The Poetics of Gracelessness

One day a few years ago, I ran into my friend, the poet Jeff Oaks, at my neighborhood coffee shop. He was reading a curious-looking hardcover book entitled Monogamy[1] by Adam Phillips. I’d thought it was a poetry book, but when Jeff passed it over to me, I saw that it wasn’t, not really. It contained disconnected short prose reflections, most of them related to the title theme of “monogamy.” The relationships were sometimes logical, sometimes intuitive; sometimes, there was no apparent relationship to the theme at all. Here’s one that really grabbed my attention, not for what it had to say about monogamy, but for how it put into words an approach to poetry I had been trying to articulate for some time:

There are fundamentally two kinds of writer, just as there are two kinds of monogamist: the immaculate and the fallible. For the immaculate every sentence must be perfect, every word the inevitable one. For them, getting it right is the point. For the fallible, ‘wrong’ is only the word for people who need to be right. The fallible, that is to say, have the courage of their gaucheness; they are never quite sure what might be a good line; and they have a superstitious confidence that the bad lines somehow sponsor the good ones.

— p. 57

More and more, in workshops I’ve been teaching and ones in which I have been getting feedback on my own work, I find myself praising, or at least justifying, what I call the “graceless moment.” When I read this passage in Phillips’ book, I felt validated somehow. How ennobling it all sounds to “have the courage of [one’s] gaucheness.” What wonderful permission to allow poems to, as the French critic Michel Foucault once put it, “show their seams.” But, of course, as soon as one vindicates gaucheness or gracelessness as a value in art, the problem becomes one of execution and evaluation. When is a word choice, odd rhythm, or sticky syntactical clog “productively” graceless, and when is it, simply, “awkward”?

As poets, we learn to fall in love with how language can be pieced together to make something well-wrought, with how it isn’t just a tool for selling something or getting practical work done.

“AWK! AWK!” — that old teacher’s red-penned squawk. When I first started teaching writing nineteen years ago, I avoided marking students’ paper with this guttural admonition. As time has gone on, though, I find myself coming full circle, in the sense that, in certain cases, for various reasons, sometimes that’s pretty much all I can say about an utterance. Sure, I could get technical and try to diagnose what’s causing the awkwardness. I might say, “Too many ‘ly’ adjectives in a row,” or “word choice creates unproductive distractions not related to the poem,” or “excessive sibilance.” And in most practical and literary situations, smoothing out said awkwardness might be just the thing to do.

But do we spend enough time thinking on the other side of that formulation? I mean, do we have enough practice in discussing the merits of awkwardness, the situations when, perhaps, we don’t want the well-wrought urns of our poems to be too well-wrought? Making something beautiful is, of course, the goal in every art. But what defines “beautiful”? What I thought was “beautiful” when I started writing in my teens is very different from my ideas of beauty now (and the same can be said of the Jordache jeans and Candies slides I wore as a college freshman in the late seventies). We often associate beauty with symmetry, roundedness, mellifluousness, completeness. In the beginning of apprenticeship (and even into the journeyman stage) in any art form, it is important to strive for these elements, just as compositional balance and even careful work with perspective are important as foundations for drawing or painting. Maybe this is one of the means by which we learn to fall in love with our materials, in whatever medium: by learning to use them to make a thing of beauty, separate from the random arrangements of the world (which, of course, may be beautiful as well, in their own ways). So, as poets, we learn to fall in love with how language can be pieced together to make something well-wrought, with how it isn’t just a tool for selling something or getting practical work done.

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  1. Phillips, Adam. Monogamy. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

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