Daniel Nester first became a minor god in my pantheon back in 2003, when his book of poems about the legendary glam/anthemic rock band Queen came out. Last year he blew off the dust that had been collecting on his angelic wings, when his essay about getting out of the (fucking awful) New York poetry-scene came out in The Morning News. A couple of days ago, he further burnished those wings when he complained on his blog about the narrow range of topics discussed in the demimonde of contemporary American poetry, a list that includes, among a few other things, “the literary feud news peg editorial” and “MFA hand-wringing." “Can we all assign ourselves a topic to write about?” he asked, yearning for a little range and variety in discussion.
When I read Nester’s post, I’d just emerged from a seminar room where I’d been talking about Coleridge’s aesthetics, which meant, among other things, that I’d been tossing around some of those grand old aesthetic categories — the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque. One of my students had observed that no one seems to talk about poetry in terms of the particular kinds of beauty it pursues, a comment that rang true. So I dropped an idea into Nester’s comment stream — why not talk about some of the effects of contemporary poetry in terms of some of the old aesthetic categories? The ones that seemed appropriate to the dominant poetic modes of our time didn’t seem like the big ones (beauty, the sublime), and while I’m convinced there’s a huge body of work that is, essentially, picturesque, this isn’t really a body of work I can get excited about. But another set of terms — Joseph Addison’s categorization of the different kinds of verbal wit — seemed pertinent enough to some of the more interesting currents in contemporary American poetry. Why not see how contemporary poetry looks through the old Addisonian telescope? There followed a comments-stream silence, people (perhaps unsurprisingly — I mean, one thing you can kind of count on in contemporary poetry is people not caring about the history of literary criticism and theory before, say, the middle of the twentieth century). But I’m intrigued enough to give it a try myself.
True, False, and Mixed Wit
Addison sketched out his schema of the varieties of wit in the the May 11th, 1711 issue of The Spectator. Addison took inspiration from a distinction he stumbled across in the writings of John Locke between judgment and wit: judgment, for Locke, was the capacity for discerning fine differences, whereas wit was a capacity for finding similarities. Hence, Locke concluded, the tittering wits of London were unlikely to have much good judgment; while the sage and sober men of judgment were unlikely to crack a smile at a bon mot — the latter being a prospect I find just a little bit terrifying. Addison praises Locke, then elaborates on the notion of wit as the capacity to find similarities, telling us that there’s more to it than just noticing that one’s mistresses’ eyes, being bright, are like the sun:
his is, I think, the best and most philosophical account that I have ever met with of wit, which generally, though not always, consists in such a resemblance and congruity of ideas as this author mentions. I shall only add to it, by way of explanation, that every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such an one that gives delight and surprise to the reader. These two properties seem essential to wit, more particularly the last of them. In order therefore that the resemblance in the ideas be wit, it is necessary that the ideas should not lie too near one another in the nature of things; for where the likeness is obvious, it gives no surprise. To compare one man's singing to that of another, or to represent the whiteness of any object by that of milk and snow, or the variety of its colors by those of the rainbow, cannot be called wit, unless, besides this obvious resemblance, there be some further congruity discovered in the two ideas that is capable of giving the reader some surprise. Thus when a poet tells us, the bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.
It’s a pretty good definition, as Addision himself isn’t too shy to mention, saying it “comprehends most of the species of wit, [such] as metaphors, similitudes, allegories, enigmas, mottoes, parables, fables, dreams, visions, dramatic writings, burlesque, and all the methods of allusion: as there are many other pieces of wit (how remote soever they may appear at first sight from the foregoing description) which upon examination will be found to agree with it.” John Donne’s famous extended comparison of two separated lovers as the two arms of a compass, in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” certainly fits the bill as a poem of wit. Here, the center, unmoving arm of the compass represents the woman left behind, and the other arm represents the man who returns. The surprising resemblance is that found between the compass and (shall we say) a certain physiological effect of the prospect of reunion on the returning, male lover.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,It leans, and hearkens after it,And grows erect, as it comes home.
The Motion Picture Association of America might label a film of the poem PG-13, but Addison would apply the far more civilized label “wit.” Or, more precisely, he’d label Donne’s poem a piece of “true wit,” since wit, for Addison, can be either true or false.
