Lawrence Raab: “POETRY AND STUPIDITY”
One of the shortest and most provocative pieces in Paul Valéry’s “A Poet’s Notebook” reads in its entirety:
these two categories. The category of stupidity and that of poetry.
I can’t recall when I first read this, but I remember thinking it was true. Also funny. Also like some zen koan designed to knock me on the head. Was it true because it was so obviously untrue? Or because it seemed to provide no way to ascertain its truth? Or perhaps I just believed it because I didn’t want to feel stupid.
That Valéry’s equation didn’t appear to make sense was a plus for me. Did it even want to make sense? A little further down the same page, I found:
This was spikier, more aggressively funny. Or maybe not funny at all. And obscurity, unlike ambiguity, somehow seemed connected to stupidity—how dumb you felt when you didn’t get the joke.
Setting aside the truth, Valéry’s equation of poetry and stupidity is a brilliant provocation. But to what end? It feels like a riddle, which makes it a metaphor, or more precisely a simile: Poetry is like stupidity because…. But no single answer appears to have been promised. Instead there are those “subtle relations,” which someone with a rich, rapid, and disciplined mind might easily perceive.
But how to get even close to an answer? The most surprising word—stupidity—seems like the logical way in. Had Valéry written of the subtle relations between ambiguity and poetry we would not be surprised. It would appear obvious, ambiguity being one of poetry’s tools. Had he spoken of confusion and poetry, we’d probably be intrigued, but not thrown off balance. Surely poetry can use confusion as a strategy; let’s hear more. But can it use stupidity? And have we already wandered from the central question, which was not use but relationship? After all, if stupidity consorts with subtlety it changes into cunning. Or seems to.
To confuse matters further, “stupidity” is not Valéry’s word, but the choice of his translator, Denise Folliot in my edition of The Art of Poetry (Vintage, 1961). Valéry’s word is “bétise,” which he selected over the more seemingly appropriate “stupidité.” My Larousse gives “foolish” as the primary meaning of “bétise,” and it may be useful to follow the implications of “foolishness,” which makes sense, even if it may make too much sense.
A poet fools around with words. And that’s one way of getting a poem started—just playing, not asserting a concept or an idea, because as Valéry says (also in “A Poet’s Notebook”), “If you want to write verse and you begin with thoughts, you begin with prose.” Redefining “stupidity” as “foolishness” feels both right and inadequate, as if the riddle’s answer were too easy. On the other hand, are we looking for an answer, or are we trying to discover those elusivve “subtle relations”? “The proper object of poetry,” Valéry writes, becoming oracular again, “is what has no single name, what in itself provokes and demands more than one expression.”
One of the appealing aspects of “foolishness” for me is the way it suggests a Shakespearean fool, that character who always has the cleverest, most difficult, and most profound lines, a poet, in other words, in disguise. I think particularly of Lear’s fool.
Wordplay is the fool’s essential weapon. His mind is richer, more rapid, freer, and more disciplined than Lear’s, who commits the disasterously foolish act of dividing his kingdom, then exiling the one daughter who loves him. The fool is determined to make Lear aware of what he’s done:
Fool: Nuncle, give me an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.
Lear: What two crowns shall they be?
Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ th’ middle and gav’st away both parts, thou bor’st thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav’st thy golden one away.
Riddles are one of the oldest forms of poetry, and the fool’s wit often reveals itself in riddle-like questions. What are the two parts of an egg like? Answer: the king. Who besides the fool is a fool? The king again. “Thou had’st pared thy wit o’ both sides,” the fool says, “and left nothing i’ the middle.” (I,iv,177-178) This fooling around is serious business, the stakes being the sanity of the king and the fate of his kingdom, not to mention the life of the fool.
Lear is distracted but not yet mad when his fool begins to taunt him, licensed as the fool is to tell the truth, reluctant as he is to tell it directly. Lear must see it for himself, but the king doesn’t care to play the fool’s games. And yet if he could engage in these riddles he would be thinking metaphorically, which means seeing one thing in terms of something else. His inability to see himself in terms of someone else—Cordelia, for example—starts the ruinous spiral of the play.
