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??)
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
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.