Monday, December 05, 2005


I am watching a documentary on our local PBS station, in which the Beaux Arts Trio is playing Beethoven (the documentary is in honor of the 50th anniversary of the trio). In addition to making me wish I had set the VCR for this one (confidential to Miz Loudon: WTIU is going to be releasing this documentary to other PBS stations in March; call yours up and see if they're getting it, 'cause you would love it), it is making me think about the concept of virtuosity. A friend of mine (and fellow poet) has written a book about virtuosity in the performing arts; I haven't read it, but I wonder what (if anything) constitutes virtuosity in poetry? Or does the concept of virtuosity apply only to performance (and if so, can performance poetry have virtuosity)?



Artichoke Heart said...

I have been experimenting with trying to write virtuosic metaphors and similes, with blowing a poem out like a virtuosic soap bubble to see how far it can go before it blips out of existence. I don't know if I am actually managing this successfully or not, or if this constitutes virtuosity per se, but it feels to me like the same impulse as musical virtuosity.

Anne said...

Okay, the soap bubble thing sounds really interesting. Seems like there are two ways (at least) to take a poem to extremes: extreme compression, and what you describe. I like how you describe it though -- "to see how far it can go before it blips out of existence." I'm filing that away in my brain for future reference...

Radish King said...

Virtuosity: The technical skill, fluency, or style exhibited by a virtuoso or a composition.

does the concept of virtuosity apply only to performance (and if so, can poetry have virtuosity)?

I think about this a lot but I took out the performance in front of poetry because for me, all poetry is an oral art, but that's a different subject.

I think about this a lot in terms of music and musicianship, and of poetry in terms of knowing where I am on the ladder, if there is one.

I also think about it a lot in terms of how different musicians and poets are when it comes to feeling accomplished. Of course, if you've won a Pulitzer, you feel accomplished, but what about the rest of us hacking along at it because we love it? Being published doesn't mean beans. It's fairly easy to do if you keep at it. Having a book doesn't mean squat, especially these days when presses are springing up like toadstools. Education, so what?

What I've noticed is that musicians know exactly where they stand in the world of music. It's easy to quantify. Everyone can hear us! We're all judged by the same set of criteria. You certainly know a bad performance when you hear one and you certainly know a great performance when you hear one. I've never heard anyone complain about a virtuoso performance.

Poetry, on the other hand, is not quantifiable. There is no yardstick to say YOU ARE HERE, or here, or here, on the continuum of great poets. Even great poets feel insecure about their work. One person likes it, another hates it. It makes poets more neurotic that musicians. It makes them less trusting of themselves. And even though poets do tend to form artistic communitites, they are different that the artistic communities musicians form, at least from my experience.

Perhaps because, in the end, poetry is such a solitary business, while music, at least at the level at which I'm engaged, and at the performance level, is a group effort. Unless you're playing an unaccompanied sonata.

This is a long-winded response, but I'd have to say that virtuosity as it stands, is impossible to quantify in poetry. Greatness, however, can be recognized, but it is rare that 4 poets in one room are going to agree on it.

As poets, we are solitary. No wonder we drink so much.

Anne said...

Wow, thanks for that, Rebecca -- that is REALLY interesting, and helps me understand some of the differences I've perceived between wacky musicians and wacky poets. It also is a little different angle on the solitary-ness of poets than I've seen before ... not sure I like it, exactly, but it rings true. Music is inherently collaborative and interpretive (even in the case of your average coffeehouse singer-songwriter accompanying herself on badly tuned guitar) in a way that I don't think poetry is. I think that even though one might sit around the house playing music for one's own amusement, music demands a listener in a way that I'm not sure poetry demands a reader, and that alone makes it a different sort of beast.

I'm gonna think about your comment a while longer and maybe post some more, because this is fascinating to me.

jose said...

Contrary to Rebecca, I do think you can talk about virtuosity in poetry, though this would imply a somewhat New Critical paradigm. For instance, a poet might write a monorhymed sonnet (that is, one with 14 different words with the same rhyme sound--quite a feat in English), or do a triple sestina or something that displays the poet's exceptional "skill" or "technique." Virtuosity here, however, has somewhat negative connotations--showing off, for instance.

Lyle Daggett said...

I saw a T.V. call-in show a number of years ago with Itzhak Perlman as the guest. A man called in who was starting to learn to play violin at the age of 40, not intending to become an accomplished musician, but for liesure enjoyment. He asked Perlman for any word or two of advice for a beginner.

Perlman immediately commented that posture is important in playing the violin -- he said there's a certain "sweet spot" on the strings, and finding the right posture helps in finding the right place on the strings to touch with the bow. That was the advice he gave, off the top of his head.

An interviewer on T.V. a number of years ago asked Miles Davis "How good would somebody have to be to play with you? Can you tell right away if a musician is that good?" Davis (in a slow gravelly voice -- it was a year or two before he died) said "You can tell a lot by the carriage."

"The carriage?" asked the interviewer.

Davis explained that he was talking about the way a musician carries, or holds, the intrument. He demonstrated with his own trumpet. "Somebody who's not there yet might hold it something like this" and he held it up to show what he meant. "But somebody who has it probably will hold it something more like this," and he held up the horn again. The second time, his grip was almost welded to the instrument, the horn had almost become a part of his body. Nothing timid or hesitant, no distance, it was total familiarity.

Virtuoso musicians, and virtuosos in any art, have a knack for homing in on what can seem, at first, almost peripheral details.

In my opinion and in my observation, poets I might describe as "virtuoso" often carry beat-up looking notebooks. If they write by hand (most poets I know do), they tend to settle on some type of pen, maybe cheap, maybe more pricy, but they tend to stick with it. (The pen doesn't make the poet great or a virtuoso, but it's something to be decided and gotten out of the way.)

In the actual poetry, virtuoso poets tend to pay a lot of attention to the use of prepositions, and the placement of commas. These can be more important in a poem than lines and line breaks and stanza breaks.

When reading to audiences, virtuoso poets concentrate on pronouncing the words clearly. This seems a simple and obvious thing, but poets who are still learning the "basics" frequently don't pay enough attention to it. (One of my early poetry teachers pointed out that our eyes typically read a page faster than our mouths can say the words. "Don't read eye speed," he said, "read mouth speed.")

Sorry, also, for the long-winded answer. Anyway some notions about this -- great post, it set me going.

Laine said...

Thank you to Anne and everybody else who has given me much to think about with this conversation. I won't draw out the details since my thoughts are more relevant to photography and music than poetry, but I thought you deserved to know your words are read and appreciated.