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“We live at a time in which ‘modern’ no longer makes clear what differentiates the present from the past. Comes instead the prefix ‘post-,’ illuminating like a metaphysical truth an age that never did, perhaps, exist, signifying above all our wish to be rid of words that no longer help us speak.”
This is quoted from an editorial by Andrew Schelling and occasional Harriet commenter Benjamin Friedlander introducing Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root #4, September 1990, as posted to the UB Poetics discussion group in 1995.
In the February issue of Poetry, Peter Campion proposes (in his essay, “Sincerity and Its Discontents in American Poetry Now”) that “tension between the urge toward sincerity and the underlying dissatisfaction that torques it remains a generative force in our poetry. To evaluate the poems of our own moment, we need to understand it.”
How to do this? Campion suggests:
“Maybe the first step would be to cut sharper contours around our idea of ‘sincerity’ itself. In so many of the formative arguments of modern and contemporary poetry, it receives only the roughest definition. Take Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry, his anthology of 1919. This was a dramatic act of tastemaking, and a successful one, at least commercially: Harcourt put the book through seven printings. Opening his introduction with a declaration of America’s ‘poetic renascence,’ Untermeyer bases his polemic on a celebration of sincerity. He claims that the poets in his anthology have sloughed the constraints of lyric convention: ‘The result of this has been a great gain both in sincerity and intensity; it has enabled the poet of today to put greater emphasis on his emotion rather than on the shell that covers it—he can dwell with richer detail on the matter instead of the manner.’”
To which Campion responds:
“From our vantage, the book seems daft, and not only because Untermeyer gives himself more space than he does Emily Dickinson. […] A reaction against the febrile parlor poetry of the turn of the century, Untermeyer’s anthology remains a period piece. But we can still see its arguments burbling up now and again, as if during the whole last century American poetry and its criticism have been locked on a rinse and spin cycle between sincerity and its discontents. Modern American Poetry itself, for example, although it contained minimal selections from Pound and Eliot, flowed in clear opposition to the claims of those classic Modernists. The call for ‘sincerity’ streamed up against Eliot’s famous arguments for ‘impersonality’…”
As it happens, around the time Untermeyer’s “period piece” appeared, Harriet Monroe was seeking to contrast not the modern but the new poetry. The first edition of her anthology, The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Verse in English, contained more than a hundred poets, including Thomas Hardy, E.E. Cummings, D.H. Lawrence, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, Willa Cather… and Adelaide Crapsey. As Elizabeth Cooperman, who wrote this month’s Poetry magazine web exclusive explains, her book was rather different from the Untermeyer… yet still the word “sincerity” arises:
“Not keen on labels, Monroe prepared her collection with some trepidation. While most people assumed that treatment of form distinguished the new poetry from the old, Monroe explained: ‘The difference is not in mere details of form, for much poetry infused with the new spirit conforms to the old measures and rhyme-schemes . . . The new poetry strives for a concrete and immediate realization of life . . . It has set before itself an ideal of absolute simplicity and sincerity . . . an individual, unstereotyped rhythm.’”
Harriet readers frequently see calls for a definition of what, precisely, “post-modern” and “avant garde” poetry is. Campion says:
“For these writers, the very idea of the poem as the speech of a subjective self, endeavoring to find some truth, however provisional, seems hopelessly Romantic. As Danielle Chapman explained in the January 2005 issue of Poetry (‘Bad Habits’), these poems have become ‘so familiar by now that they could appear in a Girl Scout handbook of the avant-garde.’ Chapman points out the irony: by preserving the author’s thoughts and emotions behind an embroidered curtain of free association, these poems exhibit the most encrusted Romanticism imaginable. Oddly enough, the effect turns out to be the same as that of naive ‘sincere’ poetry: experience and language remain in a set relation, and the poems go static. Couldn’t there be a more dynamic model? What about considering sincerity not as an attribute but as an act?”
I sincerely hope you’ll check out the rest of Campion’s argument, and continue the discussion right here.