Whatever happened to The New Sincerity?
Robert Peak, missing the point in 2006:
“The beats, and the ensuing flurry of postmodernism and decentralization has had the unfortunate effect of demoting some poetry to wordplay. I have found that some of the most common criticism of poems in intermediate writers’ workshops (besides overuse of adjectives or abstract language) is that it is sentimental. Yet rarely, despite the deluge of clever but ultimately unimportant poetry being produced today, does anyone say, “yes–that’s interesting–but what’s the point? What does it meant to you and make you feel?” That such a risk is, in fact, a risk, we owe to a relatively short period of artistic agnosticism in which we currently reside; remarkably short, in fact, relative to the centuries of writers who have wholeheartedly, unabashedly and sincerely endeavored to say something that matters.
Perhaps, with the very existence of a new sincerity movement, we are seeing glimpses of the end of an age.”
[From Wikipedia] The New Sincerity movement was associated with the poets Reb Livingston, Joseph Massey, Andrew Mister, Anthony Robinson, David Berman, Catherine Wagner, Dean Young, Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Frederick Seidel, Arielle Greenberg, and Karyna McGlynn.
It never did catch on, but it continues to be mentioned now and then, mostly thinking of it as a counterpoint to irony, though most conceptions of the term itself include a healthy dose of ironic self-awareness. But even so, do sincerity and irony need to be a binary? What if I mean my irony sincerely, right? Does postmodernism have to be insincere? Does decentralization? Does wordplay? Of course not, and that was, and continues to be, the problem.
Back to Wikipedia:
“Sincerity is the virtue of one who speaks and acts truly about his or her own feelings, thoughts, and desires. . . .
Sincerity has not been consistently regarded as a virtue in Western culture. First discussed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, it resurfaced to become an ideal (virtue) in Europe and North America in the 17th century; and it gained considerable momentum during the Romantic movement, when sincerity was first celebrated as an artistic and social ideal. Indeed, in middle to late nineteenth century America, sincerity was an idea reflected in mannerisms, hairstyles, women's dress, and the literature of the time.
More recently, sincerity has been under assault by several modern developments such as psychoanalysis and postmodern developments such as deconstruction. Some scholars view sincerity as a construct rather than a moral virtue—although any virtue can be construed as a ‘mere construct’ rather than an actual phenomenon.
Literary critic Lionel Trilling dealt with the subject of sincerity, its roots, its evolution, its moral quotient, and its relationship to authenticity in a series of lectures published under the title Sincerity and Authenticity.”
All that just goes to say that it’s awfully difficult to pinpoint the presence or absence of sincerity in a poem, try as one might, or believe as one might want to. But The New Sincerity was different that either “being sincere” or “being ironic,” as Jesse Thorn’s manifesto explains:
“What is The New Sincerity? Think of it as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power. Or think of it as the absence of irony and sincerity, where less is (obviously) more. If those strain the brain, just think of Evel Knievel. Let's be frank. There's no way to appreciate Evel Knievel literally. Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things. Here is a real man who feels at home as Spidey on the cover of a comic book. Simply put, Evel Knievel boggles the mind. But by the same token, he isn't to be taken ironically, either. The fact of the matter is that Evel is, in a word, awesome. . . . Our greeting: a double thumbs-up. Our credo: ‘Be More Awesome.’ Our lifestyle: ‘Maximum Fun.’ Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity.”
So the idea of The New Sincerity wasn’t “be more sincere” but to become one with the post-postmodern condition. Ironic detachment is out and post-ironic attachment is in. “One last prom just for me and you” as the band Gayngs would have it. Which is part of why I’m thinking about this today. Listening to their album, Relayted, these questions remain open (See their videos below if you’re interested in following this up).
And then the other reason I’m thinking of this today. When I was nine I watched Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on September 8, 1974. I had an Evel Knievel action figure and stunt cycle. He was rubber with wire in his arms and legs. He died at the age of 69, on November 30th, 2007. I remember hearing the news of his death. They called him the last gladiator. Or maybe he called himself that.
So anyway, the term The New Sincerity, and any idea of a group, is over now, I guess, but dealing with the times using the terms set by the times isn’t going away because it can’t. And it will change, constructed, as all things must be.
Watch him jump the three foot ditch. Loop the loop and he’s not through yet.
As there are many forms of grieving. And many reasons to grieve.