Improvised poetry: Palimpsest of drafts
By Jake Marmer
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jake Marmer, who has consented to the publication of this essay here. — A.F.
I remember listening to Marc Ribot’s band Ceramic Dog, thinking: My entire brain — the main line and the back corners — is burning to grasp this music. That night, the avant-garde guitarist played what was likely an entirely improvised set with three fellow musicians. I tried to follow each new direction the music took, each new interaction that erupted; I was fully consumed in some new state of attention, witnessing all the multiple levels of the work coming together in front of me.
I wanted to improvise poetry as Ribot had improvised his music. It’s not a new idea. Jack Kerouac, like a number of other poets of the Beat era, wrote ecstatic, unedited compositions that felt raw and spontaneous. Kerouac famously explained that he wanted to be known as the “jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session…” But his improvisation was limited to the writing process. Once finished, these poems remained more or less static throughout the publications and poetry readings that followed.
My hope is to write poetry that could then be approached in the way musicians approach their standards — i.e., as frameworks and jumping-off points — poems that are porous enough to become, in each new performance, a new draft, a new radical revision.
Although ancient poetry was oral and therefore more flexible, I found very little room for improvised performance in the contemporary poetry world. Rappers rely on a number of set rhymes and employ a very specific and limiting beat. David Antin, a giant of a poet/thinker, improvises, but his work is situated more along the lines of poetics, rhetoric, and stand-up comedy rather than imagistic, musical poetry.
I am not yet entirely comfortable improvising on stage, but I’m making headway. My goal is never to read a poem the same way twice; at least, I fluctuate with the intonations, tempos, and voices. But the text also changes. Recently, I recorded an album of my poems accompanied by four great musicians: Frank London (trumpet), Greg Wall (sax/clarinet), Uri Sharlin (keys), and Eyal Maoz (guitar). Of the tracks we recorded, a few were scored, but several others came together entirely in the moment. Here is the original text of the poem “Mishnah of Loneliness,” along with the studio recording.
Mishnah of Loneliness [listen to the recording]
There’re three types of loneliness in the world:
green, red, and purple. So says the house of
Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they say: loneliness
is either black or white; all other types
don’t exist and require a sacrifice of a young
goat: your internal goat.
Says Rava: in all of my years, I have not
known loneliness. All day I’m at the yeshiva
with you nudniks, then I come home to groveling
domestic tractates. One day, I stepped
outside and screamed: Master, I want you
in silence, in absence, in wordless music of
our solitude! Right then I saw a great ladder,
reaching to the Throne up high. The Throne
— was empty — but up and down the steps,
there went lost sounds, scales of unused and
discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations,
choked on ecstasies — a whole decontextualized
orchestra racing like goats through
The voice said: this, Rava, is the room of my
absence, music of our solitude. You like it? Go
home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry; eat,
make a bad pun, for that is the meaning of peace.
While the opening and middle sections of the poem are fairly set, the storytelling segment has room to let loose. As I recite it, I’m looking for openings, ideas, associated images, and commentary that I did not think of when I was working on the original draft.
In this particular piece, I’m also playing with the historical talmudic form, which combined memorization/repetition (“mishnah”) with discourse/discussion/riffing/tangents (“gemarah”).
I can’t say I took the improvisation beyond the confines of the original. But the few images born in the studio felt, by far, more interesting to me than the actual poem. Although I “practiced” the piece several times before the recording, and lines that were better than the original came to me, I resisted the process of revision; I resisted hammering new lines into the poem. Because the oral dimension of the poem became more important, I felt as if it might be better to keep the improvised riffs in the realm of orality — memory — as well. I’d like to think of these several versions of the poem, including the recording, as a series of evolving, living drafts — a performative palimpsest.
[This essay originally appeared in Sh'ma on January 3, 2013.]