[continued from posting on 10/17/10]

Improvisational poetry seems to link together the ideas of a poetry of mind-in-its-freedom and a poetry of supplement. Just as the performer, there before you, reaches out in body, sight, and sound, so the experience and focus of poetry for the listener swerves from the semantic to the stylistic, to rhyming, to consonantal and assonantal engagements; the sounds in fact reach you before the sense. The poem itself encourages its melodic components to vie with its semantic ones. Language seems to come from a source other than that of its putative producer. “The act of reciting the poetry that flows immediately to the lips is peculiarly animating” says Mary Shelley in her 1826 work “The English in Italy”: “the declaimer warms, as he proceeds, with his own success, while the throng of words and ideas that present themselves, light up the eyes, and give an air of almost supernatural intelligence and fire to the countenance and person.” That poetry seems to actualize on the lips and in the eyes of the improvvisatore gives a sense of the erotic turn that poetry takes; lovers at first meet with the eye and the lip.

Thus we can say that improvisational poetry paradoxically carries speech away from its useful function as communication. “The Italian improvvisatori pour out, as a cataract does water, poetic imagery and language,” Mary Shelley continues. No image of the improvisation appears more often than that of the fountain or waterfall pouring out poetry and seems to indicate a destabilization of performer, audience, and language itself—in the words of Steve McCaffery about the libidinal in poetry, the “flows and spills and breaks in an unmediated outlay of blind power.” Paradoxically poetry, in this image, has lost its social dimension and reverted to Horace’s loquaces lymphae or “speaking waters” of the mother tongue, more about the sound and onrush of language than its inscripted outcome in words. Related to the place of language past meaning, improvisation as performance can be said to have a fundamentally gestural character. A gesture, says the critic Max Kommerell, as quoted by Giorgio Agamben, “is not exhausted in communication.” In gesture lies “the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, its speechless dwelling in language.” Some language cannot be controlled—which may account for its appeal among progressive Romantic poets.

As the cataract falls, it sends up sprays that gleam in the sunlight and fall, fruitfully, to the embankment. These quick gleanings constitute the effect of the outpouring; no matter how tragic the theme (the loss of Eurydice, the death of Hector), the results—oblique and ephemeral—lodge in the observer as instantaneous registers of beauty. A poetry of improvisation embeds these destabilizations in the non-semantic elements of language: not only poetic sound elements—such as alliteration, consonance, and assonance—but repetitions and rhymes.

Susan Stewart helps one understand the importance of rhyme in poetry of improvisation (and helps explain the surprising usefulness of the intricate and lengthy ottava rima stanza) when she said (at the 2006 MLA) that rhyme “seems to come from somewhere else,” that it is “a vector of sound for its own sake that is always latent in every utterance,” and that rhyme can embrace (as it does in Don Juan) a polyphony of languages. To call inordinate attention to sound underscores Giorgio Agamben’s observation that “poetry lives. . .only in [the] inner disagreement [between sound and meaning].” Or, as Dennis Tedlock remarks, from the perspective of ethnopoetics: “If poetry is supposed to belong to the interior of language, as opposed to the exterior realm of referentiality, then there are multiple worlds in which being a verbal artist means pursuing a dual career in poetics and semantics. This does not mean bringing words and their objects into ever closer alignment, but rather playing on the differences.”

Characteristically in the poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, sound and excess dominate, beginning with his first major publication The Improvisatore (1821):

‘Strike,’ quoth the Knight, ‘some simple tune,
‘And veil the words you chaunt aloud
‘Of love, or war, in music’s cloud,’
He said: with finer springing light
To joyous sounds, the songster wight
First tuned his lyre, then danced along
Amid the mazy path of song.

This mazy path of song, produced by an improvvisatore, suggests that meaning or clarity takes second place to sound, which in a sonnet “To Sound” (from the same volume) is called “syllabling,” an apparent reference to a privileging of the signifier. If meaning is considered “essential,” then sound is supplemental or excessive, or—as in another lyric from this group, “To a Bunch of Grapes Ripening in my Window”—a ripening that overflows past the boundary of the grape itself. Like the opening stanza of Keats’s “To Autumn,” the first two-thirds of this poem ripens as pure apostrophe—no sentence, just an “or”-grammar of similes that doesn’t want to end—a poetry of pure supplement imitating in poetry the “pregnant” cluster of grapes itself. The poem ends with a wish for an overflowing of oozings, fumes, and perfumes.

