Saturday, November 27, 2010

Irony v. Sincerity

Paula Jane and I had an interesting discussion tonight, prompted by a video we saw of Olena Davis, Jericho Brown, Tina Chang, Meghan O’Rourke, and Mark Wunderlich discussing the topic alluded to in the title of this post, the perceived oppositional relationship between sincerity and irony in poetry.

At the outset, I should explain that reflexively, I associate irony with mockery, perhaps because that is a deficit I tend toward, and have learned to guard against. I have not wished to become one of those that Yeats admonished:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

Never let it be said that I traffic in any such thing. I am a dabbler, if anything, and not a very confident one; Irony is a thing I have learned, a detachment I have formed to counter the puzzling phenomena I encounter when I venture outside myself. It is, therefore, a natural development, in kind with the century from which I come, yet often times antithetical to my professed values. At my core, I am convinced it is a device belonging to those who are not fully formed, a symptom, perhaps, of dissonance between one's internal and external worlds—a crutch, favored most by those who have become part of that dysfunction, and discord.

Therefore, in this, as in all things, I am at opposition with my several selves; yet I must trust the still small voice that lives at their center. I must believe that sincerity matters. Not truth—while I do believe, instinctively, in the reality of it, I do not pretend to have any better fix on what it might be than anyone else, and recognize the multiplicitous variations on that theme affecting these complicated vessels, containing the tics and stammers which make life bearable, for all of us. But the recognition of truth's being, and the desire to be, somehow, among its component parts—to be, while trapped within the cell of ourselves (as Auden described it) a creature of light (as did Ted Hughes) is strong within me, certain as the coming of a new day, reliable as the beating of my animal-heart, and more succinct than the need to construct new metaphors. It is there that sincerity lives, in that space between sensation and the fallacies by which my senses apprehend the external, and the infinity within me that abides in a state of separation-anxiety from infinity without.

So, understand, it is from here that I come to this debate; curious, but convicted.


Brown initiated their discussion by positing Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman (as well as Phillis Wheatley, less obviously) as progenators of American poetry, and being constructors of verses that were a “very good mixture of ironic and ecstatic.” As an example, he read (quite badly, I'm afraid) Phillis Wheatley’s perspicacious, exquisitely wrought On Being Brought from Africa to America:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train

Chang's assertion that irony in modern poetry is a “tool to deal with the sentimental or sentimentality” was, I thought, rather superficial. Poets have come to fear the sentimental, doubtlessly, and similarly disdain the idea of single truth; yet it seems obvious to me that just as irony is a symptom of some greater cause, this fear and disdain are mere overuses of whatever it is that irony cures.

Olena Davis is the reason I watched. I'm a big, big fan of her work, and I was really curious about her persona—which, I'm happy to report, is entirely consistent with her poetry (and I gotta say—in all honesty—damn—she is a beautiful woman). According to Olena, sincerity is problematic because it so often results in poetry where the lines show—work that is not only too earnest, and which is too explicit, but which also suffers from inherent preachiness—expressing the poet's truth as fact.

She also said that she requires a great deal from language, extending even to her love-life, citing the failure of her last relationship as example. "I can't believe somebody when they just say the thing. I need it to be modified in a million different ways, and all those admissions to be made, and as a poet that's what I do, and as a person." (This troubled me, as I shall come back to later)

Meghan O'Rourke had a lot to say—I thought her distinction of irony as being “situational,” “tonal” or “feigning ignorance” to be interesting, and her admission that sincerity seems today to be "like a dirty word” instructive. Her contention about “doubling” sounded slight, but more perceptive was the idea that sincerity has morphed from the truth-seeking of the Romantics to a convoluted effort to attempt truth, an effort which she mistrusted. Likewise, her analogy of irony burgeoning in the 90's, when bands like Pavement popularized a mode of saying cool was spot-on. Like Chang, she cited Plath as among (relatively) recent poetry's best irony practitioners, effectively using the proto-poem for Ariel (titled Whiteness I Remember) to illustrate her initial sincerity, buffered finally by ironic intent.

Wunderlich probably came closest to expressing my own beliefs.. He read off a list of bullet-points, most of which I accept, among them:

* Sincerity is a desire to state the truth, in some fashion
* Irony is the effect of romanticism vs. modernism, of feeling vs. thinking
* One of the things that's hardest for us to take today when reading the romantic poets is their ultimate sincerity
* The world has become a more grim and complicated place. (It) seems larger, individual experience is dwarfed by the city, by the war, by large governments, by forces that are beyond their control. Therefore, one begins to employ irony as a tactic to ward off the world.
* Irony will always be subservient to sincerity (I like this one best, I think).
* Irony is a shield to protect the vulnerable self.
* Sincerity should not be confused or conflated with sentimentality, even though they are first-cousins. Likewise, sincerity should not be conflated with the truth.
* All good poems are sincere, even though they employ irony.
* Irony is a minor planet, orbiting around that which is sincere
* Irony is a tone. Sincerity is a fact.

He also claimed that when Ted Hughes rearranged the order of the poems in Ariel, he took from Plath an ironic distance she had created in order to "tear it down", which had the effect of creating something "more true"—creating, by use of irony, an artifact that was finally sincere. His observation regarding "the ironic self as a created persona", and Plath's "mediated relationship between feeling and poem" were first-rate—I'm gonna read this guy's poetry.

Later, as everyone on the panel took potshots at sentimentality—sincerity's "first cousin", remember—Wunderlich rode to its defense. "You have to risk sentimentality in a poem," he said. "You have to risk crossing over that line—if everything is kind of ironically coded in the poem, it can become dead on arrival." (Obviously, I was impressed by that).

