Irony and Sophistication

"Irony versus feeling."

I get it about the smarm thing. I, too, hate all that fake la-la that passes for art, stuff that doesn’t say anything, yet has that tone, “knowingness.” But to take a stand against all irony? That’s as excessive as to take a stand against sophistication itself.

Sophistication means knowing your audience might want to see some ID. It involves anticipating a reader’s reasonable resistances; one has to “speak to those concerns,” as lawyers say. So, in a sense, sophistication involves taking a bit of a stand against oneself—which brings irony into the picture. And often enough, this very move brings the feelings in.

Look at this radioactive item from Stevie Smith. Here is the poem entire:


To many men strange fates are given
Beyond remission or recall
But the worst fate of all (tra la)
’s to have no fate at all (tra la).

Take out those “tra la”s, you gut the piece. Those ironic “tra la”s reveal the anxiety, the defiance. They’re what give the poem its emotional dimension. They let you know who’s saying this.

If anyone doubts that irony can be used as a means of bringing focus to sweeter emotions (tenderness, say), look at these lines, from Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius:

                                          [ . . . ] if hair is mussed on her forehead,
If she goes in a gleam of Cos, in a slither of dyed stuff,
There is a volume in the matter; if her eyelids sink into sleep,
There are new jobs for the author;
And if she plays with me with her shirt off,
We shall construct many Iliads.

A happy argument hovers in the background of this poem. The love poet feels he must defend his practice against the Roman demand for war poetry, and so has recourse to ironic (and witty) overstatement. Yet, at the same time, the reader intuits that there is no actual call for such a defense, and that its real warrant here is that it helps Pound/Propertius convey the self-conscious exhilaration of the erotic tussle. To repeat: docking the irony would subtract from the feeling. It certainly wouldn’t liberate it.

Irony can be (and indeed usually is) a conduit for feelings. It is not on one end of a spectrum, with feelings at the other. So people need to stop libeling it.