The New Sincerity

Anyone reading this who’s not up to speed on the poetry movement called the New Sincerity should start by digging around in the archives here and here.

I’ve cheerfully read the manifestos without reading any of the poems. I daresay I could find some poems by the central New Sincerists if I just dug around the web for a bit, but it would seem a pity to dilute the purity of the manifesto-reading experience. From these manifestos (manifesti?) I have learnt that the New Sincerists write poems which are sincere. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem which was intended to be insincere; so perhaps I have been a New Sincerist (or at least a Sincerist) all along, without even knowing it.

But I wonder if a lack of insincerity is enough. The word ‘sincerity’ leads me to expect poems which are earnest, heartfelt, and, if not confessional, at least personal. I don’t think I’ve written a poem in the last few years which was about me in any important way. Most of them are things like this. Does it even mean anything to say that this poem is or isn’t sincere?

Bamiyan

The saints and rood screen
have been broken up and burnt,
the murals covered with limewash.
Only the stained-glass windows glow,
and the face of the transfigured Christ
has been scratched out
that the light might shine through clearer.

I guess I’m just trying to pin down what ‘sincerity’ means in poetry. The Romantics generally seem pretty sincere, except perhaps Byron. I’m pretty sure Milton was sincere; was Donne? Herrick? Are Shakespeare’s sonnets sincere? Is there any way of telling? Does it matter? What about Pope? Is The Dunciad more or less sincere than An Essay on Man?

9 Comments

  1. 18 August 2005 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I’ve written a poem in the last few years which was about me in any important way.

    Not even “Sexy Estuarians”? That’s a great pity, you know. It’s cleverer taken literally, rather than as one of those “Everything I say is a lie” riddles. Truth or lie, a poem like that definitively throws you out of the New Sincerist club, anyway — something about the winking irony of juxtaposing blow jobs with that cute little ð.

    After checking out the manifestos, I am quite sure I’d rather be in a pub having a bit of craic reciting than out sitting with Linus in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin of Poetry to appear in all his splendor. What about you?

  2. Harry
    18 August 2005 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I guess that poem certainly winks. It wasn’t intended to be riddling or an attempt at paradox – just a joke. Setting up a confessional tone and then undercutting it with a descent into absurdity. In that sense I guess it could be taken as a parody of Sincerity in poetry, although I didn’t really mean to make any broad point about poetry. But no, none of the details mentioned in that poem are true (except the jays).

  3. Harry
    18 August 2005 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, the answer is that “Sincerity is not so much an aesthetic aim as much as it is a general attitude the poems can’t help but reflect”

    I don’t know if that gets me any closer. I am sincere about a lot of things, but sincerity as a ‘general attitude’ seems so… Oprah. So un-British. Neither of those are necessarily a bad thing.

  4. Harry
    18 August 2005 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    The above comment about Oprah comes across as arch and flippant. But it’s not entirely meant that way.

    I suppose I feel that there are enough important, serious things in the world; we don’t need to find extra things to take seriously. Where possible, we should handle things with a light touch. For me, poetry is one of the things which is not, in the end, very important.

    Perhaps if I felt differently I would write better poems.

  5. 18 August 2005 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, in all honesty the whole entry comes across as arch and flippant, really. (e.g., “But I wonder if a lack of insincerity is enough.”) But that’s ok, so do the New Sincerist manifestos. In fact — and maybe this is me being a jejune blanket — I’d more or less concluded that the entire movement was a rather self-conscious little joke. I mean, how seriously can you take a guy who says “The New Sincerity is a literary movement, a life movement, and a bowel movement”? (http://www.livejournal.com/users/rootedfool/248324.html)

    Clear enough: The New Sincerity is full of shit, then.

    As for whether or not poetry is important, well, what is? War, maybe? Love? Sex? Poetry doesn’t directly affect the continuation of species, except to the (not inconsiderable) extent that it fuels patriotism and incites warriors into battle or, conversely, gets young and sweet-tongued devils laid.

    I’m not sure whether or not a poem is humorous, ironic, literally true, patently false, heartfelt, ironic, or any of the rest of it makes any difference at all in either how good or how important it is, although it certainly may affect whether or not it appeals to my particular taste. There are fine heart-rendingly-sincere Romantic poets, and those sweet love notes of the Brownings, and then there’s Ogden Nash and The Rape of the Lock . It’s all good.

    *shrug* I’ve no idea what the New Sincerists are on about, except trying to get as much media and blogosphere attention as possible. I didn’t much care for either Robinson or Mister’s poems, and I couldn’t find anything but rather cute and clever little excepts by Massey (and a number of forceful advertisements for his chapbook, which only bolsters my theory).

  6. 18 August 2005 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Shady – I have to plug Mr. Massey, his “Eureka Slough” has been sitting on this desk for a good couple of months at least and I’ve read it over and over. An earlier work, “Minima St.”, is close to being one of my favorite works. At least for a while. Yes, he’s on my friends list, but I find I’m lucky to be able to keep track of his work. Give it a shot – he might come across as clever (in small bits) only because he maintains a pretty remarkable specificity, in language and image.

    Though it’s interesting that Harry brings up Pope – looking at the actual practices that benefitted his own marketing and publication efforts, as a means to compare to apocalyptic vision of the market for print in the City, seems to require that we look at him as consistently insincere (in terms of narrative voice) while utterly sincere (read: venal) about his position, both in the market and in his hopeful sense of posterity.

  7. Harry
    19 August 2005 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I’m not really in the market for a movement anyway, because I’m only a dabbler in poetry, I’m not much of a joiner, and if I was going to identify myself with a movement, I would want one that offered something more distinctive than sincerity.

    As to whether the New Sincerists are joking-joking or joking-serious – actually I don’t think it matters much. The most interesting thing about it is that they chose sincerity as a label. That probably says more about our culture generally than about them.

    Now I’m going to go off and read some poetry instead of spending all my time talking about it. Perhaps I’ll even buy some Massey on Jason’s recommendation.

  8. 19 August 2005 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    And there was me thinking it was all about entertainment. Just when you least expect it, another manifesto rides into town and tries to make me evaluate my poetry against everyone else’s poetry. Eek!

    I dunno about these new sincerist types. I think I’ll wait until young Scoplaw writes his manifesto and then go and join his party (or trash his house, or whatever it is you’re supposed to do when you sign up to a manifesto).

    Harry – are you planning to change the webaddress or name of this place in the next fortnight or so? Only I’m getting a bit bored of having to edit my links every time you move or redecorate.

    Rik

  9. Harry
    19 August 2005 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rik. Sorry about that.

    I’ll change it back to Heraclitean Fire quite soon. Now, perhaps. And while I can’t guarantee that I won’t change it again some time in the future, ‘Heraclitean Fire’ has the great advantage of being the same as the URL, so that’s the default name for the blog.