Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whatever happened to The New Sincerity?

It all ties together because here it is.

What could be more sincere than one's past?

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.


At 11/21/2010 11:40 AM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Interesting post, John, but in all sincerity, let's not forget Oppen and Zukofsky et al., who were the precursors. More to the point: Why don't we hear anybody out there in the body poetic asking whatever happened to them?

At 11/21/2010 11:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

My response is that no one's asking where they went because they never left. Most notably in the case of Oppen. He's just about the most name-dropped poet from that generation among the poets I know.

You need to talk to different people!

At 11/21/2010 1:07 PM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

You're right, John--I do need to talk to different people--as everybody needs to now and then--but who exactly are "they" and can they tell me why the "new sincerity" seems to have bit the dust while the old is still jumping over canons? =:o)

At 11/21/2010 5:18 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I don't think writing can really be "sincere" in the way that people can be sincere. The *tone* can be "sincere," but that's still achieved through a series of choices on the part of the writer. In other words I don't think one tone (sincerity or irony) is more pure than the other, they're just different effects (and can easily be combined).

At 11/21/2010 5:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, first, I'm not sure it (TNS) is gone, but if it is, and, say, Oppen isn't, I think that just means that the writer Oppen is more interesting than the movement, TNS. Of course, many of the writers associated with TNS DO remain current. Dean Young, for instance, is still (I think?) widely popular.


I completely agree. Art is a construction. But there is something in the assumed relationship of the reader to the poem that changes between, say, Tao Lin and . . . I don't know . . . Natasha Trethewey, I guess? (I'm trying to think of the difference between the "sincerity" of THS and the "sincerity" of the assumed "truthful" person speaking.

Something like that?

At 11/21/2010 5:49 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I've still never understood what The New Sincerity means. The "manifesto" was just a goof, right?

Here's a question: If a poem isn't ironic, does it have to be sincere? I think a poem can be neither. Joe Massey's poems aren't ironic, but I wouldn't describe them as sincere, unless FORCED to choose one or the other.

At 11/21/2010 6:50 PM, Blogger Joseph Massey said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11/21/2010 6:51 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree about sincerity (or the construct of sincerity). That's what I was thinking of in the post when I was asking if they (Sincerity and Irony) need to be a binary. I don't think they do.

Of course, such a manifesto can be a goof, but does that mean it's not sincere? I think in such a case it'll be turtles all the way down.

At 11/21/2010 7:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I... I... what? Tao Lin, Frederick Seidel???? THIS IS NOT A SINCERE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY

At 11/22/2010 3:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I wish your comment were still here. I wanted to talk with you about it. But, perhaps, the empty space of the comment having been here can still remain a type of comment from one of the movement's authors.

And then Lyle Daggett commented and removed it? I was going to say something about that too. What's going on here? A metaphor for something, certainly, but what?


Tao Lin & Frederick Seidel! Sure, why not? Vast and containing multitudes and all that. What seems more odd to me is either of them and Dean Young.

And as for TNS being a joke or goof or parody, sure, but just becuase the author(s) intends that doesn't mean the times do. Frank O'Hara's "Personism: A Manifesto" comes to mind.

At 11/22/2010 4:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am trying 'really hard' to embody the post-new-sincerity. Pretty please?


At 11/22/2010 4:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Under construction: The New Optimism

The New Optimism
Dean Young

The recital of the new optimism
was oft interrupted, rudeness
in the ramparts, an injured raven
that needed attendance, pre-op
nudity. The young who knew everything
was new made babies who unforeseeably
would one day present their complaint.
Enough blame to go around but the new
optimism didn’t stop, helped one
pick up a brush, another a spatula
even as the last polar bear sat
on his shrinking berg thinking,
I have been vicious but my soul is pure.
And the new optimism loves the bear’s
soul and makes images of it to sell
at fair-trade craft fairs with laboriously
knotted hunks of rope, photos of cheese,
soaps with odd ingredients, whiskey,
sand, hamburger drippings, lint,
any and everything partaking of the glowing
exfoliating cleanup. And the seal
is sponged of oil spill. And the broken
man is wheeled in a meal. War finally
seems stupid enough. You look an animal
in the eye before eating it and the gloomy
weather makes the lilacs grow. Hello,
oceans of air. Your dead cat loves you
forever and will welcome you forever home.

