Sincerity and Its Discontents in American Poetry Now
The word “sincerity” has a strange wiggle in discussions of poetry. Some use it as an accolade and others as a criticism, and it’s not always that these people disagree about the work at hand. The word has simply come to mean various things. Much of this slipperiness derives from its being a relatively new word and concept. In his enduring study, Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling located the origins of sincerity in the Protestant Reformation. Beginning in the sixteenth century, there appeared new images of the writer as the individual believer speaking from faith alone, and later as the citizen acting within democratic structures. These images found a natural fruition in America, itself the result of those historical currents.
But even here “sincerity” arrived with its undercurrents of discontent. D.H. Lawrence suspected as much when, in Studies in Classic American Literature, he claimed that American aspiration rose not from ideals of freedom, but rather from refusal and alienation. Behind the advertised values of public-spirited straight talking lies “something grimmer, by no means free-and-easy.” Lawrence pronounced that “you have got to pull the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance” if you want to understand the life of this new republic and the art made from its speech.
You don’t have to buy his sociology to see the literary value of Lawrence’s identifications. So much of our best poetry gains its strength from pitting the public, communicative urge against the naked discontent that those “democratic and idealistic clothes” attempt to cover. Think of Whitman, who even as he offers “every atom” of himself in the unfolding of his poem, admits that in the eye of an ox there seems to be “more than all the print I have read in my life.” Think of how, even as Whitman celebrates civic life, he repeatedly throws out images from which his citizens might recoil, right down to “the sick-gray faces of onanists.” Or consider how Dickinson, although she directly addresses her reader and invites him into genuine exchange, exclaims “how public, like a frog” it is to speak one’s self to the civic world, that mucked tangle of the marketplace that feels like “an admiring bog.” This 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.
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.
From our vantage, the book seems daft, and not only because Untermeyer gives himself more space than he does Emily Dickinson. His whole argument turns out to be a rehash of Wordsworth’s famous call for a “selection of language really used by men,” except without the “colouring of imagination” thrown over it. To Untermeyer, “sincerity” means merely one idiom that he values above all others. He prizes “the use of a simpler and less stilted language” at all costs, and the results are often poems like Richard Hovey’s “A Stein Song” (“With a stein on the table and a good song ringing clear”).
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,” which appeared the same year in the pages of the Egoist. Open to any chapter in the history of American poetry and you’ll see this same debate gurgling away in some new permutation.
A more recent instance appears in Louise Glück’s essay from the early nineties, “Against Sincerity.” Glück argues that poetic truth stands apart from mere fact, and she takes “sincerity” to stand for the ingenuous desire for a one-to-one relation between what happened and what’s written. The only problem with this is: who can imagine an intelligent person disagreeing? Are there really serious readers who want writers merely to be trusty reporters? To be fair, we should see Glück’s essay in context. In several places in her book of criticism, Proofs and Theories, she seems compelled to make an anti-literalist argument, one that carried more force fifteen years ago, during the glut of identity politics and the poetry that drew support from it. This was work that in its bareness showed a surface resemblance to Glück’s own poetry of personal crisis, yet little of its strengthening skepticism. Her distinction in “Against Sincerity” was a refreshing, backward swipe against the Richard Hoveys of the day. But set apart from its background, her argument teeters. It comes to resemble the claims of a movement that has no relation to her own practice. I mean those poets who are truly “against sincerity,” period.
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 this magazine (“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? How about sincerity as a process that moves through time, while the correspondences between the speaking self and the world move too? How about a sincerity that contains its own discontents? With these ideas in mind, I want to look at a couple of recent poems by younger poets. Both poems balance on a metaphor connecting speech itself, the actual minute sound of it, to the largest historical totality. In so doing, they test sincerity in the most active sense. They both attempt to establish communication, even as they strip away the covering of conventional exchange, much as Lawrence himself recommended. In each, the subjective imagination manages to speak to public realities while remaining true to itself. Although one of them seems more successful, these are both poems I admire. To me they suggest that some of the most exciting work in American poetry right now occurs not only when skepticism and emotional seriousness flow together, but when their collision drives the actual movement of the poem.
Here’s how Maurice Manning begins “Where Sadness Comes From”:
Don’t go back to say it came from way
back when. It did, it did, but now.
When you said did just now did you feel
a little dip, a curtsey in
the middle of the word, almost
another syllable but
not quite? We like to say a word,
a single word can make us feel.
There, there it is again, this time
a falling down at the end of feel.
You feel it, how that little sound
goes dropping down and hangs alone.
Up until here, the poem might seem to resemble some of those in the “Girl Scout handbook of the avant-garde.” The voice works to atomize itself even as it unfolds, “foregrounding” the “materiality of language.” But Manning’s skepticism is more than mere show. As the tetrameter halts and proceeds and the voice weaves between the inward, oneiric address with which the poem begins and the outward questioning, the lines take on the feeling of genuine speculation. This attentive seriousness sets us up for the big turn. Here’s the rest of the poem:
I’m here to tell you I come from
a place where hanging used to happen:
it happened in the trees, by God,
it happens even now in air,
the air the mouth lets loose; I hear
a hanging all the time. It leaves
a sadness in the voice; we speak,
and wait for history to catch up
with us. It’s slow, but then, that lets
you hear it coming; you hear it now
before you speak, that sadness in
your voice, the part of you that wants
to last, to hang or dip, to hold
the word for just a little more —
my people, this is an elegy
to you, the sadness in your voice.
