More on "Sincerity": Old, New, Noisy and Perverted

by on Jun.11, 2012

Many good comments to the last sincerity post. In his comment I think Seth Oelbaum nails why it’s actually an interesting word/concept/model to discuss:

JG: “Another thing I dislike about the Sincerity discussions is that they seem to be kind of normative. People are sincere when they write poetry about a certain – acceptable – range of emotions. Ie you’re sincere when you’re kind of sad, or kind of funny, or kind of you know indie rock. But the second you get too intense, perverse, ludicrous etc you become somehow insincere (or worse ‘coercive’!)”

I don’t think it’s sincere to discuss human feelings or to constantly criticize MFA programs or to be self-deprecating. If sincerity is used to denote a down-to-earth, detached milieu then I want nothing to do with it. Whenever people “get real” it seems very phony, like they’re acting like a “person,” a “person” being a role one plays. There’s much more thrilling roles to espouse, like that of a monster.

But sincerity is intriguing when used to mark writers who don’t distance themselves from their work but are immersed in it. Sincerity as a signifier for those who are excited and enthused about their art. I like this definition — one that leads toward extremism. In this context, sincerity can include a whole range writers from Steve Roggenbuck to, as JG mentioned, Reines. Both these poets seem to be entwined with their poetry. Their status is directly related to the status of their work. It envelopes them. Sincerity as a way to discuss authors who allow art to become them.

I think here is where “sincerity” gets interesting: because it refuses to allow the poem to be – as in AD Jameson’s posts – merely about a series of techniques, it refuses to allow the artwork to be distinct from author and context, it challenges the still all-pervasive scholarly model of “persona” as separate from author. In this way, it makes things messy and interesting, and it allow art to overflow both people and the artwork proper.

This type of “sincerity” can of course be contrasted with “the old sincerity,” poetry that seeks to contain the affect, the art within a very normative idea of selfhood. FOr example, C.Dale Young’s quote that Lucas found in connection with “Beautygate”:

Someone once tried to convince me you could only see the beautiful if you had seen the grotesque, but I disagree. I believe to see beauty one must also see the ordinary out of the corner of one’s eye. So, in the drafting, the getting the poem down, I do not think of beauty. But in revision I do, and at that point I am also keenly aware that to have beauty one must also have the ordinary. If a poem is filled with nothing but the beautiful, it becomes a kind of grotesque. In the end, I strive not for beauty but for elegance, remembering that elegance arises from simplicity and not from the beautiful. Reliance on the beautiful, reliance on detail, gives rise not to elegance but to the baroque, something which if taken to the extreme is grotesque.

Here it’s all about policing the author/persona and Art: beauty must not be allowed to run amock, must be contained by the “ordinary,” must not be allowed to be perverted. Here “sincerity” (though he doesn’t use the word) is about a kind of prosaic decorum. The “real” is mundane and used to temper Art, which is prone to flights of fancy into “grotesque” beauty.

If you look at writers as varied as Sara Tuss Efrik/Teater Mutation, Kim Hyesoon, Kate Durbin, Aase Berg, Ariana Reines, Danielle Pafunda, Paul Cunningham or Joyelle McSweeney: these poems seem incredibly “sincere” to me – powerful, affective etc – but they are also – in distinction to the “old sincerity” – incredibly theatrical about the self, the author. They are sincere not in containing Art and Beauty, but it letting it do exactly what Young cautions against: overrun normative ideas of “realism.” The result is a much more interesting poetry, poetry that is allowed to overtake the author, the reader. Beauty cannot be contained in the old model of “beauty”, it goes grotesque, goes over the top, goes “too far.” In fact this might be what makes these writers sincere (to art’s excess and multiplication, to its violence and perversions).

I think I would call Claude Cahun “sincere” (or “really old sincere”) in her highly personal, revealing yet incredibly theatrical photographs from the first half of the 20th century:

Or if we’re going to go there, how about Joyce Mansour (in Serge Gavronsky’s translation, can translations ever be sincere??)