Poetry (October 2010).


At 11/22/2010 4:27 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

I still have it in my email so IT MUST BE REAL.

At 11/22/2010 4:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That's what she said.

Apologies. I had to. I took an oath.

At 11/22/2010 4:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer the Adam Ant iteration:

"Desperate, but not serious."

At 11/22/2010 7:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's The New Anonymity!!

At 11/22/2010 8:28 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Surely, there can be no more overrated poet in contemporary American poetry than Dean Young?

Indeed, we have a long poem in heroic couplets that essays this absurd overratedness (and more), coming out any day, now, in the second issue of the UK/US journal Hot Gun! (the exclamation mark is part of the title!) The premier issue featured poems and essays by poets like J.H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, and fabulous others from both sides of sea--it's a terrific magazine! The first cover had the head of Wordsworth on top of the body of a nude woman...

--The Rejection Group

At 11/22/2010 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent just outed himself.

Gee, what a shock.

At 11/22/2010 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent, we love you, even if your names are legion.

I like "the New Anonymity." I'm in.

Word verification: "hystert." Yes.

At 11/22/2010 9:57 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Yes, well, there are FIVE poets in The Rejection Group. I didn't intend to reveal my participation just now, but I've never denied being an RG member.

There were six, but the recent addition from Holland (memorably misread by Sous les Paves editor Micah Robbins as the "new poet from Hollywood") didn't work out.


At 11/22/2010 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strict anonymity is a foundational principle of The Rejection Group.

We understand the self-exposure was made accidentally, but our decision, and however it pains us, is swift and irreversible: Kent Johnson is no longer a member of The Rejection Group.

--The Rejection Group

At 11/22/2010 10:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Ouch. Sorry there, Kent.

I picked a bad day to run to the dentist. Look at everything I missed.

At 11/22/2010 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog even more funny than usual. And here on a post about sincerity. Fun!

At 11/22/2010 10:24 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Well, this is a bad day for me too, John.

But I can't complain, really, innocent error though it was. The rules are the rules, and the communique from the RG above states the simple case.

I will continue to support their work in any way I can. And I will count the past few months of collaboration and debate with the RG members as among the richest I have had in my poetry life.

At 11/22/2010 10:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, it's not gone any way I could have imagined.

I still really wish Joseph Massey would have left his comment up. Or that he'd come back and post it again.

And, ahem, to The Rejection Group. If you're looking for a new member, I'm all for strict anonymity (even if I had to try twice to spell it correctly).

Waiting by the phone.

At 11/22/2010 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone or something just jumped the shark, but who or what, I'm not sure.


At 11/22/2010 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Gallaher,

One central condition for membership in The Rejection Group: One must be (or have once been for some quality-length of time) a member of a Marxist-Leninist organization.

By Marxist-Leninist we do not include Stalinist organizations (CP's or Maoist parties). Most of our present (and past!) members are or were affiliated with current or former sections of the 4th International (i.e., Trotskyist parties or tendencies), though our member from Chile was with the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), an independent formation which was influential during the Allende years.

We could be wrong, but we doubt this prerequisite fits your biography? If we are mistaken, let us know on your blog and we may be in touch with you, though you will have to provide some form of documentation.

--The Rejection Group

At 11/22/2010 12:07 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hmm, well, I make it a point not to eat at either Burger King or Dairy Queen. In fact, I often sing "Masters of War" while driving to the co-op.

Will that do?

At 11/22/2010 12:10 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

PS. Also, I've seen Doctor Zhivago twice. Maybe three times.

At 11/22/2010 2:28 PM, Blogger Joseph Massey said...