True wit, in this view, involves a substantial resemblance of ideas (the drawn-in compass really does have a similarity to the man’s anatomy), while false wit involves only a resemblance of words, or other verbal elements. “As true wit consists in the resemblance and congruity of ideas,” says Addison, false wit takes many forms: “sometimes of single letters, as in anagrams, chronograms, lipograms, and acrostics; sometimes of syllables, as in echoes and doggerel rhymes; sometimes of words, as in puns and quibbles; and sometimes of whole sentences or poems, cast into the figures of eggs, axes, or altars.” So: if the John Donne of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is a true wit, the George Herbert of “Easter Wings” is just some kind of asshole. So are punsters. I think I’m with Addison on puns — I mean, no one likes the guy who steps to you at the coffee machine and says “You know why mountains hear all your secrets? Huh huh? Because they have mountaineers! Get it? ‘Mountain’ ‘ears’? Mountaineers! Haw haw haw!” (This actually happened to me, and no jury would have convicted me if I’d hurled a cup of scalding java at the man).
There’s a middle ground, too, of middling worth, as far as Addison is concerned. Between the resemblance of ideas in true with and the verbal resemblances of false wit lies “mixed wit,” a species of wit combining resemblance of ideas with verbal resemblance. Such wit, says Addison, “is a composition of pun and true wit, and is more or less perfect as the resemblance lies in the ideas or the words: its foundations are laid partly in falsehood and partly in truth: reason puts in her claim for one half of it, and extravagance for the other.”
Wit and the English Compromise
Why, one wonders, does Addison, in 1711, hold up a wit based on ideas, reason, and resemblance of things in life over a wit based on verbal or phonetic cleverness without reference to the truth of the resemblance in life. Long story short, one can find the explanation in the social role of journals like The Spectator in eighteenth century England. More so than in any other European nation (with the possible exception of the Netherlands), the English were seeing a rise in trade, commerce, and finance, and a consequent rise of a bourgeois class without ties to the old landed aristocratic families. At the end of the seventeenth century England was developing a mercantile society as vibrant as any in Europe, with fortunes being made in the trade of textiles, paper, and metals, but it was the Financial Revolution of the 1690s that really allowed a new elite group, based on trade and finance rather than land, to emerge. The 1690s saw the founding of the stock market, the Bank of England, and the national debt, the last of which gave unprecedented power and influence to investors in public credit. There was a new branch of the elite out there, a sober bunch of people who’d clawed their way up through prudence and calculation. In this, they were unlike the bon-vivant aristocrats, inheritors of privilege.
Fortunately for England, there were no real legal barriers to the mixing of this new elite with the established one, and soon enough an amalgamated elite of bourgeois and aristocrats were in mixing together (what happens when such a mixing doesn’t occur, and the vital interests of new and old elites clash, can be seen in the events in France at the end of the eighteenth century).
The role of Addison’s various journals in this context was, essentially, to find a cultural ground in which these different elites could forge something like a common identity. This is why so much of Addison’s energy is spent defining taste (and why the eighteenth century is sometimes called “the age of taste”): if bloodlines no longer marked out elite status, something else had to, and taste was eminently suitable: it was exclusive, but could be acquired with effort and expense. Despite its gatekeeper-of-elite-status function, taste seemed neutral enough with regard to what had been the divisive issues of history. I mean, the essays on Milton in The Spectator are all about form, and tasteful lines — they’re devoid of mention of the whole Puritan/Anglican/Catholic contretemps that so animated Milton's imagination. In this context, the idea of true wit can be seen as a kind of compromise between the rational, hard-nosed, distrusting-of-mere-play viewpoint of the early commercial and financial bourgeoisie, and the more playful and aesthetic world of the hereditary landed classes. It’s all more complicated, but that’s the basic outline, and I’m guessing no one really wants to hear much more about the amalgamating social elites of England circa 1711 anyway. So: on to contemporary poetry and the forms of wit!
Wit and Experimental Poetry
I’m really in no position to make a claim as large as I’m about to make, but that’s not going to stop me from making it. The claim is this: the more likely a poet is to be identified with experimentalism, or linguistic innovation, the more likely he or she is to be a poet of what Addison would call false or mixed, rather than true, wit — because the poet is more likely to be drawing attention to language as language, and less likely to be oriented toward statements about the resemblance of things in the world. (Mixed wit points in both directions at once). I don’t mean to say that I take Addison’s valuation of one kind of wit over another at face value. In fact, I think most mixed wit tends to excite me a lot more than most of what Addison would call true wit, in the form of metaphors and the like.