Handsome Monster

Sickness with its floating moustache
Hovers over me
Each time my eyes meet under the table
Its long musical hand
Stuffs itself between my breasts
And strangles my abcess
In an egg
My nose runs like a sewer
My hair falls with sadness
And the stinking smell of voluntary humiliations
Torments me
My legs fly higher and higher
Open shells smooth fur
Inviting tender mouths
Scissors sea-horses with voracious claws
Share their delights
Their smiles their clothing
And their childhood pimples

(from the stunning “Essential Poems and Writings” from Black Widow Press.)

We might here begin to see now Neutral Milk Hotel can be seen as part of the same zeitgeist despite singing from the ouiji-boarded point of view of a dead girl, singing in baroque imagery. Ie the artifice does not “distance” but “absorbs” (to return to the terms Charles Bernstein’s seminal essay “Artifice of Absorption”).

Of course there are, as I noted in my last post, serious drawbacks with a term like “sincere.” I would add to what I said last time around that “sincere” connects to all kinds of modern notion of “communication.” I’m reading Speaking into the Air by John Durham Peters right now. In this book, the author argues that the meaning of “communication” changes in the 20th century to mean a kind of sharing of inner feelings, a kind of intimacy, an exchange of “interiorities” (a model of selfhood that I’m always railing against on this blog): “… longing for shared interiority, the horror of inaccessibility…” (I think this gets to some of Jared Joseph’s concerns in the comment field to the last post.)

Durham Peters notes that “communication is defined in contrast to its perversion (by manipulation, rhetoric and writing) Communication is a homeopathic remedy: the disease and the cure are in cahoots. It is a compensatory ideal whose force depends on its contrast with failure and breakdowns. Miscommunication is the scandal that motivates the very concept of communication in the first place…”

This explain why so much of sincerity debates is negative: always defined against a perversion (often “surrealism” or “irony” etc). The ideal of intimacy of communication does not precede the horror of communication breakdown.

As Durham Peters notes one problem with the modern communication model is that it suggests that what we need is better technology, better “communication” (ie more sincere poetry) in order to eliminate noise. Peters notes about communication: “I take as the project of reconciling self and other. The mistake is to think that communications [ie technologies of communication] will solve the problems of communication [the act of communication], that better wiring will eliminate the ghosts.”

You can see this attitude in the close-reading model of the New Critics. But not only is it impossible, it’s also, I think, wrong. The point of poetry (or communication) should not be to eliminate noise, should not be to thus eliminate otherness. Poetry is all about noise and otherness and weirdness.

It shatters and wounds me. Beauty is noisy.

But I think the key is that noise doesn’t distance, noise can be incredible affecting. All the talk about rejecting the “irony” of postmodernism seems to me to be about rejecting “noise” as “cold” and distant. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Certainly Dada made some incredibly affecting art out of their idea of communication breakdown (even as Eliot was tortured over communication breakdowns).

One more thing: Clearly I am in these posts not arguing against AD Jameson, as much as following up on his posts and the terrain that the notion of “sincerity” opens up. I think it’s great that he’s opened up this conversation and it’s equally exciting to see all the sightlines and angles of approach different poets have opened up on this topic in the last few days.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Interesting posts and comments.I can’t provide the link because it hasn’t existed for a couple years. But thought I’d go ahead and paste this from 2009, long as it is, since it seems to connect with the discussion–in particular, here, the matter of Burt’s New Thing, which Jared brings up below as an “idea” that could be seen as overlapping with principles of the New Sincerity. Anyway, I wrote the piece for the defunct Digital Emunction, proposing the existence of something I called the New Chicago School of poetry. In the article, I take up, at skeptical angle, Burt’s New Thing “school.” A point suggested in the article, I guess, is that geographical/sociological spaces may be more useful, realistic, and productive as identifying frames for poetic collectives than formal or “modal” ones. Not that the later aren’t important (!); my point, rather, is that style and affect are almost always extensions of the energies of community, and not the other way around, which is how we usually want to have it. Anyway, here’s the article–it’s not too long:

    The New Chicago School

    My proposal: That the closest thing we presently have to a “School” of younger, rigorously innovative poets in the U.S. (one that stands closest chance of being retrospectively seen as akin in significance to the NY School in its first-generation, proto-formation years–and when I say “School” I mean in that sense of fortuitous constellation, something very different from a self-identified tendency or “movement”) is what I’ll call the New Chicago School. It’s a list of accomplished, experimental writers, more poetically focused as a collective, perhaps, than the contents list of the City Visible anthology of a couple years back, and more geographically focused, too, inasmuch as all the poets have roots in the city, even though a few of them have recently moved elsewhere (though in most cases still nearby), and one now lives abroad:

    William Fuller, Ed Roberson (these first two the elder figures of the group), Anthony Madrid, John Tipton, Devin Johnston, Peter O’Leary, Robyn Schiff, Bill Allegrezza, Dan Beachy-Quick, Michael Robbins, John Beer, Arielle Greenberg, Lisa Fishman, Jesse Seldess, Nick Twemlow, Suzanne Buffam, Srikanth Reddy, Jennifer Scappettone, Francesco Levato, Eric Elshtain, Jennifer Karmin, Leila Wilson, Nathalie Stephens, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Garin Cyncholl, Joel Felix, Chris Glomsky, Erica Bernheim, Patrick Durgin, Joshua Corey out in the suburbs, Tony Trigilio, Daniel Borzutzky (though something of a separate case, the work of these last two, perhaps)… and a gaggle of brilliant scholar-editors associated, past or present, with the Chicago Review, along with Robert Archambeau, on the outskirts of town at Lake Forest.

    To these names one could add an active (and often activist) group of even younger poets and publishers: Michael Slosek, Kerri Sonnenberg, Steve Halle, Eric Unger, Luke Daly, Brooks Johnson, and Barrett Gordon, for example (the latter four have close connections, and their work engages the visual arts and music scenes, as well).

    For sure, there are others I’m just blanking on, or don’t know, and apologies for that (please add). And obviously (!) there are all kinds of superb poets in Chicago doing important work who don’t quite fit the avant-aesthetic parameters of the grouping–Don Share being one prominent case, or David Trinidad, another.

    From a poetic standpoint, what would justify the set? It is a diverse group (as was the original NY School) and a large one, but it’s held together by a vibrant, active scene and certain broad affinities of poetic predisposition and–quite often, and with the necessary exceptions–affect. The tilt is towards a “scholarly,” brainy, less “pop-cultural” and more self-consciously “critical” mode than tends to be the case around St. Mark’s, for example. And, I’d argue, the work by and large tends to be more thematically ambitious, more novel and challenging in its registers and forms, more earnestly in tune with the international than the work of the younger NY scene, still largely caught, the latter, within tonal frames of the hip, the pop, the vernacular, the anecdotal, the flarf.

    I know that some of the poets above–Johnston, O’Leary, Tipton, and Fuller–have already been “aesthetically” grouped together by Stephen Burt (Bobby Baird has pointed out here that this group represents a rhetorical and formal drift locally known for some time already as “Flood Poetry”), in his recent essay “The New Thing,” where he also identifies recent theory coming out of the University of Chicago as key source for what he sees as a developing current of poetic epistemology. Burt is referring to “Thing Theory,” as promulgated by, among others, Douglas Mao and Bill Brown, the latter living in Hyde Park, apparently. In short, these younger poets are turning away from the still-fashionable modes of linguistic and conceptual abstraction and towards a rediscovery of “reference” and “concrete, real things,” tending to render their experience with terseness and concision. Though some of the poets he names, it should be noted, are not exactly laconic…

