Two Kinds of Poetry

Inspired by Jonathan Mayhew's naming of a pair of poetic fallacies, I'd like to propose a kind of Klein Bottle paradox of the "lyric I." In current poetic culture it is fashionable to eschew the first person as gauche & "sincere" in a sense where to be sincere is to be stupid &/or dishonest. Well, at least not hip. There is also, alas, a School of Sincerity in which the personal anecdote is related as sacred text. These two approaches to poetry stand glaring at each other like a couple of studs across a bar or -- an example I'm more familiar with -- a couple of terrier bitches staring each other down across the width of a kitchen. I take Oscar Wilde & Samuel Beckett to be profoundly sincere artists. They meant every word they wrote, often through the artifice of pretending that they didn't. Too often, the rejection of sincerity is itself an insincere pose, a stance taken out of fear of committing oneself to a position. As if one could step outside the self (or selves). As if that would be a good thing. At the same time, an indulgence of sincerity -- imposing the facts of one's experience on the poem because they are your experiences -- is not really a pose so much as a failure of self-consciousness. I would put these two faults, part aesthetic, part ethical, under the heading of sentimentality.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

5 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Poetry”

  1. Aren’t there two issues here?

    1) Sincerity as artistic integrity (Beckett, Wilde.)

    2) Sincerity as voice. 1st person speaker directly identified with author in lyric poetry.

    One doesn’t imply the other. The potential abuse of (2) does not imply any position vis-a-vis (1).

    There is a lot of sincere poetry I admire, Frank O’Hara, Alice Notley, Robert Creeley– in the sense of (2). There is another category of first person lyric I don’t respond to as well. So it can’t just be that basic form of address that’s determining my reaction. I would have to think more about it to say what it is.

    On the other hand sincerity as honesty/integrity in the deeper sense is a sine qua non.

  2. In other words, there is

    sincere sincerity (Robert Creeley)
    insincere sincerity (bad confessional poetry)
    sincere insincerity (Oscar Wilde)
    insincere insincerity (artistically dishonest use of fictionality)

  3. I love the taxonomy in your second post! And you are right about my mixing up the issues. As I often do, I was reacting to what I consider a facile rejection of types 1 & 3 because types 2 & 4 exist.

  4. the fiction of aesthetic transparency belongs, i think, to monoglots.

    only a smattering of another language, or another artform, teaches you that there is no royal road to “saying what you mean”.

    all the snobberies that arise from unwillingness to struggle–to struggle with mystery.


  5. Translation would not be worthwhile if nothing came across in the process. It’s never a one-to-one correspondence, but one-to-1.2 or one-to-.875 is close enough for those willing to struggle with the mystery.

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