The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination by poet Carl Phillips is the latest offering in The Art of series published by Graywolf Press, which features non-fiction books by poets and novelists about poetry, fiction, writing, creativity and thinking. The actual books are small, perfect for anything from reading in bed to carrying in a backpack, any place where you’ll want to contemplate life and stuff. Because reading poetry, says Phillips, does have a higher purpose than just enjoyment: “reading poetry is not, to my mind, to be made to feel better, but rather to understand human experience more entirely; this kind of understanding leads to wisdom, not the good feeling that is finally a shallow version of the happiness that wisdom strangely brings in its wake.” This ‘shallow’ version of happiness is, or leads to, the feeling of restlessness, mentioned in the subtitle of the book, that we all feel in life (though certainly he seems to think artists feel it more, or acknowledge it more at least).
Phillips, and I, believe that studying the humanities is maybe the most important thing we can do, because it’s how we learn to be human. Not a new idea, and one that can leave conservative and neo-con education reformers shaking their heads, but The Art of Daring offers ways to think about how to think about, and possibly teach both contemporary and classic poetry in a thorough way without Theory-with-a-capital-T. No Marxist-Feminist analysis here. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but it can be intimidating and elitist. Instead, Phillips offers smart, ‘close reading,’ which anyone can do, no PhD needed.
I have to admit that I tend to be leery of the idea of taking apart a poem and talking about it merely as aspects of ‘craft,’ even as I agree that those little bits o’ craft at least help add up to the larger effect of a poem. I feel like this is what killed any early interest in poetry that I, and others, had when younger, as in, a poem was then merely something you had to figure out, like a puzzle or test, rather than something you enjoyed. Fortunately, I got past that, and it seems to me that the most important thing a teacher presenting poetry can do is be excited about it, rather than clinical. And Phillips is excited about the poems he includes here, showing how a careful, critical examination of a poem let’s us understand why a poem excites us, and can reveal even more to be excited about. The idea being that Phillips is modeling (the best way of teaching) how to be a better reader (i.e. thinker) and how being a better reader/thinker rewards us with even more meaning.
For example, here’s how he approaches Shakespeare’s Sonnet #129. Due to space limitations, I won’t include the sonnet but, being a Shakespearean sonnet, I think you’ll get the gist of what Phillips is saying:
As you can see…an alternation of rhymes within each four-line segment, and then two lines that rhyme right next to each other. At the level of sound, this means that we are wobbling, as it were, between rhymes—that is, the rhymes are interrupted—before settling on the two rhyming lines no longer separated from each other. Which is to say, the feeling is that of arrival, of closure, sonically speaking. But—also characteristic of a Shakespearean sonnet—the rhyming two lines of conclusion often—as here—tend to sum up, or offer an Aesop-like moral via which to understand what’s been said earlier: ‘All this the world well knows yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.’ It sounds like resolve, yes, but what the lines actually say is that no one has figured out how to deal with the corrosive realities of lust, which have been disturbingly outlined in lines 1-12. So there’s a meaningful tension here between formal and sonic regularity and the irresolvability of the poem’s argument—there’s no solution, that is, to lust, not even the hoped-for solution of knowledge-via-experience; there is only the temporary stay that the sonnet’s form give to the human predicament.
Pretty thorough, and convincing. It’s what we probably sense from the poem reading it ourselves, though Phillips’s explanation—that is, his taking the time to slow down and really talk about what’s really going on—helps us understand the poem, and (and here’s the value) understand this human problem of lust. Getting some distance from the problem of lust by reading about it in a poem, and then perhaps thinking closely and critically about the poem, allows us to examine our own feelings of lust, which can feel very urgent and confusing when we’re in the middle of them.
Though this is a good example of how even a close reading and interpretation can be still just that, an interpretation. For while I’d agree that the last two rhyming lines have a false sense of conclusion, when Phillips describes the alternating rhyme scheme as ‘wobbling,’ I’m not so sure. I understand what he means, but feel he’s trying to finds clues to strengthen his argument after the fact. That is, if the rhyme scheme in this poem causes wobbling, well, then, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets have wobbling. And, say, all of Yeat’s poems too. Or all abab rhyming poetry! That may be true, and interesting to think about, but I might have said that the alternating rhyme scheme, because predictable, offers a sense of stability, because the reader knows, unconsciously or not, that the rhymes are there, and that really the ‘reading’ of the lines might be more about anticipation, somehow. Which sounds a lot like something related to lust.
