A recent critiquer of a poem of mine averred that in two particular places I had “substituted cleverness for humor.”
This gave me paws. Ha ha, see what I did there? Isn’t cleverness humor? Humorous? Humor-ish? Is it a lesser form of humor?
It could be said to be superficial, perhaps — wordplay, for example, whereas humor, perhaps, should dig deep, have a little of its tragedian partner. Is there not room for cleverness in a poem?
The first place the critiquer red-penned in this way was indeed wordplay. I was trying to reconsider the meanings of a word. But maybe I had made my point with the image I presented, and didn’t need to emphasize it with the wordplay. In which case, it wasn’t the cleverness at fault but the redundancy. Fair enough.
The second offense was a quick lightening of the mood — I used an old song lyric to describe a situation. I’m not quite so convinced cleverness was a problem there (or indeed, anywhere). In the poem in question there are a few lighter moments in a poem otherwise taking itself seriously, and this was one of them. Can’t a little levity allow the reader to take a breath, to share with the writer a chuckle?
But maybe such cleverness calls too much attention to the writer. Look at me and my cleverness, it may say, and take the reader out of the poem in a way that is harmful to the poem and its atmosphere. Do we really need to share a wink, you and I?
If I want to inject humor, shouldn’t it be of the deeper kind and arise from the poem itself, not from the author’s ego?
I don’t know. I like to laugh. But when is humor organic to a poem and when is it hiding something or asserting itself in a show-offy way? I just don’t know, in the case of my poem; although I may recognize it immediately in someone else’s.
At any rate, I think it’s an interesting question.