Lear: Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Fool: Lear’s shadow.
If he could solve this he might yet rescue himself. “Lear’s shadow” is both the answer to the question and the way to find the answer. Lear has become the shadow of himself, the fool suggests. But also, Lear’s shadow, the diminished thing, can still tell him who he is, just as that part of him who is the fool shadows Lear, and tells him who he is, and fails, and disappears from the play.
King Lear, we might say, is—in part—about the failure of metaphor, meaning the failure of art.
4. BLUNDERS AND ERRORS
My friend John, who knows French well, tells me that “stupidité” implies an utter lack of intelligence, whereas “bétise” is a sort of capacity to commit blunders or errors in judgment. Blunders and errors are intriguing when connected to poetry, though perhaps too much like fooling around. If the poet begins by playing with language, unaware of where the words might lead him, blunders and errors are inevitable. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to think that at this point everything is blundering—fumbling around helplessly in the dark—in which case errors are actually impossible because no context exists in which to declare that any gesture should be called an error. There are only possibilities, some richer than others. There is only what might come next.
Not perceiving what might come next is important. To know too quickly the “idea” of the poem would be to lock it in place, to turn the process of composition into translation—how can this thought be expressed poetically? The poet must value not understanding, that kind of stupidity.
The poet must also know when to become smart. This begins with the discovery of the true subject of the poem, the siurprise of recognizing what could not have been predicted. “In prose,” Valéry writes, “one can draw up a plan and follow it!” In a poem the plan gets assembled as the poem comes into being, as the poet gradually becomes aware of where to go, which is where the language of apparent blunders and errors has been leading. If the poet needs to be stupid, he also needs to be alert. There is a subtle relationship between these two categories.
The making of a poem is rarely a singular act, more often an extended process. At some point, alertness turns into an awareness of content, as well as a certain range of possibilities and limitations. Once that context has been sensed, blunders and errors can be identified. The process of revision begins, even if at any moment the poem may need to be dismantled and re-envisioned.
It occurs to me that it is impossible to know what Valéry considers the subtle relations between poetry and stupidity. Of course there may be clues in the many essays of his I haven’t read. But I like the idea of not knowing, even of imagining that Valéry had no idea what he meant. What’s the point then? The point is the challenge to see what connections we might stumble over, then imagine. Valéry urges us to wander, and to be alert.
So there is a significant leap between King Lear and revision, but also an important connection. If Lear could revise himself, re-envision how he conceives of his relation to others, he might save himself and Cordelia. Yet I have no reason to believe Valéry was entertaining this line of thought. He could have been thinking about a different play. He could have been thinking about dinner. Or a poem about a pear. The leap itself is what his lines urge us toward—less a particular idea than a way of arriving at ideas.
As I’ve suggested, there’s a usefulness to errors and blunders. First drafts are full of them. The point is not to try to avoid them, but to use them as ways of getting to the next, better sentence. The experienced writer is wary about applying critical intelligence too quickly. When linked to stupidity, the progression of a poem may involve a period of resonant vacancy. This can lead to an openness to chance, which might also serve as one definition of inspiration.
The excitement of writing a poem is not the following of a plan but the discovery of a subject. And I like to think of those discoveries as inspiration, an inspiration that doesn’t precede the making of the poem, but is summoned into being by the poet’s engagement with language—fooling around, and then being critical, and then fooling around again. Beginning poets need to learn how to be stupid. That is, they must find a way to embrace a kind of vacancy—we might call it day-dreaming—that results in the acceptance of interesting language no matter where it might lead.
In Valéry’s remark on poetry and stupidity, what at first seemed like a problem—what sense does it make?—now feels like an opportunity, a prompt, a kind of assignment—Connect these two words if you can—which might lead to that state of receptivity out of which metaphors, and then poems, can be made.
