“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.

Originally Published: February 5th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. February 5, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Don,
    This is the first time I have disagreed with one of yours posts (still friends?). At least, I vehemently disagree with some of your apparently approving quotes from Peter Campion. The Danielle Chapman piece he in turn quotes is, as it happens, a smugly ignorant and small-minded review of my very own Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, in which she, like Campion, seemed more interested in dismissing (and taking cheap shots at) formally adventurous poetry than in understanding, engaging, or even reading it. Bad Swedish Chef jokes constitute neither a reading nor a critique. Nor do misapplied riffs on watching people masturbate.
    As for Campion, if these poems constitute only "an embroidered curtain of free association," how does he come upon such certainty about what's behind this supposed curtain, let alone know that it's "the most encrusted Romanticism imaginable"? I am not so imaginative as Campion. I am certainly less willing to let assertion replace argument, and figurative language (however inappropriate) replace evidence.
    If Campion is indeed using Chapman's poorly written, poorly argued piece as the basis for a definition of "avant-garde" or postmodern poetry, that is the sheerest intellectual laziness and irresponsibility. Accusations of narcissism hardly constitute definition.
    As it happens, I have just written a short definition of "post-avant" poetry (a term, though now widely bandied about, invented by Joan Houlihan) for the online Chronicle of Higher Education's "*Footnoted: from academic blogs" page, which quotes both Rigoberto's and my Harriet blog posts about this year's AWP conference. I am planning to revise and expand this definition for another Harriet post. If either Danielle Chapman or Peter Campion is being presented as the authority on such things, then clearly I need to do so soon, before more damage is done. :-)
    I reprint below most of the letter I sent in response to Chapman's rant. It was also published in Poetry, I believe in the January 2006 issue.
    Dear Editors,
    It is my usual policy to ignore attacks on my work, as such things don’t deserve the additional attention of a response, but since in her comprehensively ignorant review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, which I edited and introduced, Danielle Chapman attacks the work of many poets whom I admire, and furthermore seeks to dismiss an entire mode of writing, I have decided to make an exception.
    Chapman’s lack of a grasp of something as basic as the connotations of analogy (not to mention her fundamental lack of seriousness) is apparent in her comparison of reading the anthology to watching someone masturbate, an experience for which many people gladly and repeatedly pay large amounts of money. If reading the anthology is indeed analogous to such an experience (I am assuming that the person being so watched is attractive), that is high praise indeed, and I expect soon to be quite wealthy from the proceeds.
    But humor aside (and Chapman’s lame attempts at humor are best left to the wayside), Chapman’s analogy does raise the question of pleasure in the experience of reading poetry. Unfortunately, it does not occur to her that pleasure is exactly that–a question, and not a given. Wallace Stevens wrote of the supreme fiction that “It Must Give Pleasure,” but wisely did not define the nature of such pleasure, because such things cannot and should not be delimited in advance: as he writes, “To sing jubilas at exact, accustomed times,…//This is a facile exercise” (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”). It is these accustomed jubilations that Chapman seems to expect of poetry. The pleasure of being shaken out of one’s complacencies is one whose possibility she apparently has never considered.
    Indeed, consideration, in the sense of thinking through a question whose answer one has not determined in advance, of experiencing something without having already decided upon one’s response, is exactly what is missing from Chapman’s review. For example, she makes a great deal of the notion that in the poems contained in this anthology “thought masters feeling,” and asserts that “philosophy, not poetry, is the vehicle for abstract thought,” thus repeating the notion shared by my students that poets shouldn’t think. Apparently, reviewers of poetry shouldn’t think either. In my introduction I argue against this simplistic dichotomy between emotion and intellect, as did T.S. Eliot in his famous essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he writes that for a poet like Donne a thought was an experience. The work of many poets included in my anthology exemplifies their refusal to be hemmed in by such facile binaries, and their awareness that the personal and the intellectual are not contradictory: as Stevens writes, “it was not a choice/Between excluding things.” Chapman, however, seems to have noticed none of this. She simply takes such an opposition of thought and feeling (one that I for one find untrue to my own experience) for granted, seeing no need even to argue for it: a sign of sloppy reading and of sloppy thinking. Eliot wrote that the poet should be as intelligent as possible; the same should go for reviewers and critics of poetry.
    Reginald Shepherd

