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 We find we both have small piles of unpublished - possible unpublishable?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.