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Some Disordered Thoughts on Something About Sincerity

On We Who Are About To Die, Caroline Crew has written a little post about bringing contemporary poetry to her current (& my old) university, & about “a new sincerity” in American poetry. It’s interesting & makes me think of a few things in no proper order:


  • In Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker’s essay ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ uses a quotation from this article:

    I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. It flickered into focus at the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” last year and ran through the Whitney Biennial, and I’m seeing it blossom and bear fruit at “Greater New York,” MoMA P.S. 1’s twice-a-decade extravaganza of emerging local talent. It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly self-conscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind—what Emerson called “alienated majesty.”

    According to Vermeulen & van den Akker metamodern art displays “the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment”, is “ironic and sincere” at the same time. I suppose postmodernism is a Pandora’s box, and so we’re never going to get rid of irony or detachment or self-awareness. I’m still not entirely sure what Vermeulen & van den Akker mean about the space in between, though. But, yes, either way, they seem to be saying the same thing as Miss Crew: that sincerity is coming back. (Although it is silly to say that it ever left.)

  • If we pretend that there is a sincere poem & a detached (or insincere) poem, & the sincere poem is about fucking & the insincere poem is about birds. A sincere poem, if it is any good, is always going to be a bit about birds as well as it is about fucking, and a detached poem, if it is any good, is always going to be about fucking as well as it is about birds. I think that there are too many poems just about birds as I think it is possible for a poem to not be enough about fucking, but it probably is also possible for a poem to be too much about fucking and not enough about birds. If we imagine then a spectrum, where fucking is completely subjective and birds are completely objective. It seems to me that as soon as you think of it like this every good poem is neither sincere nor insincere as every good poem is moving somewhere towards the middle of this spectrum, because poems are boxes made out of language & language is both sincere & ironic. Language — at least the language in a poem — lives in the middle between these two poles. Is this what they mean with their ‘oscillation’? What I mean really is that I think to put irony & detached poems about birds on one side & sincerity & earnest poems about fucking on the other is a false dichotomy.
  • I also think that it is better to be accused of sincere insincerity than of insincere sincerity. It is less disheartening to let language mess around with things farther away from oneself (like birds) that to have it mess around with things close to home (like fucking), because there aren’t many people who are comfortable with — or who even notice — the messing around (the ‘artifice’) that will happen as soon as you put something in a good poem. I suppose it is also like the trouble with a double-bluff: in practice it looks exactly like something that isn’t a bluff at all.
  • How many times can you write sincere before it looks weird.