  2. February 5, 2008
     Don Share

    You had me worried there for a minute, Reginald! But we're still friends, because my only intent was to induce people to read Campion's essay, and also to elicit definitions of "modern," "new," "post-" and so on - and therefore the quotations aren't necessarily approving. In fact, I haven't expressed an iota of my own thought here, but rather intended to provide a sampling of Peter Campion's. And there I may have been remiss: a problem with my excerpting his prose is that one wouldn't know that the reference to Chapman's piece is not given great prominence in what he writes, as you'll see when you read the entire essay. I don't think he's using it as the basis of his argument, but as one particular and passing point of concentration. I don't mean to speak for him, of course - perhaps he'll add a comment here. In fact, perhaps Danielle will, too.
    I also hope there will be comments about how anthologies become period pieces while also leaving behind uncanny contours that seem, in hindsight, to be indelible. I suppose someone might like also to address the so-called "anthology wars." Patrick Durgin, perhaps?
    And of course, the subject of Campion's musing is "sincerity," much maligned, as he points out. So comment away, dear readers.
    Meanwhile, I really look forward to seeing your definition of "post-avant" poetry - I don't know who's an expert on it, but it's something that needs elucidation.

  3. February 6, 2008
     Henry Gould

    It seems to me that "sincerity", in any kind of discourse, is a rhetorical epiphenomenon, a consequence (not a cause), produced by intellectual conviction. You can't be sincere about something if you lack conviction. So I would think that sincerity would be a very frail reed upon which to support literary criticism or theory - especially in a time of intellectual change, crisis and uncertainty.
    To generalize very broadly : I would describe Modernism in poetry as the 20th-century effort by poets to renovate their art, in order to grapple with new & violent realities of contemporary life - and an expression of confidence in their ability to do just that - in art's capacity to absorb, reflect, epitomize and interpret reality as a whole.
    I would describe Post-Modernism in poetry as a trend which developed in the latter half of the 20th-century, rooted in a new scepticism among artists and poets, about the ability of art and poetry to provide meaningful, self-enclosed, complete mimetic representations of the new contemporary reality, which turned out (in the 20th-century) to be even more radically revolutionary and shocking than the Modernists realized. The response to this situation among Post-Modern artists involved : 1) radical self-questioning of their own means & motives; 2) an aesthetic eclecticism involving massive & parodic borrowing of past art; and 3) an attempt to break down the barriers between art and ordinary life & reality - to disrupt the autonomous aesthetic towers raised by the great Moderns.
    My own view is that scepticism and doubt are not very substantial or permanent intellectual/affective motivations for artistic creation, and this is reflected in the permanent prefix "Post-", dangling off the edge of "Modern". On the other hand, Post-Modernism has made Modernist positivism something of an anachronism; at the same time, the sort of bland and complacent "pre"-Modernism, exhibited by some of the recent "formalist" and "traditionalist" trends in American poetry, strike me as oddly detached - intellectually and emotionally, historically and politically - from the actual pressure of contemporary reality.
    So it seems to me that a "new sincerity" - if it is genuine and believable - would have to be a consequence - of some kind of new intellectual conviction, about the nature of life, time, history and reality : a conviction which might very well come form outside the purely aesthetic realm (even if, eventually, it gets absorbed and re-presented in new forms of art).

  4. February 6, 2008

    A propos of Untermeyer, here's ee cummings:
    mr u will not be missed
    who as an anthologist
    sold the many on the few
    not excluding mr u

  5. February 6, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    I guess "post-avant" would be "after before" which is "now" in a purest sense of that particular trickster figure. Acting independent of time and space, a person is their message.

  6. February 7, 2008
     Ian Rudd

    I have not read the anthology in question. I did read the review in question. I think the reviewer should say what he feels. However if his opinion is going to upset the author it should be done in the most mature way possible. I agree with you that the Swedish chef joke was immature and should not have been used.
    The reason I am posting is to give you some advice that was given to me. I think that a professional should not respond publicly to a bad review but I realise that it takes all of your maturity and self-control not to do so.
    I wish you all the best.

  7. February 9, 2008
     Lady Black Wisdom

    Let the pen speak, and let the heart follow, the instrument that lives within is the spiritual tool up above, let not validation from the outer earth be the criteria of your thoughts. Blessings honorable poet.