“If it were possible to state the relationship between competence and wit in terms of an equation, it might be something like wit = competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence. This automatically suggests that irony plays a part in wit. I am not just thinking of irony, however, in the flattened-out sense of sarcasm or “blank” pastiche (though these categories might also be applicable at times). I’m considering irony as a sensibility grounded in various manifestations of negativity, or radical dialectical awareness. Keats’s “negative capability” represents one partial apprehension of such awareness, but it is more or less limited to a context of aesthetic appreciation, and its potential for application in praxis is largely unexplored.”Kasey’s particular conception of wit leans on O’Hara’s jokey equation of fashion and poetics in “Personism: A Manifesto,” which pokes serious fun at purely technical notions of poetic competence by comparing good poems to tight jeans:
“As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.”O’Hara’s image is helpfully elastic; as Kasey points out, “the requisite tightness is always dependent upon the specific social instance, the tastes of one’s prospective bed partners, and other things that are ultimately up to the whims of fate and the poet’s intuition.” The jeans shift attention from the formal qualities of the poem to the essentially social relationship between reader and writer involved in any literary attraction. Still, to recognize the poem as “tight” you need some basic notion of fit. By Kasey’s reckoning, wit can be a way for the poet to benefit from the fact that the “technical apparatus” of the poem—which I take to mean its array of formal, syntactic, and metrical effects—“is both indispensable and ultimately unreliable.”
One remarkable example of “competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence” is Kasey’s own Sonnagram series. Produced from complex procedural scrambles of Shakespeare’s sonnets, they meet the rules of rhymed iambic pentameter with a varied and surprising syntax that reminds me how much juice there still is in old-fashioned, urn-like formal competence. While the poems are more than just competent, they rely for their effects on an atavistic idea of formal mastery and prosodic display which “competence” in its untroubled old-school sense was supposed to prepare you for, the way copying the masters used to prepare you to paint portraits. I’m guessing that poets of just about any stamp would recognize the Sonnagrams as competent, at the very least, on a “mechanical craft” level that we rarely acknowledge but still use in practice when we’re subjectively assessing for fit.
At the same time, the poems continually call attention to the limits of mechanical craft as a measure for judging the poem. The Shakespearean sonnet—the litmus for the form in English—is employed as a pure formality, an impression the strict procedural rules of composition reinforce. There’s no pretense that the metrical requirements of the sonnet mirror something essential about the content poured inside. There’s no “turn” in the argument at the appropriate line; no evidence that function matches form. There’s little sense, which you get in some modern displays of formal finish, that the poems are trying to hide their prosodic chops under a veneer of colloquial speech. The Sonnagrams turn up the contrast between content and form until the idea that one might be a meaningful extension of the other blows apart. They’re witty in the way they insist on drawing the readers’ attention to the gap between their formidable technical accomplishment (“competence”) and their extravagantly ludicrous filling (“inadequacy of competence”). What Kasey says of the satirical eighteenth-century heroic couplet applies to his own series equally well: “every closing rhyme is an elegant deflation, a simultaneous celebration of fine-woven order and an unraveling of that order.”
One reason his post sticks with me, though, is that it’s not content to simply relinquish competence as an empty formal feature, chrome on the dying Edsel. Instead, Kasey’s notion of wit returns the poem to the world in ways that may slip past some of the resistances readers can build up to the business-as-usual nexus between politics and poetry. In the process of simultaneously creating and unraveling order, wit gives poetic form to what Kasey characterizes (in talking about Keats’s verse) as the “unbridgeable gap between verbal eloquence and lived experience.” Wit involves a recognition that competence—which requires an admission of the poem’s generic conventions—is always present in a made thing like a poem, but can never be adequate to the messy contradictions of lived experience. In taking on this tension as its subject, the poem can present something true about our social lives, whose generic features are so insistent yet so inadequate to describing any one of us in our sloppy, interconnected totality.
Kasey concedes that as the “formal background” for poems since modernism has “grown hazier and more disordered,” wit operates in a more diffuse and generalized way. It’s trickier now to draw a line between those places where the poem meets an agreed-upon standard of competence and those where it knowingly demonstrates an awareness of its limits. As we come to distrust the generic features of poetry, it’s harder to make the conflict between genre and the information that keeps sloshing over its sides mimic our alternately conventional and ludicrously excessive lives. Still, there’s something in the suggestion of wit as a measure of poetry that gets at the something I keep opening all those POD chapbooks for.