Poetry and Cleverness
By Eli Siegel
There is something very unusual regarding the word cleverness. In some places clever has meant good-natured, and mild—it still can in New England. Sometimes there has been a misunderstanding because that is so. And the word has a very mysterious etymology. It seems that on the one hand it has meant yielding and soft, sweet and good-natured; and on the other, the meaning has come to be, and now is predominantly, adroit. So in its usage among English-speaking peoples there seems to be a situation of contraries.
When we think of cleverness we think of somebody being easy in doing a difficult thing, and the relation between the two meanings of the word can be found in the word easy. Somebody who is good-natured seems to be easy, and somebody who is clever seems to be doing something that people would think hard, with ease. If anybody could do some typing with his little toe, that would be clever. If anybody could carry an orange on his nose in a difficult situation, that would be clever. And if anybody in a tight spot can tell such stories that he gets out of the tight spot, he’s clever. Whenever you can do that which most people would look on as difficult, or as hardly to be done at all, with some ease, you’re clever.
The word has come to be most often on the shady side. And also, we don’t associate it with something very big. For example, we don’t say that Milton was very clever because he wrote Paradise Lost. We associate the word clever with the lesser things. Let’s say somebody is in a big battle and is so adroit that he changes defeat into victory—we would not say he was clever; it’s too big a thing for that. And if somebody writes a new kind of symphony and it’s good, we won’t say he is a clever composer; we’ll use a bigger word.
The word clever, though, is important in art, because the ability to do a big thing should be seen as going along with the ability to do something very minute. For example, one of the reasons Shakespeare is important (despite the distaste that many people have had for him) is that, while being able to manage a murderous character like Lady Macbeth or perhaps Macbeth, he can also show what he can do with vowels and consonants, and he makes the vowels and consonants work easily. All melody in music or poetry is a conquering of the possibilities of not-melody; that is, if you can talk in a musical manner it is presumed that, one, you’ve conquered nothingness, and two, you’ve conquered the possibility of harshness. If a person can write musically and follow restrictions, it means that he can meet what is difficult as if it weren’t difficult. That is in art.
When people first think of poetry, they think, “Oh, gee, he rhymed three times—mmm, that’s wonderful!” And if you rhyme five times, they want to give you a prize. If you do all sorts of things that people haven’t thought persons could do—“Gee whiz, this rhymes—every line!” It rhymes, and that is what people associate with poetry. There is a feeling rhyming is so important because it is difficult. People, unless they try it very often, find that it’s not so easy to rhyme, and particularly to make sense when rhyming; so they think that rhyming is the big thing in poetry.
A person who is interested in poetry should be able to rhyme even if he or she never does so. You can write free verse all the time; you should still be able to rhyme. But it doesn’t happen to be the big thing making for poetry. The ability to rhyme is a pretty clever ability, or something representing cleverness, and it should be had. However, the large thing is something more.
There is a feeling that a good speaker is one who can twist words around. You deal with words as if they were subordinates and you the executive; you just twist them around.
Cleverness & Thomas Hood
There definitely are all kinds of happenings in literature that have to do with cleverness, which is next door to adroitness: a person can pun; a person can do things that people didn’t expect, with words. There is a poem, for example, that is a clever poem in the ordinary sense of the word, written by a complex person, Thomas Hood. He wrote “The Song of the Shirt,” but he also could get some of the most terrible things into humorous verse. For instance, he has a poem called “Faithless Nelly Gray,” which is about a man who loses his leg and, instead of what happened in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, his girlfriend doesn’t want to have much to do with him. That is supposed to be a humorous poem, and has puns all over the place.
But take this obvious bit of cleverness by Hood, called “A Nocturnal Sketch.” This is the only poem of any note that has three rhymes at the back—at the end of each line. And that is hard. Just listen:
Even is come; and from the dark Park, hark,
The signal of the setting sun—one gun!
And six is sounding from the chime, prime time
To go and see the Drury-Lane Dane slain,
Or hear Othello’s jealous doubt spout out,
Or Macbeth raving at that shade-made blade,
Denying to his frantic clutch much touch.
Now puss, while folks are in their beds, treads leads,
And sleepers waking, grumble—“Drat that cat!”
Who in the gutter caterwauls, squalls, mauls
Some feline foe, and screams in shrill ill will.
But Nursemaid, in a nightmare rest, chest-pressed,
Dreameth of one of her old flames, James Games,
And that she hears—what faith is man’s!—Ann’s banns
And his, from Reverend Mr. Rice, twice, thrice....1
There is a seriousness to the poem. It is about what goes on in London in the evening, and the first line is quite beautiful: “Even is come; and from the dark Park, hark.” But you can’t do this continually.