    Now, I fully agree with Baird, in his post here at DE some months back, reporting on aforesaid essay, that Burt is a terrific critic. I suppose Burt and Adam Kirsch are more or less neck and neck right now to be the next Helen Vendler, Burt the horse on the left, Kirsch the one on the right, striding to the pole, pulling their critical sulkies behind. (Though who, one wonders, will be the next Marjorie Perloff?) So there’s no question he’s very good. But I find his neo-Objectivist “Thing” grouping to be something of a stretch: Johnston, Mark Nowak, Juliana Spahr, Joseph Massey, and Jennifer Moxley, for example, placed in the same stable according to the poets’ (very different) renderings of their attentions to objects and their (usually wildly different) thematic application of these phenomenological encounters? Well, OK, I guess, though really, I wonder what U.S. poetry since Williams’s isn’t haunted at least a little by some manner of Husserlian susurration inside it. Come to think of it, forget Williams; even spooky Dickinson is chock-full of stuff and Things. So is Whitman, and in overdrive, though he’s not quite “concise,” so maybe he wouldn’t qualify as a “thing” poet. In any case, what’s all that “new” about the New Thing, if such a thing actually exists, is not all that clear.

    As you can see, I feel Burt’s argument is a bit forced and constraining, a bit too much of a bit and halter, as it were. (Incidentally, interesting to me, and as I wrote Burt after I first saw his essay, I’m pretty sure the first-ever serious application of Thing Theory to post-avant poetry, including quotations from Mao and Brown, et. al, was in Eric Hayot’s 2005 PMLA essay, “Araki Yasusada: Author, Object.”) In any case, both Baird and John Latta have pretty neatly taken Burt apart on all this.

    And maybe my grumpiness with Burt’s bridling classification isn’t all that necessary, anyway. Superior poets will almost never try to conform to this or that critic’s taxonomic criteria, and I’m sure someone like Burt would be the last to want them to. The point I’m trying to make, though perhaps I don’t even have to, is that you don’t need–as again, the New York poets proved, or the Black Mountain poets proved, or the Beats proved, or even the Objectivists proved–any kind of solid critical-philosophical frame to constitute a vigorous “school,” or even tendency, of poetry. You don’t even need a quasi one. All you need is a locale(s), smart ambitious people, and a certain affective habitus (often found in taverns) that is friendly, contentious, gossipy, mutually supportive, and professionally incestuous to some degree. The modal, organizing affinities, which rarely funnel down to strong affinities of “program,” grow out of these. If something is right, and who knows what that is or how it works, things flower.

    So I’m making the case that there is something that has developed in Chicago over the past few years, an accretion of poetic felicities whose parts and sum are unrivaled by any other avant locale in the country: St. Mark’s has a wealth of talent and enough in-house sound for a School, but the textual ambition seems comparatively slight; Austin has Slow Poetry, and this is full of promise, but it’s more an embryonic movement, not a School; the Bay Area has a great scene, but the crazy variegation of it all (see Bay Area Poetics) makes any notion of School untenable; Philadelphia is loaded with smarts, but true Schools of poetry cannot abide venerable Headmasters (well, OK, excepting the Sons of Ben, during the reign of Charles I); Iowa City has the most expert practitioners of the period tachisme, but that is not any kind of School, it is a career; Providence has riches, but it takes more than students; Buffalo is home to some fine outlier poets, but SUNY is covered in snow; Boston, apparently, has fallen into the sea.

    In conclusion, what I’m proposing (it would appear I am beginning to repeat myself) is something that’s beginning to have a sense of the self-evident to it already, I think, and no doubt others have noticed it, too: that Chicago, right now, is home to the most interesting and vital avant “poetic cluster” in the country.

    And I feel confident enough of the claim to name it again, even though I know the name is not all that flashy, but that’s appropriate to the city’s spirit, too: The New Chicago School.

