What does risk encompass in a poem?
Faced with a question regarding risk, I immediately think of my day job in the field of information security. In this context, risk is a calculable uncertainty. It is a function of asset value, the likelihood of occurrence of threats to these assets, the effectiveness and efficiency of safeguards against these threats, etc. So while it seems fairly immediate to think of risk-taking as an inherently positive artistic value, it might be good to note that the corporation, the daredevil news reporter, and the artist will want to take risks. A distinction between the contexts in which risks are taken is important.
Alain Badiou discusses the constitution of a subject by “a sentence in the form of a wager,” a sentence that takes the form: “This has taken place, which I can neither calculate nor demonstrate, but to which I shall be faithful.” It is this type of risk—a risk-taking that figures in the emergence of self and selves, but is at the same time selfless—that I find of importance. Poems as events, as a rupture from the repetitive, again invoking Badiou, but also as a slight crack, a slit that allows us to see the possible, a small hole that by its presence allows us to breathe the air of the other room, and also invoking Ann Lauterbach: “one that slightly alters, slightly shifts the relation between what is and what might be.”
This brings me to Paul Celan:
What to do when the very language you use to comprehend the world is also the language used by your father’s and mother’s, your people’s murderer? It is human to reject and condemn, the risk is in a fidelity to this language. A relationship with language that becomes so risky, intimate, and hence creative, in the sense that things that were not there before appear, as to make a beetle sense a thing as word, a word as thing, a wordthing, a thingword, as blood and flower.
Most poets agree that risk is indispensable to poetry. Without a willingness to embrace it poets have little hope of writing vital poems of enduring interest. And yet the matter of risk seems to a considerable degree obscure. Poets are typically hard put to say precisely what it encompasses and why exactly it is essential.
Most dictionaries equate risk with the potential for loss or exposure, and it is this last association which I think pertinent to the discussion at hand. In the best poems an author is willing—with however much reluctance—to expose something of vital importance: a feeling that might well be ridiculed, an addiction to a thought or habit of thinking that seems, for whatever reason, unworthy, a set of fears or obsessions that would presumably yield to a heavy course of psychotherapy. But whatever its specific nature, risk is what brings urgency and energy to the poem. Without it, even poems of considerable formal virtuosity lack vitality. Why this is so is not at all clear to me. But over and over again I find, in my own work as much as in the work of my students, that the poet must be able to articulate at least an approximate answer to the question, “What is at risk here?” or “What is at stake?” Otherwise it’s more than likely that the poem in question will be dead on the page.
Perhaps an example from my own experience will be clarifying. While writing the poems for my first book, HARD BREAD, I was writing in the borrowed voice of the Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg, whose life and times were full of thrilling incident—a reliable field to draw upon, one might think, for a poet afraid of risking direct self-exposure. And yet despite the existence of conflicts and incidents I might use while also remaining safely away from my own conflicts, hiding out, as it were, with each poem I composed I found the need to implicate myself in order to make the poem somehow come alive for me and, with luck, for any readers who might chance to come across my work. I remember especially the difficulty I faced in trying to write a poem addressed to Primo Levi, in which my speaker in effect gave him permission to commit suicide; the drafts kept seemed to me hopeless and inert despite the high stakes involved and the fact that Ginzburg really had known Primo Levi. When I called my friend, Frank Bidart, and read him what I had written, he agreed at once: the poem was not happening. “Pretend you’re telling me I can go ahead and commit suicide, and write the poem to me,” he advised. Following Frank’s advice entailed entering into the voice with the kind of wrenching investment of emotion and spirit that I had thus far resisted. Somehow imagining the situation that directly, that personally, enabled me to write the poem from inside the experience in a way I had not been able to before. The risk in that case involved imagining a terribly painful situation translated into extremely intimate terms. Working with the voice of Natalia Ginzburg as a kind of veil liberated me to take risks in my first book that I was still ill-equipped to take in first-person poems written in my own ostensive voice. But I could not have made successful poems in Ginzburg’s invented voice without a willingness to subject myself to risk.
