Thursday, 5 December 2013


When you open your mouth to speak, are you smart?  A funny question from a great song, but also, a good one, when it comes to poets, and poetry. We tend to have a very ambiguous view of intelligence in poetry, one that I'd say is dysfunctional.  Basically, it goes like this: once you are safely dead, it no longer matters how smart you were.  For instance, Auden was smarter than Yeats, but most would still say Yeats is the finer poet; Eliot is clearly highly intelligent, but how much of Larkin's work required a high IQ?  Meanwhile, poets while alive tend to be celebrated if they are deemed intelligent: Anne Carson, Geoffrey Hill, and Jorie Graham, are all, clearly, very intelligent people, aside from their work as poets.  But who reads Marianne Moore now, or Robert Lowell, smart poets? Or, Pound?  How smart could Pound be with his madcap views?

Less intelligent poets are often more popular.  John Betjeman was not a very smart poet, per se.  What do I mean by smart?  Well, I suppose poetic intelligence is not IQ at all - I mean, what sort of IQ is deployed in a poet's work?  Complexity of manipulation of symbols, concepts, especially with regards to numbers, and science, perhaps.  Use of multiple languages, for another.  Paul Muldoon seems to have a high IQ.  Some poets don't. Does this matter?  No.  Poetic genius is not the genius of Mensa.  But if you look at IQ scores you will see that doctors, lawyers and most professionals score between 115 and 125 (superior intelligence) just below 140, which is where genius is said to begin.  Most PhDs score around 110-120.  So, in fact, it is likely that many poets would score between 100 and 125, with a few around 140, but not many.

I imagine Roddy Lumsden's is very high - he is a master of puzzles, after all.  But who knows, did Plath have a high IQ? Again, it seems a shabby sort of thing to think about, when looking at poets one loves, raising the question - what role do ideas, and ideas properly deployed and engaged with, really have to do with poems? Lionel Trilling has a book titled THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT - I can think of few titles more lofty, and perhaps pompous. Do we still want our poets smart?
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