The Deepest Kind of Cleverness
Dear Unknown Friends:
We have reached the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and Cleverness. In this final section, to illustrate what cleverness is, he uses passages from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, a satiric poem cared for immensely from the time it was first published, in 1662.
Cleverness is something people want very much to have; yet they also despise themselves for their cleverness. It’s something they both admire and detest in others. There is a tremendous mix-up in people about cleverness, because the difference between good cleverness, beautiful cleverness, and ugly, hurtful cleverness has not been understood. As I wrote in the last issue, we can distinguish between these only through knowing about the fundamental fight Aesthetic Realism has shown to be in every person: the constant fight between the desire to respect the world honestly and the desire to have contempt for it. Authentic cleverness comes from respect for the world. False cleverness—and that includes cruel, sleazy cleverness—comes from contempt for the world.
And here is a big reason for this lecture’s importance: through seeing what cleverness is, in art and elsewhere, we can know what we are looking for, tumultuously aching for, in ourselves. The following landmark Aesthetic Realism principle is true about cleverness: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Cleverness, Mr. Siegel has been showing, always brings together (whether truly or falsely) the opposites of difficulty and ease, largeness and smallness. To be clever, he says, is to do “something that people would think hard, with ease.”
The most awful, vicious, filthy, harmful “cleverness” is also enormously frequent. It is the cleverness of making that largest of things, truth, something oneself can manage, toy with, treat lightly.
There Are Beauty & Contempt
At the end of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about what he calls “the deepest kind” of good cleverness. It is that which looks honestly at the “burdensome,” the “horrible,” and through the honesty gets to lightness. So it is right to follow the final section of Poetry and Cleverness with a poem by Eli Siegel himself, a poem that has magnificently, thrillingly, this “deepest kind of cleverness.”
First, though, a little about what contempt often does with the horrible and the lightsome (which are forms of the opposites difficulty and ease). The world of course has the horrible. It has things that are repellent, repulsive. Yet people can get a triumph feeling that the disgusting is that which runs the world, that life itself is dreary, that what one meets is one burden after another. This is the triumph of contempt. It’s the miserable but conceited feeling that we are too good for the world we somehow got into. Within contempt is the sense that to see value, meaning, beauty, wonder in things is a humiliation because it would mean we’d have to look up to what’s not us rather than feel superior.
Then there’s what contempt does with lightness. Very much can be said about that. But essentially, contempt gets to lightness not through wanting to see meaning but through taking meaning away. So there is the lightness, often around, of the vacuous giggle. And there is ever so much sneering humor that makes for the awful lightness of emptiness because the purpose is to lessen the value of things and feel superior to them.
When We Feel Opposites as One
It is an urgent matter to see that the uninviting and charm can be together truly; that difficulty and buoyancy can be felt authentically as one. This, Mr. Siegel has been showing, is what happens through the cleverness that is in real art. And nowhere does it happen more mightily and kindly, playfully and deeply, musically and logically, than in his own poem “Also Not Liking You: Observations on Sickness in Verse or Anywhere.”
About that phrase “Sickness in Verse”: In 1970, when Eli Siegel wrote this poem, the word sick was sometimes used as a stylistic term for much artwork of the time, work that put forth the repulsive (e.g. “sick art,” “sick poetry”). He was making fun a bit of both the nomenclature (which didn’t last) and some of the art. But “Also Not Liking You” goes far beyond any contemporary references. It is about the world and people of any time. And it is vibrantly immortal.
I find it affecting that both Hudibras and “Also Not Liking You” are composed of 4-beat rhymed couplets. The nature of the couplets is different, yet those in both poems are wonderful, musical, and wild. Eli Siegel’s have more flexibility, variation. They’re more lyrical in their sharpness than Butler’s very fine ones of nearly 300 years before, from which an enduring literary term arose: “the Hudibrastic couplet.”
“Also Not Liking You” was published in 1989, in issue 843 of this journal. My comment on it there was not meant to be about cleverness. But looking at the comment, I see it does describe in outline how the poem is “cleverness of the deepest kind”—and most beautiful kind. I wrote:
In the great and humorous lines of “Also Not Liking You,” what can sicken is described unremittingly, with no soothing decoration. Yet as the poet tells about each unwelcome thing with the energetic exactitude it deserves—it is interesting! And the variety of the unpleasant gets to be a lively dance. In this poem—in the words’ meaning, rhythm, rhyme, musical sound—energy and the tedious are one. Disgust and wonder are one. Neatness and mess are one. Drag and jump are one. The unbearable and the charming are one. Aesthetic Realism says, Opposites as one are the structure of the world; and when we feel opposites as one in art, and like it, we are respecting and liking the world.