Poetic writing, in other words, not required to hew closely to referentiality, continually and vitally alludes to life beyond the border of the knowable referent—in the spirit of Denise Levertov: while you are reading about x, y is going on somewhere else, even if y is acknowledged only by a surplus of the non-semantic. Along with “sound,” “gesture,” as central to improvisational performance, belongs to poetry’s non-semantic instruments. According to Kommerel again (in an interesting counter-voice to Adorno’s idea that all language in lyric poetry is social) linguistic gesture is “the status of language that is not exhausted in communication and that captures language, so to speak, in its solitary moments.” Such lovely perceptions wake us up to the possibility that communication itself is ideologically overdetermined, that it assumes what good poetry in fact rejects—the idea that all can be known, the ideal of “good faith” communication, that the poem has no motive other than the cheerful transfer of its “message” from one point to that of its recipient. But rather than considering this a tragic or sadistically resistive position, one can welcome poetry’s expansiveness, its acknowledgement that all speech resides in larger contexts. Significantly, the improvvisatori often performed dramas from myth, history, and literature, eschewing the “human scale” of social discourse for these larger-than-life manifestations: Hektor, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus—to name a few. Thus, the ephemeral nature of improvisation, traveling to the heart of poetry in general, turns out to be what is most authentic in poetry. Its presentness (no emotion recollected in tranquility) proposes an ephemerality imbued with electric intensity; for improvisation, to recall Emily Dickinson, is a “forever” “composed of nows,” a rapid series of conscious decisions (improvisations) that display vividly a mind-in-motion, a mind playing lavishly in the presence of the “evidence.” The later British Romantic poets, I believe, understood this, turning to the improvvisatori as a living model for a radical poetics.

The imagery of cataracts and waterfalls seems at odds with the traditional verse form of the improvvisatori, the ottava rima stanza. Yet it apparently suited the improvisor’s moment-to-moment decisions. At the end of the Regency decade the English poets enamoured with the great Italian improvvisatore Tomaso Sgricci tended to attune themselves to the ottava rima stanza. The most famous of these, of course, is Byron: “I never know the word which will come next.” But aside from defining improvisation, as Gioia Angeletti does, in terms of its Latin root, improvisus, as “unexpected” and “unforeseen,” Byron’s use of the stanza allows for other features of improvisation and of a non-utilitarian poetics: digression, repetition, and polyphony—as in this signature instance from Don Juan, Canto One: “But just suppose that moment [the death of Julia’s husband] should betide, / I only say suppose it inter nos. / (This should be entre nous, for Julia thought / In French, but then the rhyme would go for nought.)” Moreover, the ottava rima seems to suit a poetic position within, rather than beyond or above, the world, a stanza capacious enough to take in, he says in Canto XV, stanza 19, “life’s infinite variety,” in its own way exactly what Walt Whitman demands of his democratically pitched free-verse form. This stanza and the following stanza 20, in fact, spell out the poetics of Byronic/Romantic improvisational poetics:

I perch upon an humbler promontory
Amidst life’s infinite variety
With no great care for what is nicknamed glory,
But speculating as I cast mine eye
On what may suit or may not suit my story
And never straining hard to versify,
I rattle on exactly as I’d talk
With anybody in a ride or walk.

Poetry here is not reflection and understanding made in solitude but speculation occurring in the very motions of living and moving in conversation with others. Flaunting the labor imputed to great poetry, Byron identifies the latter more with otium, a kind of endless, wasteful verbal rattling. Rattling, rather than meaning, sound rather than sense, emerges in the next stanza in which he names poetry metonymically as “desultory rhyme”:

Of this I’m sure at least, there’s no servility
In mine irregularity of chime,
Which rings what’s uppermost of new or hoary,
Just as I feel the improvvisatore.

These two stanzas constellate improvisational poetics: focus on the world as various, observed from a mind moving, as Charles Olson said, “from perception to perception,” written in a lively wakefulness but out of ease, offering sounds—rattlings, rhymes, and chimes—as well as the polyphony of other languages, all of which push the poetry and its maker out of a servile, derivative position in society.

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