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Being serious about sincerity

Philip Salom 11 October 2013

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I don't meant mere seriousness, which might be common to both great and very poor writing. I mean a deep sincerity of intent, and practice, some core values. Serious is OK. Maybe without that dreaded earnestness, which can be off-putting (see later paras). So, not automatically serious. A sincere writer might be a complete piss-taker, a lyric comedian, a seemingly flippant, satirical, even mocking poet. Or even exaggeratedly melodramatic. A sincere writer is honest in their intent and their craft, in their integrity, their ingenuity and their vision. They are incorruptible! They are not fudging or fibbing. There is an artistic rigour in this, a bullshit meter.

Isaac Bashevis Singer's comment about the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun is about originality and breakthrough writing, as Hamsun's fiction most emphatically was perceived to be, startlingly so, in Europe in the 1890s. Singer said:

Writers who are truly original do not set out to fabricate new forms of expression, or to invent themes merely for the sake of appearing new. They attain their originality through extraordinary sincerity, by daring to give everything of themselves, their most secret thoughts and idiosyncrasies.

I would add that this leads to work that is imbued with strangeness and is of such conviction that readers experience a sense of trustworthiness. (I realise all these terms are fraught.) When we read them we can take them or leave them but we believe them, we trust them in being what they are. Which means they are not fooling themselves, so they are not fooling us either. It means they give as much as they can. They do not look over their shoulder at fame or reward unless overly smitten with its opposite (though that is common enough) and then only in worldly concern, not within their work, not aiming the work at the gatekeepers. They are not disingenuous... because the writing must come first. Some do fool themselves though, and deeply, imagining they are as I've just described when they are much closer to acting the part, faking the sincere with ... considerable sincerity..?

And thinking back to the plagiarism issue we heard so much about recently – and here I mean poets nicking stuff to pass off as their own, to get up past their limits, and I don't mean collaging, sampling, mashing, alluding, etc, any of such po-mo makings - the aspect of this which gets up the nose of many of us is the poet's serious willingness to deceive, to make public various works that are acts of insincerity. Because they (knowingly) pose as genuine, and therefore sincere, the deception is greater, and the offence taken certainly seems to be. And more, I think taking offence is an accurate response - because the plagiarist's insincerity is passive-aggressive.

Everything I've just said might be rendered irrelevant if the writer is a genius. Such a writer might have various personal and or professional failings and still excel. Like good firewood, not a lot of it about, so I'm not considering them in this musings and generalisations of mine.... They might even transcend some small-scale borrowing of parts which, combined with seriously exceptional writing, lifts everything into greater whole, including the borrows. Again, not a lot of this about. And people tend to think of Eliot in this context, though Eliot played it both ways apparently, acknowledging some borrowings and not others. He was all the same, a signal, inter-textual poet.

Because seriousness is confused with earnestness (the dull, worthy, try-hard kind) the sincerity behind it has a bad name. There is too much of this stuff: poems that quietly detail the quotidian and the decent, nice almost homebody world, without power or acuity, or linguistic precision, and little or no invention. Perhaps a neat little catharsis at the end. Always the chance of a neat little catharsis. Feel-good poetry. This is often earnest and read with rigour looks pale and well-behaved yet it can take a small talent far. Serious, yes, and if too feel-good, having too much of a design upon us, insincere. It can also open up as sentimental – and that is itself a mode of false feeling, of exaggerated emoting, ie: of insincerity.

It hardly matters that many people in the public want this kind of prose-cut-up-as-poetry mundanity. Well, it does matter, but we can't do much about that. It's worth thinking how a poet like John Forbes seemingly disliked 'seriousness' (or so I've heard) and looked for it in other poets and, from what I gather, also in those he wanted to lower. He was sniffing poets out. I think the harder we play the poetry, the more any of us does this. The questioning, I mean, not the lowering, which is as much a sign of rivalrous action and gate-keeping as critiquing the deadly or pompous or fake. Combative too. But the scrutiny is a sign of sincerity. This place isn't for phoneys. Perhaps he conflated serious and sincere. Yet sincerity was everywhere in his super-smart and robust poems.

The test is comparative: can you be too serious? can you be too sincere?

Almost diametrically opposite the feel-good ... is some of the post-language poetry, much of it written by young PhD students. Where the University was once seen as instituting conservative poetics, it now provides space for poets to assume a position of cutting-edge, avant garde, post everything ... Within these poems, of radicalised reference and figuration of the lyric I, are also poems assembled by arbitrary associations too frequent and too subjective to 'read', to offer external exegesis. Sometimes a poet's indulgence is rife, and their poems operate by alluding vaguely, intermittently, in short-shifting, to obscure material, or not widely known material, to names and facts or ideas linked only by their willed contiguity. Revealingly, though not of meanings, the allusions are made in awkward and un-negotiated linguistic manner. How much of this is deliberate - and how much does it suggest naïveté, a lack of respect for any reader other than the poet?

Interesting to think back to Singer's comments here. Because they are pointed, but also conservative; Singer does not acknowledge the 20th century's radical politics of art practice and perhaps never contemplated anything like language poetry. Some of the above poetry certainly allows for idiosyncrasies and inner thoughts, but often by weak association; it allows within it reference to things the poet happened arbitrarily to hear or see or be worried about while writing the poem. A song by (our-conscience-on-all-things) Bono is playing, so a reference to it goes into a poem about (maybe about) architecture, politics and landscape and ethics (well, many of these poems claim ethical high-land) even when there is no associative link at all except it was there briefly in the poet's head. Then, wow. Then the poet reads their own work as a dizzy and subjective exegesis of their own random grabs.

At worst, or best, they are the perfect narcissist: they are their own best reader. Who needs anyone else? Well, and the like-minded... This can strike unlike-minded poets as posing insincerity too. Why? Because I'm assuming sincere talent, in the end, pitched as public work, and will respect readership as much as authorship. Not an inverse: authorship over readership... and get stuffed if you don't 'get' it. In being-superior mode. Strong poetry (of any kind) doesn't pander to readership, doesn't try to impress, make a show or a spectacle, weakly to be noticed. It can be radically exclusive in originality but still offer realisable inclusiveness – and public is public after all. People, community. Being itself. Being open to judgement.

This is how radical art moves from the margin to the mainstream, over time. And it is politicised towards that end. Fought for. I suggest the strongest poetry survives because it has been given a sincere forum in the first instance, and because it has already been negotiated, perhaps obliquely so, and uniquely so, for sufficient knowable strength of meaning, phrasing, invention and surprise. In other words, a tough sincerity drives the poetry – and drives it more rigorously than shallow show, self-indulgence, and posturing. It lives beyond the clique and within the minds of less automatically beholden readers. John Ashbery is the supreme example. Ironically, then, much of the well-behaved, feel-good, merely serious work does not survive. This conclusion may seem contradictory but I don't think so.

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