The discussion that followed between Paula Jane and I was driven mainly, though, by my discomfiture with some of what Olena Davis said—the idea that some poor bastard is wandering around somewhere muttering her name and having malt-liquor for breakfast because he wasn't able to express his love for her in a way that suited her creative temperament.

I have all kinds of problems with that idea; obviously, she is free to sabotage her relationships all she wants, but the implications of what she said—that what he felt for her was subordinate to its expression—seemed (and seems) really, really fucked up. Like the relationship between life and art and language has become perverted into something that celebrates the constructions of the artistic imagination as being superior to life itself. It's like Yeats' allusion to "the artifice of eternity" in Sailing to Byzantium. I wrote a post alluding to it a few months ago, in which I point out that the idea that intellect supercedes nature is one that is inevitably hostile to not only nature, but to all of what is perceived as external creation, and to the humans who populate it. It is the belief of one who is not convinced of the reality of those around him or her, and it seems to me to be a poetry that somehow celebrates narcissism, and does not accept sincerity as being legitimate for obvious reasons.

Paula Jane patiently tried to explain to me her ideas of poetry, which are closely aligned, I think, with Olena's (they are similar in more aspects than their work); how language is a thing which has a life that is real as as a beating heart, and how its expression is as important—perhaps more?—than what is being expressed.

Perhaps she will comment, and better explicate these ideas. It is as though I have a blind-spot here, as regards this possibility. I cannot imagine anything more important than what is said, and its intent, and the thoughts and feeling attached to it; it seems to me that language is merely a device that serves expression, and too often serves it poorly. And that the value of poetry—the magic of it, as Auden has said—derives from its ability to communicate more acutely than ordinary language is able to.

This post has grown long enough, but I want to conclude by giving you David Foster Wallace's take on the Irony/Sincerity dynamic, from his essay E Unibus Pluram:

The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to step back from ironic watching, who have the childish gall to actually endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. [...] Who knows. Today’s most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line’s end’s end.

This has begun already, of course. It is described as being the "New Sincerity" (like the old sincerity, only it comes with pinstripes or something), and since someone somewhere thinks it's rebellious and hip we'll undoubtedly see more of it.

Thus it has ever been, right?


  1. (speaking of perception...)

    "...patiently tried to explain"

    As though you'd have any difficulty unpacking whatever complex and/or complicated idea... and mine wasn't. I spoke slow as I did cos I'm figuring this out as I go, cos I've been figuring this shit out and will likely die never really having figured anything out.

    Anyway, that said... singling out what OKD seemed to just throw into the conversation—an aside—as if it could be a seed of a larger idea, seems a little disingenuous. Could you really conclude that she believed a feeling subordinate to its expression?

    Here... this claim's what I'm troubling now:

    Like the relationship between life and art and language has become perverted into something that celebrates the constructions of the artistic imagination as being superior to life itself.

    I heard nothing in that small aside nor in the rest of what she (or really, any of the other panelists) had to say about irony and sincerity. What I heard, from her specifically, is the idea that one is not superior to the other, but... that the relationship between life and what you call "constructions of the artistic imagination" can be characterized as... symbiotic. Could you really call 'life' a life, or living, living if it were devoid of these... "constructions"?

    And isn't it a perfectly reasonable ideal for a poet to have—to place her faith in those constructions of the mind, not because they are 'superior' to what is 'truly' or 'sincerely' felt, but because they are, as much as any glance or gesture, as revealing? No! More so! More because they transmute the thing being told, make it... something other and else and so... more, but not in relation to (not more than), but more as in: adding to, an increase, to be made greater.


    sorry... but... grammar renders that last sentence absurd. The word 'more' is a comparative, so it is always used in relation to. Still, what I want to say is that while those so called 'modifications' and 'layers' she spoke of seem merely to 'add' or 'increase' the thing, I feel as though what they're adding or increasing is our perception and experience of said thing, which is other, which is else, and so is more.

    Tell me you got that?

    And then tell me what you got... like I said... still figuring this out...

  2. I don't mean to neglect your other points here, just addressing those which time permits. These papers await. I need to re-watch the clip, I think, but I feel I, too, agreed with a lot of the points Wunderlich made. Love, in particular, the idea that irony is to protect a vulnerable self... and I feel like a greater poet allows that accident, or... maybe a better word is 'braves' that glimpse.

    You'll love his book, I know. It's really beautiful. It does not wear (parade, plume itself with) vulnerability, it simply... is. Those ironies most deeply felt are the *not* ones that purport a greater awareness of the world (society, culture, etc.) and all its failings (& so mocks and snarks and scoffs), but the ones that admit a dim and muddling awareness of one's own perfect failure....

  3. I am convinced that people like you and Olena see language differently than we average mortals do. This is a good thing, enabling you to create great poetry for us to all enjoy.

    Olena said that her relationship ended because of the way the guy communicated his love to her--not because of anything he did, per se, or that he was in any other way unsuitable, per se--or that the quality (um, per se) of his love was in any way, um, lacking. She said the reason was the way he was unable to express his feelings in a way that *gratified* her poetic sensibility.

    So, yeah,I scarcely think it's a leap to say that she is blurring life and art and language with real living-life stuff, or that she is estimating the constructions of her artistic imagination as being superior to that life (or his, at the very least).

    This is hardly uncommon. Plath did it, Yeats did it, and educated fleas have probably done it too, but it is not a good thing to do, and it leads to dark places