    –Kent Johnson

    [One hundred miles from Wrigley Field, in Freeport, Illinois]

  2. chris

    i see what you mean, johannes, this is highly interesting, my basic disgust with the word notwithstanding

    “can translations ever be sincere?”

    that is one of the all-time cans of worms

    i don’t know about specific instances of translated texts, but a translation practice might be called sincere when, in so far as is possible in any given situation, the translator knowingly refuses to normalize, domesticate, depoliticize, “deproblematize” a foreign text; and takes conscious delight in striving to ransack, subvert, undermine, and otherwise lay waste to “target language values”

    i try to do that, always, when i translate, and i tend to choose poets/poems to translate because they allow me to do all the aforementioned things in the act of translation… among other things, of course, but that’s one important criterion

  3. chris

    johannes, i may have forgotten to click “submit” a few minutes ago – if so, please dump the old comment

    despite my tremendous discomfort with the whole notion of sincerity, i’m finding this very interesting

    to be perfectly honest, i find indie rock to be musically (not lyrically) speaking, bland and interchangeable – at least what i’ve heard – i hasten to add that i know very little about it, and am wearily wary of arguments pro and con the value of lyrics as poetry qua poetry – so i’ll leave that alone, along with a lot of other issues raised in these posts and comments

    but this: “can translations ever be sincere??” – ah, what a glorious can of worms!!!

    i don’t know and to tell the truth the question overwhelms my meager philosophical-theoretical resources, but a *translation practice* which deliberately and knowingly refuses (or at least makes a concerted attempt to refuse) to normalize simplify filter domesticate homogenize etc a foreign text while at the same time taking delight in subverting, unmasking, or otherwise laying waste to target language literary values and the ideologies they hide, has a pretty good chance of being sincere

    i offer an immense fraternal embrace to all translators who tend to choose poets/poems to translate by the degree to which their work allows them to at least try to do all those wonderful aforementioned things

  4. françois

    As usual, it is in your asides that I find most interest. In this case, “in Serge Gavronsky’s translation, can translations ever be sincere??” Can you ever be sincere when you are not writing in your first language? (In your case, not Swedish, in mine, not French/Cantonese, etc.)

  5. françois

    @Kent: In this day and age, should we really limit schools and movements to simple geographical locations? I am thinking specifically about the Double Change collective (although it is neither a school, nor a movement).

  6. Kent Johnson

    >Kent: In this day and age, should we really limit schools and movements to simple geographical locations?

    Francois, no, not just geography in the strict sense. When I wrote “geographical/sociological spaces” I was thinking as well of communities of affinity arising among writers who may not necessarily be in physical proximity. Especially nowadays… My point is that the most substantial, vibrant poetic formations, the ones where aesthetic correlations are most meaningful and complex, do not come about from this or that poetics that is shared in some “a priori” sense. Critics (I used Burt as an example) try to do such herding all the time, which is understandable, of course. But in the poetry world, that’s not how formations usually work. Formal affinities (which will be fraught and contradictory, if they are real affinities!) are most always forged in community and not vice versa.

    So in that sense, I would see “The New Sincerity” as a passing, vain, forgettable attempt to form a movement or school in an artificial, shoe-horning kind of way– which is likely why there seems to be little of coherent substance at this stage to the so-called. As one of its “founders,” even, has more or less resignedly told us here: many versions of “sincerity” are on the cultural shopping shelf and ready for the purchasing.

  7. James Pate

    I really like this: “They are sincere not in containing Art and Beauty, but it letting it do exactly what Young cautions against: overrun normative ideas of “realism.” The result is a much more interesting poetry, poetry that is allowed to overtake the author, the reader.”

    There is a strange point where the whole subject/object split falls apart: to paraphrase Zizek paraphrasing Lacan, the me that is in me more than myself. That other me that is also not-I. For me, that’s the issue with the word sincere. It implies self-identification. The negation of not-I. Though obviously you’re using sincere in a different manner here, and in a way that seems to chop away quite a bit at the word’s conventional usage (in a good way).

    Art should be either oceanic or Kafka’s axe or both, I think…”Realism,” say the realism of a Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen, implies not only characters with a psychological coherence, but also an authorial point of view based on interpretation, on placing the more antic parts of the text within a context. It seems to me that a poet like Berg, for example, undercuts both interpretation and context. Poetry in her hands becomes anonymous.