To sell an idea you can choose one of two gambits. You can say: “I have thought long and hard about this, I have brought my best to bear on this problem” (hard work, skill, research, rational thinking, whatever the analytic tools du jour). Or you can begin: “This came to me this morning in the shower.” The latter gesture is performative, at once self-protective and self-assertive: don’t blame me if this idea doesn’t pan out; but perhaps it deserves special attention because it came to me in an intuitive moment. Both gestures—thoughtful and thoughtless—authorize and validate: value my idea because I’ve worked hard creating it; or, value my idea precisely because I haven’t worked at all. The mystery is how the latter ploy could earn any credence at all. But it does and we deploy it all the time. What is the logic that shores up such an argument? And at least as interesting: why? Why would I choose thoughtlessness as a persuasive device rather than the more reasonable persuasions of care and craft and rationality?
The literary equivalent of this rhetorical gesture is the claim of spontaneous composition, improvisation: I wrote this when inspired by the muses, in a dream, instinctively, off the top of my head, when drunk, but in any case without thinking, without effort, without plan, and even perhaps without purpose. Almost an accident, it just happened.
Once you go looking, texts that claim to be spontaneously composed abound in literary history. From Homer’s sung epics to Milton’s Paradise Lost (“this my unpremeditated verse,” he calls it); from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (“not a line of it was altered”) to Coleridge’s opium-fueled dream ode “Kubla Khan”; from Mark Twain’s pseudonaïf Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“persons attempting to find a plot will be shot”) to Ginsberg’s drug-inspired rant, “Howl”—they are everywhere. Many self-styled improvisations merit the attention of none but the most rigorous scholars. The endless forty-thousand-line verse narratives of the nineteenth-century Spasmodic School, who believed they should compose in a “spasm”—and it shows—come to mind.
My parenthetic “and it shows” indulges in evaluation, one of the least interesting things we can do with spontaneity. Many debate the Goldilocks question: has the artist improvised too much, too little, or just enough? Spontaneity has evoked not only such hair-splitting but also much sword-crossing. The critical reception of Kerouac’s “kickwriting” can serve as example. On the one hand, card-carrying “Beat” John Clellon Holmes enthuses over Kerouac’s achievement: “The words are no longer words, but had become things. Somehow an open circuit of feeling had been established between his awareness and its object of the moment, and the result was as startling as being trapped in another man’s eyes” (Cunnell, 36). On the other hand, Truman Capote famously judges, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” John Ciardi hoists Kerouac on his own petard: “a high school athlete who went from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Skid Row, losing his eraser en route” (Belgrad, 239).
Capote and Ciardi challenge the aesthetic value of spontaneity in the arch, confident voice of urbane craftsmen. A challenge of another sort came from the exciting work of those pursuing the “Homeric question” (See Parry, Lord, Nagy, Ong). How, they asked, could such a long, complex poem have been composed in the ninth century BC, before the invention of writing? But the explanation created new critical problems: Homer and the epic poets of the Balkans did truly compose and sing simultaneously, but using the oral-formulaic method. If so, then perhaps, as Walter Ong put it, “Instead of a creator, you had an assembly-line worker” (22)—a far cry from the Romantic ideal of spontaneity that our idea of the rhapsode Homer had done much to inspire.
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Read the rest of this essay in the Kenyon Review Mar/Apr 2015 issue, on sale now!