In my second book, risk entailed taking on certain formal challenges, mostly having to do with diction, while also trying to address personal issues which were painful and sometimes difficult to sort out. Poems in which I tried to reach back into my Cuban heritage and family history (a legacy anyone who knows me immediately sees is far from the surface of my identity) often needed to break into Spanish to capture the color and flavor of that reality. Other poems, focused on my son, surprised me by demanding to be framed within the conventions of Christian iconography, not an idiom I typically employ or one likely to be ingratiating to readers. In both cases, the diction I chose represented as much of a risk for me as did the subject matter; in fact, however, the one risk—entailed in the choice of diction and imagery—enabled, made possible my access to the fraught, highly charged subject matter. Risk is a conduit for the poet as well as for the reader; it provides the path and leaves behind a certain residue of instability or unease whose frisson generates interest.
Recently, I have been struggling with a sestina, a form I chose in fulfilling an assignment to write a poem to accompany a painting in an exhibit on the Hudson River. Oddly, the sestina poured out of me quite easily. Over the course of a few weeks I had everything in place. And yet the poem lacked, still lacks, that trace of risk and misgiving, though, in its own formalistically elegant way it is an accomplished piece of writing, or so I have been assured. How to work that essential sense of risk into this tightly wrought poem is the challenge I must meet in order to bring the poem to a final fruition.
In a country where journalists are routinely bullied and killed by various state officials, it’s unfortunate that “risk” for Pinoy poets, in the general sense, has yet to rise above efforts like submitting to the Palancas under an effete pa-kyut pseudonym, or contributing to the lively repartee in a Baguio writing workshop. I’m not suggesting that we all should go to the countryside and write about the plight of the farmers using carabao objective-correlatives. I am suggesting that there ought to be something more at stake in writing than mere cash prizes or academic units. The fact remains that “risk” here has never even been about self-publishing, or even engaging in a critical discussion on something you’ve written, or standing up for your cast-iron convictions tempered in the classroom reading Olds or Glück. Philippine Poetry remains as cozy and as rosy as entries categorised as “private” in Wordpress, as rebellious and risque as CPP/NPA scrawls inside a UP lavatory. It seems that in the Philippines, there are no poetic risks; only poetic utterances, and utterances are simply that: nothing more, always less.
“Is the poetry I’m doing—is the poetry I’m trying to do—still poetry?” If I am able to say yes to it quickly, then there is no risk. If I am able to say maybe & attach a string of justifications to/for it toward a consequent yes, then there is no risk. Risk in poetry is to risk poetry itself, to risk everything one knows of the poem: a constant ontological anxiety. Poetry should demand nothing less from itself (& its practitioners) than its own implosion.
When I think of risk I think of stakes—stakes supporting tomato vines in danger of collapsing and being unproductive; stakes for execution, where witches were burned or rebels impaled for defying the community’s standards; stakes raised in a game of poker, or in episodes of “Pera o Bayong” where the contestant gives up a small, certain sum for an unidentified prize in front of a cheering audience.
In all cases there’s a testing of limits, a willingness to brave hazards or losses in the face of possible victory. The questions in poetry are on one's motivations (playfulness? ambition and a refusal to settle for predictable gains? an arrogant desire to appear edgier? boredom or dissatisfaction with tradition and with your old work?) as well as the various forms the risk takes (ruptured syntax? genre crossing? saturation of detail? erasure?). One can argue that each poem is already a risk undertaken—against nothingness, against more practical demands of everyday life. But what interests me more are the larger formal risks within the poem itself, against the poet’s body of work or against literary conventions readers are accustomed to.
What does a good poem risk? What’s at stake? Each poem risks predictability, risks rejection, risks not meeting the standards set by its maker. But a good poem risks saying something truly original, risks creating a new readership, risks redefining and enlarging upon our ideas of what makes a good poem, risks gorgeousness. Surely, these are worth the risk of failure.
Reproduction of material from any High Chair pages without written permission is strictly prohibited.