In any case, that’s just to show that close reading is open to interpretation, except when it’s not, when finding some basic facts about a poem reveal a basic truth, like in Phillips’ next paragraph:
I mentioned sentence length earlier. It’s intriguing to realize this is a sonnet composed of a mere two sentences. One—the one devoted to detailing the effects of lust—happens to be twelve lines long; the other, the one where knowledge or wisdom comes to the fore, is a couplet. This is another level on which the poem enacts its argument. At the level of sentence length, lust outweighs reason, twelve to two, or by 600 percent.
There’s more, but I just wanted to show how Phillips can basically prove how a poem shows the human condition: by a simple line count. Lust overwhelms wisdom, which is how I’m sure at least some readers have felt at moments in their lives. How compelling desire is, even when we might have a smidgeon of wisdom in us telling us to try and think more clearly. Phillips does this with other poems, at least in the first three essay-chapters, and when he does, I can’t help but think this, this is how one might answer the ‘education reform’ critics, or even parents, about the value of studying the humanities, and how that might be done in an at least somewhat evaluateable way.
While The Art of Daring starts off confidently, by the last chapter-essay Phillips questions more than he answers, proving his earlier-made point that thinking about what being human means is never done or finished, it just continually changes, like Being itself. Phillips takes us up to the edge of it, his writing becoming a collage, with smaller paragraphs separated by space, and that space becomes important, it’s the place where the questions asked have room to echo around. The ‘daring’ of the title comes from the idea of taking risks:
The poems of mine that I consider successful are the ones where some part of me seems to have dared another part to do something that, if I were fully aware of it, I’d never do: use a certain word, let a sentence find its own wilderness, speak on subjects I’d more likely suppress talking about in my daily life. One risk, I suppose, is of losing the control that has always been part of my sensibility; another, that I won’t be understood, or I’ll somehow be judged. But the risk of not daring is that I’ll fail to have been entirely myself—the risk of not daring, you might say, is artifice, inauthenticity.
By this point in the book, Phillips is going for something bigger than ‘just’ art.
Because, as he’s shown, with life and art intertwined and informing each other, if art requires some daring and willingness to takes risks, then doesn’t life?
And by life, Phillips means more than our actions, but our actual bodies. Which, seemingly inevitably, means sex. And this is where we learn more about Phillips’s own personal life, his own personal sex life, and the sex lives of other gay men in his community, who seem to be being daring, and taking risks, in throwing themselves into promiscuous sex, which, in these days of AIDS, Phillips says is closer to “virtual suicide” (131). And yet he seems to envy them, and he shares one daring risky incident he himself takes with a complete stranger, one that borders on rape, leaving Phillips wondering what exactly he should be feeling, though undoubtedly he feels something, which is maybe the point. It might not be a happy-happy joy-joy experience, but he seems to have learned something about his own humanity. I.e. gained some wisdom. Though this might not be the section of the book one would want to share with educators and parents.
I feel, though I’m not clear if Phillips does, that taking risks, daring, with our selves and our bodies, necessarily requires sex, or anyways doesn’t require anonymous hookups. The more risky and daring thing (and I say this only because it’s what I’m scared of) might be intimacy, with one person, or maybe some kind of intimate compassion with every body. I share his feeling that sex is important to understanding what being human means, and that sexual desire is tied up with (if you’ll allow me that possible pun) the creative process, and/or how we think, though I wonder if maybe talking about ‘just’ sex is a false path, and leads us away from something bigger, something like sensuality. That is, our senses, the sensuous, and how they help us experience life.
But Phillips does back off at times, unsure of where this ultimately leads, because surely to take risks with writing, and the body, doesn’t mean to put the body at risk? Or does it? So too does he question sex, and the gratification of it, and what comes after. Is that it? Is that every thing? “So? And?” (59).
Which is where The Art of Daring leaves us. But that was a given from the beginning: again, the study of poetry/humanities never leads us to a complete and final understanding of what being human is. Phillips takes us closer, makes being human a little clearer, and models ways to think about it. That’s all we can do, I guess.