The amplitude of these eight couplets, the oratorical plunge into Southern melancholy and collective guilt, not only stands in contrast to the microscopic attention of the opening but also relies on that contrast for support. The scrutiny attempts to justify the high-mindedness.
This doesn’t work entirely. I mean that it’s hard to believe that the dip in a Southern drawl really relates to lynching. It’s not that the metaphor is wrong by nature, not that we need to test it against the findings of sociolinguistics. I simply wish that Manning would apply some of the same salutary doubt he uses to pick apart syllables at the beginning of the poem to his own metaphor at the end. The turn comes less than half of the way through. If there were somehow one more swerve in the rhetorical structure, one more bolt of reinforcing skepticism, the somewhat showy metaphor might become a provisional truth, a plausible attitude of thought and feeling. As it stands, the poem remains an impressive feat of sincerity in action: Manning’s attention to the actual texture of speech correlates with his desire to address historical truths while staying true to the protean variability of the present (“It did, it did, but now”). The flaw comes when speechifying takes the place of such searching.
Elizabeth Arnold’s “Civilization,” from her book of the same name, establishes a metaphor very similar to Manning’s. The poem is dated “September 2001.” I find it one of the few that address that catastrophe with original insight. Here is the poem in its entirety:
The British journalist’s voice was spent as she said
(unenthusiastically, the interview now over), “Thanks,”
with the eager young insatiable American official
turning, then, to other matters.
But the voice
— a European’s, flat, well schooled in the world’s
hope-pulverizing particle storm’s gifts of
disappointment — stayed,
the syllable’s slight elongation something on the order of
the querulous sendings of frail human wonderings out
into the void, as if the waning of her voice spoke
all of history’s ups and downs, a honeycomb’s packed
maze of cells
whose lights shine through their tiny paper membranes
too thin not to be available to being torn,
light leaking from a world cracked open,
sky seen through the pavement I walk down.
Arnold’s drama of confidence and uncertainty informs the very texture of her lines. Consider her penchant for Poundian condensation, for phrases like “hope-pulverizing particle storm’s gift of disappointment” or “sendings of frail human wonderings out.” Thickening the rhythm of the line as the sentence itself snakes forward, these phrases make the verse movement appear consubstantial with the movement of intelligence through matter. Their slight jumbling of idiom has a similar result. Maybe no one would ever say “sendings of frail human wonderings out,” but this is why it works: the phrase captures the action of consciousness stitching together the constituent pieces of perception. Whatever wobble remains in the idiom balances against and intensifies the urgency of the occasion, the necessity of speaking at a moment of global violence. Arnold tempers that largeness of topicality with the seemingly mundane and private image of the patches of sky reflected on pavement, a snippet which, in one final turn, swivels from the ordinary to the cataclysmic as it precisely depicts a “world cracked open.”
Arnold’s speed, her skill for dwelling on each image no longer than need be as she collects and distributes the energies of her sentences, seems to me a feature of her sincerity. As her conviction and skepticism cycle onward, she offers something that you might call a kinetics of truthfulness. This movement also points, I think, to what makes Arnold American. I don’t mean to stick a toy flag in her poem; after all, it’s a poem in which the very word “American” seems nearly synonymous with “naive.” But Arnold’s forward-plunging effort at speech seems tinged with a larger spirit. I have in mind that ranginess that D.H. Lawrence saw as escapist alienation, but also that William James celebrated when explaining that his brand of American pragmatism was nothing more than “an attitude of orientation . . . The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, facts.”
Perhaps it’s Robert Frost, that poet who managed to write both as the American public man and as the guide who only has at heart our getting lost, who gave the most helpful definition of sincerity. It’s one far subtler than that of his advocate, Louis Untermeyer, and it’s a conception of poetic speech that, in stressing movement, bears direct relation to the practice of contemporary poets like Manning and Arnold. In one of his notebooks Frost writes:
There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but it is probably nothing more than your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusions. Any belief you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an illusion. Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trout’s nose.
Sincerity for Frost is not simply “being yourself” or “telling it like it is.” It happens “miraculously,” not by command of the will. The force that breaks through the “succession of dead selves” is not a set identity so much as an action, discernable precisely because of its kinetic movement: “liveliness.” And illusion is not wrong because it fails to measure up to some eternal Platonic ideal, but simply because it happens not to work.
It’s no accident that Frost jumps here from defining sincerity to defining reality. The creaturely alertness that he suggests runs beneath truth-telling is the same force with which we sense our way through the stuff of experience, the sheer material that we half perceive and half create. Such searching becomes sincerity when it enters the act of speech. This act may move through irony, earnestness, absurdity, disguise, and even wrong conclusions. But it doesn’t take any of these as a set position. The lesson, in the end, is a formal one. You’ll know the sincere poem from the way it moves.
Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...