Improvisers and Revisers: An Experiment in Spontaneity

Ken Gordon
From the May/June 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

It took a long time to write these words. I'm not referring to the psychosomatic affliction known as writer's block. I mean the delays caused by the process of composition and revision. The clichés I've killed! The drafts I've lost! The existence of this page—this paragraph—is a marvelous feat of Darwinian staying power. It has gone through so many minor and major tweaks that I can barely recall what it looked like when I began (on December 11, 2005, at 8:14 P.M., to be precise). The road from rough draft to final manuscript was a lengthy, indirect one, with so many wrong turns that I feel carsick just glancing back in the rearview mirror.

The real Prosperos are improvisers—the artists, musicians, comedians, and writers whose compositions seem to erupt fully realized from the mind or mouth or instrument.

In her essay "Education of the Poet," from Proofs & Theories (Ecco Press, 1994), Louise Glück asserts that "most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write; wanting to write differently, being unable to write differently. In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea. The only real exercise of the will is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto." Writers don't get just one shot at putting words down correctly. It's not like having to hit a professionally pitched baseball. It is in the nature of the literary arts to revise. You get far more than three strikes in writing; you can have three hundred, if you need them. When asked about revision, Ernest Hemingway said, "I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied." I use the same labor-intensive approach, and so do almost all the writers I admire.

The goal of all this revision? To create a coherent human voice, or even a chorus of voices, so that when a reader picks up the work, it seems a form of spontaneous generation, in which sentences arrive one perfect word after another. When this succeeds, the reader believes in the writer's authority. As Buddy Glass, the narrator of J.D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction (Little, Brown, 1963), says, "We read, and usually we believe; good, bad, or indifferent, any string of English words holds our attention as if it came from Prospero himself."

But the real Prosperos are improvisers—the artists, musicians, comedians, and writers whose compositions seem to erupt fully realized from the mind or mouth or instrument. The artifice of most literary composition is, when you think about it, a little embarrassing when compared to what professional improvisers do. Pianist Keith Jarrett, for instance, performs entire concerts, entire albums, off the top of his head. Most writers are engaged in a relatively safe and easy task—we face nothing like the kind of threats (hecklers, immediate public humiliation) known to the onstage extemporizer. We operate in slow-motion, crawling at a dial-up pace compared to the cable-modem speed of the improvisers. They walk onstage and dare to make visible everything that they've ever learned—and then to learn even more right there in front of an audience. This takes courage, a willingness to test oneself in the most extreme circumstances. Nothing gets erased in a live performance. You have to succeed with every word, every note. But if you do go flat or sharp, you must ride your mistake until its ultimate, and ultimately beautiful, conclusion. In fact, true improvisation requires the sort of solipsistic fortitude that mopey Stephen Dedalus suggests in James Joyce's Ulysses: "A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." To improvise is to court error, and to trust that your own artistry will prevail.

Improvisation is often miscast, in the drama of our cultural life, as the slow second cousin of Thoughtful Composition. It's nothing more serious than an ad-lib here, a Freudian blurt there. The negative definition of the term asserts that all improvisers work from impulse rather than from intellect, and that the idea of spontaneous expression is too messy a business to bother with. Far better, argues the anti-improv school, for Apollonian order to impose a sort of rhetorical martial law on human expression.

Consider Harold Bloom's remarks about "Spontaneous Me," a poem by Walt Whitman. "Whitman is no improviser," opines the critic. "His artistry reflects conscious study of his precursors in the language, despite his American nationalist ambivalence toward British tradition." This insinuates that an improviser is someone who operates without cultural knowledge, who works directly out of his own, impoverished self. It's a radically unfair characterization. I'd argue that improvisation involves exactly the sort of awareness that Bloom recognizes in Whitman. Think of the relentless wit of Robin Williams, the adventurous saxophone solos of Sonny Rollins. These men deliver remarkably thoughtful (and thought-provoking) performances, their minds churning at incredible speeds, making aesthetic calculations at an unthinkably rapid pace.

Of course, there are poor improvisers, those for whom an off-the-cuff performance is a goulash of sloppy thinking and cliché served up with little thought for its ultimate consumption. No one, for instance, wants to hear an unskilled high school jam band pounding away in the garage next door. But before judging them, consider that much of humanity falls into this "poor improviser" category, including writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote the following exchange in a 1962 self-interview:

Q: I notice you "haw" and "er" a great deal. Is it a sign of approaching senility?

A: Not at all. I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewrittenoften several timesevery word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

Still, when it comes to on-the-fly expression, not everyone is a Nabokov. According to William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde was a great improviser. "My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment," Yeats wrote in his Autobiographies (Macmillan, 1926). "I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous." In our own day, essayist and editor Anne Fadiman speaks with superhuman lucidity. And John Updike. After watching a documentary on Updike, Nicholson Baker wrote that "he tossed down to us some startlingly lucid felicity, something about 'these small yearly duties which blah blah blah,' and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!" Baker's evident envy and annoyance are understandable. His comment underlines just how rare accomplished improvisers are.

But maybe they aren't as rare as we are led to believe. Maybe there just isn't a good place for spontaneous expression and our nation's supreme literary talent to meet. What would such a place be like, one where the very best writers could see if their first thoughts truly were their best thoughts?

A possible answer came to me the day I stubbed my literary toe on The Imperfect Art (Oxford University Press, 1988), Ted Gioia's book on jazz and modern culture. In the title essay, Gioia explains how essential improvisation was to jazz by asking the reader to conceive "what twentieth-century art would be like if other art forms placed an equal emphasis on improvisation." Imagine, he writes, T.S. Eliot "giving nightly poetry readings at which, rather than reciting set pieces, he was expected to create impromptu poems—different ones each night, sometimes recited at a fast clip."

After a good little laugh, I thought about the notion of spontaneity in literature. Sometimes, spontaneity is a necessary ingredient (think of the huge popularity of the Beat generation's improvisational style or how much energy and excitement are produced at a single poetry slam), but it doesn't take long for most readers to demand some aesthetic law and order. Truman Capote wittily expressed this distrust of improvisation when he characterized Jack Kerouac's work as typing, not writing.

Then, after a keyword search on Google (our digital Virgil), I found an interview in which Robert Pinsky remarked, "There are literally improvisatory poets, that is, people who compose very quickly and don't revise much. Frank O'Hara, I think it's in "Personism: A Manifesto," says that he likes to sit down and play the typewriter for an hour or two after breakfast. Very few people have that kind of ease."

I wondered, "Could O'Hara's sort of ease be learned?" My hunch was that truly talented poets, if put to the test, could write with O'Hara's efficiency and focus. My mind then shifted to the immediacy of blogs and the off-the-cuff creativity of TV shows like Iron Chef America, and I cooked up a strange idea.

I would create a Web site that could serve as a forum in which some of our best poets would be given just one hour in which to write a poem on an assigned topic. The results of each contest would then be considered by a notable judge (a critic or editor), who would pick a winner and write a commentary on the works. Perhaps readers could vote for their favorite poem. I was hoping to access what Gioia describes as the pleasures of improvised art: "We enjoy improvisation because we take enormous satisfaction in seeing what a great musical mind can create spontaneously. We are interested in what the artist can do, given the constraints of his art." Could a Web site such as the one I envisioned bring some spontaneous energy to contemporary poetry?