Today, in preparation for an upcoming workshop, I’ve re-read Gregory Orr’s fascinating essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” In this piece, Orr delineates four temperaments to poetry, two he calls “limiting impulses” (Story and Structure) and two he calls “limitless” (Music and Imagination.) Within his essay, he makes many interesting arguments, for example: the idea that poets have innately dominant temperaments, that poems “must fuse a limiting impulse with an impulse that resists limitation” or they work against themselves, that all four temperaments ought to be present in poems to some degree but that only one poet might be said to have possessed all four temperaments in equal vigor. (Guess who.)
The notion of this, of something of a Myers-Briggs test for poets, definitely makes me itchy, the same way such personality indicators do. However, I don’t think it is wholly without value, especially as these impulses I definitely believe in, and I think Orr has made a convincingly simple arrangement of them.
A couple threads in Orr’s essay strike me with particular force today–1) that “A poet is always trying to decide who he or she is or might become…” and 2) that once a poet is self-aware of his/her fundamental temperaments, “the possibilities for growth are two-fold…” either to go further and deeper into their fundamental gift, the risk of which is the narrowing of their focus/style, or to expand, to struggle to nurture and develop other temperaments. I would say that many contemporary poets choose that former route, for reasons either personal or public. They figure out who they are as poets and publish a whole bunch of books that feel like albums of songs that basically use their same favorite chords. These are predictable, dependable poets. You know what you’ll get, even before reading their new book. And you’re often not always disappointed, either.
I’ve realized recently that as a poet I’m definitely struggling to “learn and labor for” as he says, those other gifts, to move into other territories that make me uncomfortable, both as reader and as writer. Lately, my reading has been causing me distinct intellectual discomfort, and having re-read Orr’s essay, I know why. The poets I’ve been reading would, on his chart, fall into probably the entirely opposite corner of this four-square game than the square I play from. I’ve been quite bothered having read now a few books that I know in some ways are fantastic but that just don’t resonate with me emotionally–poems I don’t feel like re-reading, or don’t feel attached to. I’d begun to worry that our moment in contemporary poetry had entirely shifted into an arena that I couldn’t access–poems that have no limiting impulse, neither story nor structure, and very little music–that existed almost entirely in the realm of imagination, that are so open-minded their brains are falling out. That said: I have chosen these books for that reason, with the idea that my discomfort for poems that are so open-ended, fractured, and seemingly devoid of any unity is not simply due to aesthetic whim, but that I’m not actually developing that temperament enough, that I’ve become too reliant upon cohesion and form and story and music. This discomfort is very important. Disequilibrium is learning.
As a writer, I’m also pushing the hurt. I’m pointed straight toward God Knows Where. My new manuscript “Severance” is a clear rebuke, almost point-for-point, of every rule I’ve learned or taught myself in this art. And a definite exploration of the limitless temperament’s other quadrant that I’ve shied from. It is hugely unsettling and terribly exciting. And even if it is failure, which it quite possibly is, it is success, because it has smashed the walls I’ve painstakingly constructed over the last decade. Now my former comfort zone is making me uncomfortable. And my new stylistic territory makes me equally uncomfortable. I have let go the reins and am hanging on for dear life.
I have no place on the square. Ah, thank goodness.
Recently a friend asked me about my progression as a poet; I felt the question implied a sort of defined, goal-oriented career-path type of trajectory. In my answer I spoke of “bumbling along” which gave me guilt afterward. I’ve been at this a long-time, I should have a plan, right. I shouldn’t be such a wanderer, right. I should have a mission statement and a vision, right.
My favorite poets have career “arcs” that wobble, that stray, that dip and curve, that move. My favorite band discographies (The Beatles, Radiohead…) show something of a disdain for linear progression. These are the poems, the books, the songs, the albums that are imperfect, that challenge, that wend and waver. These are the rivers, not the lakes. Just at the moment these poets and musicians get really good at something, often when they’re approaching or have achieved some mastery, they don’t go toward that impulse, but away from it. Tsk, Tsk. Oh Lord may I continue to not have an answer. May the wind rip the maps from me. May I wander much more into that dark.