One poet I admire immensely, Harryette Mullen, is often described as both experimental and as witty (by, among others, me). But what would Addison think? Surely he’d look at many of her lines as examples of false wit, as word play with no larger point behind it. The line “as silverware as it were,” say, from the poem “Wipe that Simile Off Your Aphasia” gives a witty phonetic resemblance between “silverware” and “was it were,” but doesn’t make much of a statement about anything in particular. But what about the verbally playful prose-poems for which she is best known? Here’s one, in its entirety:
Of a girl, in white, between the lines, in the spaces where nothing is written. Her starched petticoats, giving him the slip. Loose lips, a telltale spot, where she was kissed, and told. Who would believe her, lying still between the sheets. The pillow cases, the dirty laundry laundered. Pillow talk-show on a leather couch, slips in and out of dreams. Without permission, slips out the door. A name adores a Freudian slip.
So what have we got, wit-wise? Well, there’s the pun on petticoats “giving him the slip” — where slip refers to lingerie and to a kind of escape. This is followed right away by the reference to “loose lips,” which is bound to the previous statement loosely, with only the similarity in sound between “slip” and “ship” (an absent but implied word here, as it is loose lips that sink ships). We then get another bit of verbal play in the reference to the place “where she was kissed, and told,” in which we can hear a reference to the old saying “don’t kiss and tell.” This is reinforced by the notion of the “Pillow talk-show,” a kind of portmanteau-ing of “pillow talk” and “talk show.” So we’ve got quite a bit of verbal resemblances between phrases in the poem and platitudes/sayings outside it. But does is there anything that Addison would see as a resemblance in idea, anything like Donne’s compass arms? There’s some sort of implied statement lurking here about the making public of private eros, but the poem isn’t really referential enough to deal strongly in those resemblances in ideas that Addison thought of as essential to true wit.
Another one of Mullen’s prose poems, “Denigration,” takes on weightier issues, and does so with wit, for sure. But what kind of wit? Here it is:
Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children who reminded them of clean pickaninnies on a box of laundry soap? How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third longest river of the darkest continent? In the land of the Ibo, the Hausa and the Yoruba, what is the price per barrel of nigrescence?
The verbal resemblance between “niggling” and “nigrescence” (and, for that matter, of the title word “denigration”) and the most denigrating term for African-Americans is clear enough, and there’s the play on “picayune” and “pickaninny” — so we’re reminded, by analogy with the resemblance of words, of how racism manifests itself even in those places where we least expect it. The comparison of the Mississippi to the Niger river (the river near which the tribal groups Mullen mentions live) is important in this context, in that it reminds us that there are places where Africans are identified by tribe, not by race, and are certainly not identified by the denigrating American term for their race (the “price per barrel” business brings in the whole question of the Nigerian oil economy and the neo-colonialism it fosters, so the poem’s world is more complex than a simple Edenic Africa/fallen America dichotomy). Here, the verbal play is the most noticeable part of the poem, but it connects more strongly to issues beyond the poem than does the “Of a girl, in white” prose poem. In Addisonian terms, we’re in the realm of mixed wit — a rather politically pointed mixed wit.
The emphasis on false and mixed wit, as opposed to true wit (loaded terms, but I try to see them as neutral, descriptive concepts) in experimental poetry cries out for some kind of explanation. My guess is it’s to be found in the very different situation poetry inhabits now, compared to the Eighteenth century. In Addison’s time poets were part of a general discourse about things, and published their work side-by-side with all kinds of prose. No such thing as a poetry magazine existed. The writers of poetry weren’t even poets, in the sense of having a professional specialization, still less in the sense of being special, sensitive souls in the mode of Wordsworthian Romanticism. One wasn’t a poet, really, the way one is today, bearing credentials to certify the fact. Poetry was an activity, not an identity. It was something one did, not something that defined who one was. I mean, gossip for a guy like Addison — who wrote plenty of poetry, as well as the play, Cato, that made him famous in his day, and the essays by which we know him — wasn’t literary gossip, because there really wasn’t a literary world separate from other spheres, not in the way we know it today. You have to wait for the nineteenth century for that (you can still get the cream of nineteenth century literary gossip from the journals of the Goncourt brothers — no similar document exists for the eighteenth century).
This, of course, brings us back full circle, to the world about which Daniel Nester complains, where the poets spend too much time talking about themselves and their feuds, and where wringing one’s hands about the ongoing dominance of professionalization and the MFA programs is a disease and contagious and pervasive as the common cold. And try as we might to run from it, into fields as seemingly remote as eighteenth-century aesthetics, it catches up to us eventually.