Friday, 2 July 2010


I remember cleverness as a pejorative term, or it was so used by one former editor. Cleverness was something show-offs indulged in, and was therefore a vice.

What then was its opposite virtue? Certainly not dumbness or clumsiness. Simplicity perhaps, the preference for what we are pleased to call 'the simple heart'.

Cleverness implied ostentatiousness and falsehood. Or if it could, with some effort, be associated with play, then it was damned with triviality. Mere cleverness. No-one was accusing Shakespeare's sonnets or Donne's conceits of mere cleverness, but it was in some way unbecoming and empty when applied to much contemporary verse.

Why was that? In Shakespeare's and Donne's case there was the extenuating factor of passion, the most valued of the emotions. How could you be passionate when you were being clever in our time? Surely cleverness implied detachment, a transferring of attention from the large and central to the small and incidental.

The Victorians' love of word games was held against them, and certainly some of their games seem a little heavy footed now, but then they were full of games. And maybe that was why we didn't like games and cleverness. It was because we didn't like the Victorians.

So it turns round on itself. Intelligence isn't always a good thing in poets, said the same editor. But no heart is simple, certainly not in poetry. It expands vast energy on looking simple when it isn't, and that too is a form of cleverness. But no, comes the answer. It is simply that complexity, when properly concentrated, is reduced through pressure to simplicity. That's how it works. So there you are, Mr Clever-clever.

I don't know about all this. I like high spirits in poetry and I love words. I love to see words tumbling like a good tumbler, or running along the high wire and skipping. I think skipping and tumbling is a serious business. At heart, I think it is heart business.

I have been exchanging notes about this with Alfred C. who is a very fine and diverse poet. We find we both have small piles of unpublished - possible unpublishable? - funny or playful poems. Well, playful anyway. In play lies discovery, and in discovery excitement, and through excitement passion, because it is genuine excitement.

Which is not clever-clever, just clever. Clever enough to stay on the tightrope, or tumble without breaking its neck while the solemn world looks on, or away, a little embarrassed by the whole thing. Bread and circuses, it mumbles. Cheap tricks. Sincere people don't smile or crack jokes. They look like this. See this straight face, these pursed lips, and these melancholy eyes? Like this.

Not so cheap, neither.


Tim Love said...

When I read up on this for my Srange Forms article I chained together some quotes about cleverness - by the 18th century the reaction against “false wit” was well established. ... Addison blamed English monks with too little talent and too much spare time for reviving these Latin and Greek tricks. ... the steamroller of 18th century neoclassicism and rationalism followed by the Romantic revolution broke a tradition which has never fully recovered. .. Word-play survived in the UK amongst the masses as parlour games, in advertising, and in the popular “Miscellania” publications of Victorian times. Freed of the lyrical imperative, post-modernism revived ludic interest

I think it's considered polite nowadays to hide cleverness (especially if it's of the "mere" variety) but there's a risk that the cleverness won't be noticed. I've just managed to get a poem into the Ver Poets and Templar anthos. It's an anti-"Poem of Place" - the persona gets memories of Greece, India, etc mixed up. It's called "Port Selda". Workshopping the poem revealed that no-one noticed how the rhyme/syllable scheme and some of the vocab was from "Adlestrop", and that when the persona describes the scene as "not backward, just ethnic" it's a hint about what to do with the title.

George S said...

Thank you, Tim. That's an excellent article, a properly researched piece. I'm sure you are right about the effect of the Romantic revolution. There is always the comic Byron (Byron who adored Pope above anyone else) as the exception that proves the rule, but Wordsworth is rarely intentionally funny as I recall.

I do think Oulipo is fascinating. I heard Jacques Roubaud read in Rotterdam and found it moving and funny and substantial. It is not that I desire to be an Oulipan as such - I do take the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads seriously - but there is something vital about the Oulipo spirit that serves to bridge the Romantic chasm between wit and imagination.

I like the idea of your Port Selda / Adlestrop poem. There are two levels to the reading, I suspect: one based on Edward Thomas's poem, the other based on the sentimental gauze through which the poem is generally regarded. Ideally I'd want to keep the first and nibble away at the second.

Alfred Corn said...

Here's a candidate for a term opposite in meaning from "clever": "sobersides," or perhaps "po' faced." Late-career Auden remarked that it had become impossible to speak of serious subjects in poetry without an undertone of humour. Was he being too clever? Don't think so.

George S said...

I suspect that sobersides
Form the bulk of suicides,
The po-face frozen into mask.
Is there a joke there? No, don't ask.
The sobersides' plain epitaphs
Rarely provide a man with laughs.

Actually, I write that, but am not sure I quite believe it.

I am just reviewing Peter Porter's posthumous 400pp selected poems, 'The Rest on the Flight'. For someone who distrusted poetry so much he wrote a great deal of it. He too was an Auden man and, like Auden, was unafraid of high-culture, but his God was sterner, a touch more puritan than Auden's, or so I suspect. Humour was vital to Porter too, it is just that the laughter, considering the god in question, was blacker and more bitter. Auden could have a lark. I don't think Porter is ever larky. But po-faced? Never. The laughter is in the bones.

John Green said...

Excellent post. AND thanks for the strange forms link, both of which are useful in a project I'm working on for my PhD work at the moment.

I love doctor Johnson's fourth definition note on clever in his 1755 dictionary:

"This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversations; and applied to anything a man likes without a settled meaning."

I think College's cleverness as "genius for instrumentality, brains in the hands" represents the transition to the intellectually inflected definition ( Ruskin, I imagine made it weatherwornin the mid century).

We weren't just sick of it, no? Wilde cheekily notes that the term had lost any meaning in earnest.