We have a description of Hamlet very shortly: “To go and see the Drury-Lane Dane slain.” Also, we have a pretty good description of what happens in Macbeth: “Or Macbeth raving at the shade-made blade, / Denying to his frantic clutch much touch.” That’s what happens: he clutches a knife that is also a shadow, or a shadow that is also a knife (“Is this a dagger which I see before me...?”). We also have Othello: “Or hear Othello’s jealous doubt spout out.”
Then we have a description of cats; then a description of a woman’s nightmare that a friend of hers is marrying the wrong person, the woman’s own “old flame.” We have, really, sense being made all the way through. And there is an effect—particularly in that first line, which is very desolate: “Even is come; and from the dark Park, hark.”
Now, that has poetry, and it is a tour de force. It is clever because most people don’t think of language as having three rhymes at the end of each line or idea.
Some Ways of Cleverness
People have gone to all kinds of lengths with cleverness. There were poems long ago in which writers tried to leave one letter out all the way through. And there are poems—acrostics—in which, when the first letter of each line is read consecutively from top to bottom, these spell a word or phrase, maybe a girl’s name. There have been poems that have been shaped like a pair of wings, and poems shaped like a bottle, and poems shaped like a hat. And you may remember that in Alice in Wonderland there is a poem shaped like a mouse’s tail.
These things are difficult. The question in each instance is, is it worth doing? Sometimes, yes.
Maybe somebody wanted to show that he could write a sentence and have the verb be in French, the noun be in English, the adjective be in Russian, the adverb be in Rumanian, the conjunction be in German, and the preposition be in Greek. I suppose you could do it. Whether it would help the cause of nations, I’m not sure. But it would be clever, because cleverness is the ability to do a difficult thing in such a way that it seems to be less difficult. That is something to go for, because it is a principle in art. Whenever the not-easy is done gracefully, there is a kind of beauty.
The most famous thing, perhaps, in outward cleverness in the English language is the thing that every Victorian schoolchild would have to memorize; the thing by the person with the strange name that was made fun of by the wits of the time (and even Victorian times had wits), Alaric Alexander Watts—he was called Attila. This is an alliterative poem. Every word in a line begins with the same letter, and the lines are in alphabetical order, from A to Z. So you have the whole alphabet in the poem. Meanwhile, what is said is more or less historically true. It is about the time the Austrians took Belgrade from the Turks. That was likely in 1789 (though Belgrade was taken and retaken so often you can’t be sure). “The Siege of Belgrade” is a clever poem, and the first line is as well known as any in English:
An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting—furious fray!
Generals ’gainst generals grapple—gracious God!
How honors Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill,
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labor low levels longest, loftiest lines;
Men march ’mid mounds, ’mid moles, ’mid murderous mines....2
Well, that has remained. The L line is the vaguest. And some of this seems very forced. But once such a thing is done, it doesn’t have to be done again—no one has to try. You have it; it shows that a person can do it. Nearly every Victorian schoolchild knew the first two lines, anyway: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.” They are the two best lines.
Cleverness That Goes Very Far
It is possible, for example, for a person to write a story and leave out a letter, not use the letter at all. Whether one should spend one’s time this way is another matter. It has been spent in ways like that. In fact, one of the books happening to be here is definitely mad. It is a long poem called Alliteration: An Alliterated Allocution by the Letter A Against Alcohol. It’s by Rev. James Nelson Hulme and was published in 1882. This is something that goes so far that it makes the things of Hood and Watts look very sensible.
What this poem does is have every word begin with A. I’ll give you a sample—what straining! This is cleverness that goes so far that one just gets stupefied:
...Adduce all argument; accelerate
Activity aright; and agitate
Ale-drenched Albion; and appropriate
Admonition all about aggregate
America, Arrack-drugged Asia,
And all around adusted Africa.
As Apostles, awake all Anglia,
And Anglia’s adjacent area.
At Axminster, Amersham, Abingdon;
Ancaster, Allendale, and Accrington;
Alberbury, Attercliffe, Alderney;
Appleby, Ambleside and Adderley;
Ashton-Under-Lyne, Axbridge and Acklam,
Aldershot, Arundel and Altringham;
Aldstone, Ackworth, Alnwick, Almondbury....
Every word in every line begins with A—through the whole book.
This is cleverness that gets into perilous territory, and I do consider it one of the mad books. There are books, however, madder than this.