The Art of Daring

By Carl Phillips


Graywolf Press
August 2014

Reviewed by Mike Puican


". . . there can no more be art than there can be a fully lived life if it doesn't involve routinely daring to act in the face of risk . . ."

In 2007, Graywolf Press launched its excellent The Art of series to "restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing." Each book, written by a practicing writer, focuses on a single aspect of the craft. The series covers a wide range of genres and topics. In poetry, they include syntax (Ellen Bryant Voigt), line (James Longenbach), description (Mark Doty), attention (Donald Revell), and recklessness (Dean Young).

The most recent volume is The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination by Carl Phillips. Phillips is an appropriate choice. His work, spanning twelve volumes of poetry, concerns itself with the charged subjects of moral relativity, desire, and risky sexual behavior. These subjects play an unexpected and provocative role in this book on poetic craft as well.

Phillips's thesis is that in writing and in life, daring begins with an internal restlessness. This restlessness pushes one to take risks, and it is only through significant risk-taking that daring work is possible.

He defines restlessness as an all-but-impossible-to-resist fascination with uncertainty, fueled by the desire to find more expressive ways to describe the experience of being human. He illustrates this through a wide range of poems including those by Juan Ramón Jiménez, Shakespeare, Gayle Jones, Loraine Niedecker, Louise Bogan, and Muriel Rukeyser. He skillfully guides the reader through close readings that illustrate each poet's risk-taking and daring.

Phillips includes himself in the discussion as well. Early on, he talks about his process of writing a poem: "I tend to begin writing a poem with a sense that I know how to navigate the territory I'm entering—it's not until the end, or more likely halfway through, that I remember the truth, abandon myself again to being lost, and just hope to arrive somewhere wiser, though no less lost, in one piece." For Phillips, allowing oneself to embrace uncertainty is essential to creating daring work.

He applies the same work-things-out-as-I-go approach to the writing of this book. For example, he grapples with many different definitions of restlessness. Along with the one mentioned above, he also describes it as: a state of hauntedness that pushes the poet toward what feels like failure; boredom with what is already known; the desire to abandon ourselves to what we suspect we should resist; the ambition to better define the unknown; and the anxiety of wanting to be loved by an unreliable audience.

He begins a section entitled "Poetry, Love and Mercy" with an elaborate description of a poetic quality he calls mercy. He immediately follows this with a description of an older friend walking into a marsh to pick raspberries, which causes him to question his entire argument. "Already I'm not certain that mercy is the right term for what I mean, at all." Phillips not only espouses the notion of embracing uncertainty, he enacts it. He is less interested in arriving at a single answer than in thinking and re-thinking to uncover nuance and complexity in his ideas.

Frequently the discussion moves from creating daring poetry to leading a more daring, authentic life. "I've become increasingly interested," he says, "in how poems work in relationship to life as it becomes . . . unmoored."

He discusses one of his own poems, saying that it was inspired by watching two men have rough sex with a younger man. He describes the younger man's smile of satisfaction and contentment after the men were done with him and asks whether the younger man was the victim or the master of the situation. He says, "There's a kind of sex that is less about power than about the unpredictability—and the flexibility—with which that power gets divided." Phillips argues for a more flexible morality, one that is not rigidly prescriptive about what is right and wrong. While this may be troubling, it can, he says, lead to a more empathetic and expansive view of the world. 

In the final section, titled "Daring," the boundaries between Phillips's writing life and private life are completely blurred. He begins with a brief description of the men with whom he has had long-term relationships and says that his commitment to the idea of restlessness and risk-taking has led to twelve books of poetry and, he admits, "a string of increasingly reckless, unstable, even dangerous engagements when it comes to my life off the page."  

Then, in the midst of the discussion of leading a "fully lived life," he abruptly shifts to a disturbing sexual encounter. Phillips takes us to a seedy apartment where he meets another man for an arranged S&M encounter:

I stripped on arrival, as I'd been told I would. He asked if I understood what I'd agreed to: to trust him, to do exactly what he said, to resist nothing. And I understood. I said I did.

. . .

But when he tried to fuck me, I resisted, and he became enraged . . . He told me he was definitely going to fuck me now, but without a condom on; and having said that, he made me beg him to breed me, meaning fuck me bareback, and I begged him to. He fucked me slowly, deliberately, without a condom, then rough, to make it hurt on purpose. He made me say I loved it. He made me love it, I want to say, but that can't be true. He withdrew, jammed his cock in my mouth, came inside it. And when I cried, he told me to fucking grow up. He knocked me to the floor and kicked my head and chest with the boots I only now noticed, mesmerized, he'd never removed.

So that we don't think that this was some abusive event from the distant past, Phillips tells us it happened just a year ago.

This encounter is not the sole focus of the section. He includes poems by other authors and discusses how they make daring statements. But Phillips's account of this sexual encounter dominates the section. In fact, it dominates the book. Has a book dedicated to the craft of writing ever included such explicit, autobiographical material from an esteemed educator and writer? Clearly, Phillips is not only interested in describing daring, he wants to wholeheartedly participate in it.

However, this is not a poem or a personal essay but a book on craft. Phillips argues that the approach to creating daring work is similar to the approach to living a daring, more fully realized life. Similar? Perhaps. But not identical. While sharing the graphic sexual details of his life is an example of—an embodiment of—risk-taking, we have to ask how it applies to the creation of art.

Earlier in the book, Phillips makes the distinction that "poetry is, after all, the transformation of experience, not the transcription of it." Unfortunately, this raw and unmediated description provides little synthesis or perspective that make its inclusion here very instructive.

Phillips argues that a work is only daring when we know the extent to which the author has taken a risk. To reinforce this, on the last page of the book, he offers a final revelation—that he has shared this event with very few people. This revelation is designed to demonstrate how much risk he has taken by sharing it with the public. While it is impressively daring, it provides little direction for someone who wants to write daring poems. Many poems, including those that Phillips gives as examples, can be admired for their daring by reading them in the context of what has already been written. While they may create an intriguing personal story, intimate details of a poet's life are not necessarily the criteria with which to evaluate a daring piece of art.

Despite this, The Art of Daring: Risk, Relentlessness, Imagination provides many insights into what it takes to create daring poetry. And, following Phillips's invitation to embrace the unexpected, it also presents ideas that, while they may not fit within an expected format (or even within the stated objectives of a series on craft), do offer a thought-provoking exploration into the risks and challenges of living a more authentic life.