Notes on improvisation in poetry

by Andrew Levy

Andrew Levy, courtesy EOAGH Reading Series

Below is a short essay written by Andrew Levy about improvisation, first published published in W Magazine at the Kootenay School of Writing some years ago (which we here gratefully acknowledge: W #12 “ALL MUSIC,” 2007). He revived the old note after having read Jake Marmer’s piece made available recently in Jacket2 in this commentary: “Improvised poetry: palimpsest of drafts.”  Levy’s original note had been inspired by something Anthony Braxton had said: the idea that some people believe jazz improvisers are simply making it all up in the moment, that they are somehow tuned in via a form of trance or something, that it’s an expression of their personal genius. He dismissed that notion of spontaneity. For him improv is a form of hearing and thinking. It is  making measure in the familiarity of one’s attention. “If I were to revise my essay today,” Andrew wrote me recently, “I might search for a different word than ‘constructivist’ with which to counter the notion of spontaneity. It has an art historical resonance that might be unnecessary.”

Notes on improvisation in poetry

In the recordings of Thelonious Monk, Paul Motian, and Paul Bley, one can hear the musicians listen to one another.  Monk and Bley, for example, are exceptionally clear in the emphasis placed upon listening to the degree of silence that completes their songs; Motian in varying the rhythm, tempo and number of times he strikes his trap set within every bar.  There’s an active waiting, a gathering in time made brilliantly audible, and flexible.  In such improvisations there is a whole world of relationships among the things we feel and know, and of the ways in which they might fit. 

What interests me as a writer and performer of poetry is an improvisatory foregrounding of content and technique.  Mapping new pathways of listening to urban and media landscapes as configurations that can never be heard or seen all at once; and reimagining ways of inheriting what has far too often been violently repressed.  Writing and reading, seen this way, is lovemaking — a sensual and erotic connection with the matter necessary to understanding one’s life.  It improvises a plurality of “reals” in a world moving into a continuous transformation and dialogue.  No matter how ruptured or abstracted that life may sometimes appear, or not appear, it’s all in the mix.

The idea of improvisation seems incompatible with the idea of “spontaneity,” a concept most readily linked to the lyric and its valuation of self-expression predicated on the notion of the unitary, intending subject.  Rather, the emphasis is on doing research — of “digging,” both on the possibilities of an art form and on the possibilities of subjectivity.  In such an evolving model, one discovers the desire for that which has not yet, and may indeed, never arrive — and which itself can be read as the basis for an idea of postmodernity: a figurative participation between writer and reader, a recollection forwards.  An improvisational poetics is constructivist, not at all spontaneist — something that all great improvisers, Charlie Parker to Anthony Braxton to Steve Benson to Julie Patton, have understood.

There's also the 'influence' of the context of that which one listens to – be it a phrase that catches one's ear on television, comments passed between elderly women gathered on a stoop in Brooklyn, the dozens of literary blogs, to one's own dreams and inner voices.  The voices of one’s parents, the voices of one’s children.  Of the people you love, and hate.  It's not necessary to listen to the stars.  Today, there may be some urgency in the value of listening carefully to “lesser” voices.  The mediating factor between composition and improvisation is one's attitude of attending to the voices one hears. 

Composition depends upon the exercise of listening to oneself and to others and implies a basic trust, inevitably a hope.  My aim is for the kind of immediacy that is not dependent upon an explanatory voice-over or revelatory dialogue to provide orientation or an overview.  Improvisation helps me feel my limitation as a mortal being.  It’s kind of rough around the edges, but it is right there, a kind of beauty — bathtub full of Brussels sprouts — smooth bark — an apprenticeship with appellation — beyond completeness — a depository returning every breath — the loveless dust–the abstract embrace of nothing — pretext back into you — the passing world — an arousal in unintended duration — bedroom intimacy — the unnoticed end the merest possession of would empty from warmth.  To tell a story, to be a delicate pen and honest, to use past, present and future in a brevity; it’s impure, a suppliance that partially rests its existence in air, in stormy weather.

How can one justify the time it takes to read poetry in a global culture ensconced in language diets of implemental efficiency, of productivity, of excellence? 

Dining on the verandah of “Romanelli’s by the Sea” for my father-in-laws 85th birthday, partially blinded in the glistening white of the marina, its boat masts piercing the blue sky, seated around a table, with my two daughters, enjoying treats from the raw bar.  Overhearing a father at an adjacent table discussing in unbridled enthusiasm with his two sons, about eight and twelve years of age, and their grandfather, the marksmanship of snipers hitting a person “between the eyes” at 200 yards, then changing tact and speaking to the waitress with kindness and consideration.  Where’s the path between my memory of that experience and the way I will hope to have rendered it as story?