of Keats’s ideal mental stance for “the poet,” thus suggesting the proximity of explicitly improvisational poetry to his own. Keats’s October 27, 1818, “camelion poet” letter not only marvels about the effacement of ego in the presence of other compelling identities but about his response as a person: “When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated.” The improvising performer travels so totally to other domains that there’s nothing left of the social self. In its place is the open world, full of dissonance and contradiction, but real nonetheless. Shelley, too, in a contemporary affinity, promoting a kind of performance poetics, calls this gesture of improvisation a “going out of one’s own nature.” In keeping with the loss of the stable selfhood of the poet, it stresses, instead, the mind-in-motion, the mind’s playful, digressive side but also its fundamentally mobile character, the desire of adversarial poets to “unfetter” poems from their conventional form and positioning, and to present a poetry of not so much a subject, an identity, as of a mind-in-motion, fluid, destabilized, and thus, as Shelley said of the West Wind, “uncontrollable.”

The performances of the improvvisatori and, I am arguing, their British Romantic revisionists in written verse were asserting the somewhat paradoxical possibility for a visionary poetry—that the poet insist upon a poetry over which he or she exerts only partial control—similarly in the presence of which the audience/reader experiences an immediacy or flooding of an encounter rather than the room and time to contemplate the poem’s “meaning.” To “know” what a poem “means” is to feel completely secure about the ego’s supreme relationship to it, a kind of sublime disinterestedness. To stand in the presence of improvisation is to submit to a destabilization of the ego, to contract for a mobility in self and the world, a possibility of change and reconfiguration, and to be shown a mind in the midst of decisions at every moment.

[To Be Continued]

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