But what about the reader? Fair enough to link poetry and poet, but does Valéry’s claim make any sense if we connect poetry and reader? At first, no. Who wants a stupid reader? Or one with the inclination to commit errors of judgment. But what about a reader who values “vacancy,” that reluctance to require too quickly the meaning of the poem, that awareness of the dangers of paraphrase? This reader allows the poem to surprise him, just as it once surprised the poet by revealing its content—just as we were surprised by Valéry’s audacious linking of the high (poetry) and the low (stupidity).
Elsewhere in “A Poet’s Notebook” Valéry wonderfully defines metaphor as “what happens when one looks in a certain way” [his emphasis]. I’ve always valued the insistence on action here. Insofar as a metaphor happens, it is a dramatic moment, like an act a character in a play must perform—slam a door, un-sheath a dagger, rip off his own clothes—because of what he has been made to feel. Metaphor is a revelation of sensibility.
But there is a third word in Valery’s remark which, along with poetry and stupidity, is repeated twice, and that is “category” (ordre). So far I have emphasized the process of both writing and reading, and considered stupidity and poetry in this light. But “category” seems much more static and singular—a classification, a way of dividing a system into specific units. Linked by being part of a larger system, poetry and stupidity appear to be necessary to each other.
Poems, however, are different from poetry. They are its multiple parts. Moreover, poetry as a classification is always being redefined. It no longer corresponds, as it once seemed to, with “verse,” which now carries a reduced sense of significance, and is often preceded by the word “light.” Moreover, we usually speak of “free verse,” but of “formal poetry,” as if the formalists, being in power much longer, got to claim the more substantial word and so diminish the authority of their rivals.
To consider poetry as a category, a basic proposition might be to say that poetry is a kind of writing, variously defined. But in relation to Valéry this doesn’t take us very far. What may be helpful is that sense of a “category” as being static, basic, knowable, one kind of thing, or one class of things. Interestingly, “category” is never given by the Larousse as a synonym for “ordre.” Instead we are offered “class,” but before that the more fluid “method,” thus returning us to our earlier sense of process. And how much more sensible and less threatening—and less funny—Valéry’s equation would be if translated as: ‘There are subtle relations between these two methods. The method of poetry and that of foolishness.’ Yes, we would say. Yes, there are.
However reasonable it may be to speak of the “category” of poetry, it seems rather comic to speak of the category of stupidity. There certainly are different kinds of stupidities, and perhaps they are even classifiable, but the prospect of trying seems enormously frustrating and—well—worthless. Could this be Valéry’s aim: to make us stupid enough to try and then smart enough to recognize our failure? To make us think and then defeat our thinking?
“Category” lends stupidity a kind of philosophical, or scientific, aura. To consider the idea of “category,” then, is to raise the ante of the joke. But of course Valéry’s lines don’t add up to a joke because there is no punch-line, therefore no conclusion, no answer, no resolution. It’s as if, in the treacherous language of categories—of certainties that restrict and contain—Valéry only pretends to instruct us. Worrying about the value and meaning of the particular words he and his translator use both baffles and complicates the game.
In his introduction to The Art of Poetry, T.S. Eliot writes that “Valéry is not primarily interested in teaching his readers anything. He is perpetually engaged in solving an insoluble problem—the puzzle of how poetry gets written.” Even more than the solvable sense of foolishness, the resistant, blunt force of stupidity, along with category, combine to form an essential part of this insinuating if impossible puzzle.
Since every metaphor must break down at some point, by showing us the collision of stupidity and poetry, Valéry creates a metaphor that seems already to have broken down. Our task is not to reassemble it, but to wonder about where trying to might lead us, and how subversive our thinking might then usefully become.
Lawrence Raab is the author of eight collections of poems, including The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009), A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose (Adastra Press, 2012), and Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts (Tupelo, 2015), which was nominated for the National Book Award, and named as one of the ten best poetry books of 2015 by The New York Times. A collection of his essays, Why Don’t We Say What We Mean?, will be published in December of 2016. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.