Wit

I know there is a large literature on wit, but while writing the previous post it struck me that we use the term to name two essential things: 1) Basic smarts, the ability to have your wits about you; 2) the ability to use language against itself in order to stand against conventional wisdom. So wit deflates pomposity, but if that is all it does it is mere wit; to be really effective, wit needs to be deployed with love, or at least sympathy. I was listening to Fountains of Wayne while writing the last post; now I'm listening to one of their grandfathers, Mose Alison. The sympathy in a Mose Alison tune doesn't come from the lyric -- "You mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime" -- but from the sweetness of the delivery, which tempers & transforms the acid of the words. And it is the very ability to have a distinct delivery in language -- a point of view, a way of seeing the world -- that enables wit by creating aesthetic distance.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

6 thoughts on “Wit”

  1. WIT

    I sense sadness as something critical
    inside furniture and ceilings clouds
    and dense fog like a bacterial field

    its cities and farms littered with joyful
    harvesters of what went wrong
    as if love exists it can only be
    so that everything else can exist

    the yellow flats and the red sharps
    which make singing possible enough
    to carry sorrow and wit away

    fear disguised as peroration in bird song
    from which the architectonic proceeds
    out of sorrow’s mansion
    carving its tidy hut.

  2. Peter, it is all about love & disappointment. And about my own failure to make my students sing, or even care about others who might sing.

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more. Have you listened to Lily Allen, English singer? She seems to epitomize what you’re talking about: wit that both originates from and encourages an aesthetic distance. I think that’s a useful gift to instill in the students; without an aesthetic distance, it’s always and only about them. One way of looking at that is as self-indulgence, but another is an indication of a basic systemic fear.

  4. “Wit” seemed to have a more capacious meaning in the 18th century (and before), as in Pope’s lines

    A perfect judge will read each work of wit
    With the same spirit that its author writ

    Wit used to mean literature itself, not one particular attitude within literary works. I wonder how it got its narrower meaning.

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