I forget what I said, John, but feel free to repost it.

At 11/22/2010 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But: has the shark seen Dr. Zhivago? And did he/she/it see this important film before or after said jump?

At 11/22/2010 2:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Actually, if it's all right with you, I now think the absent-presence of said comment is more beautiful.


Welcome to the rabbit hole. The rabbit is glad you made it.

At 11/22/2010 5:51 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

[Blogger is having a problem right now, so I'm posting this for MR]


I received the attached email this evening alerting me to the fact that Kent Johnson revealed his association with the Rejection Group in this thread earlier today. I'm disappointed he did so because his mistake puts me in an awkward situation re. the Rejection Groups ongoing contribution to Sous les Paves. Before I comment further, the letter:

Dear Micah Robbins, of Sous les Paves,

You have been generous in your reception to our communal work, so for this reason we must inform you, without procrastination, that an occurrence has unfolded today in the requirements of your immediate editorial attention. At the blog of John Gallahad, which is called (perhaps aptly, I am told) "Nothing to Say therefore I Say It," a certain individual of your acquaintance (who as you know had been, since our founding, a member of The Rejection Group) posted a commentary signed by our group (it had been approved, yes) through the clear means and identification of his personal email address, thus revealing himself, without ambiguity, as a member of our collective. Apparently this is not the first time he has done such a thing, claiming in the post-fact that it was an "error."

As we have told you, the matter of anonymity is for us a sacred principle, one that is not to be transgressed under any particulars. It is therefore necessary that this individual be expelled from our group. Further, since it would violate our charter to have a poem published whose authorship is partaken of by someone whose identity is now divulged, we must demand that the poem you added at the final minute to issue #2 of Sous les Paves be suppressed and destroyed with no delay. It is, please, not to be circulated under any circumstances or shared even privately.

And furthermore, it will be impossible for us to continue to contribute to your newsletter should you allow this individual to continue to publish within it. This is our decision reached today, and you will have to decide whom you desire. Take this as an ultimatum, if you wish, but the matter is forthright and honest.

Our creative principles are democratic-centralist. Our collective mind ponders, discusses, debates. But when a vote is taken, the collective mind speaks, decisively, as ONE. This is our principle of aesthetics, and it is our principle of cultural action.

The Rejection Group

I know the Group haunts these threads, but I reserve the right to deal explicitly with this situation, though I will maintain the secrecy of the various members' identities. The fact is that I appreciate the principles by which the Group functions. Their anonymity and collective process of composition adds incalculably to the richness of their project. However, as this email indicates, they have adopted a militant--even bullying--tone that I can't help but feel slightly alienated by.

I suppose this is a public airing out of what was intended to be a private correspondence, but I want to assert publicly that I, as editor of Sous les Paves, will publish what I wish in the newsletter.

The Rejection Group WILL continue to appear in Sous les Paves, as will Kent Johnson. I understand that my having access to the Group's private correspondence and my willingness to publish it in Sous les Paves without their permission may cause an internal crises within their ranks, but I hope that my doing so will lead to productive factional developments a la the Feneon Collective.

I do want to make clear that the Rejection Group is not as unified as it lets on to be and that I am privy to the complexity of solidarity. That is, there are loyalties that go beyond the limited ranks of the Group itself, and some of these loyalties lie with Sous les Paves.

Rejection Group, I am pushing back. Perhaps you will have to choose what YOU desire: to have your work represented in Sous les Paves voluntarily or to have it disseminated beyond the scope of control you so clearly value.

Micah Robbins

At 11/22/2010 5:56 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


At 11/22/2010 6:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhere, Evel Knievel is crying for our sins.

At 11/22/2010 6:13 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

That "ultimatum" is a bit over the top, to say the least.

Deeply disappointed.

At 11/22/2010 6:22 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

On the other hand, I get to be (almost) Sir Galahad. Ah, the slings and arrows. But my gallantry and purity will on.

At 11/22/2010 6:30 PM, Anonymous Micah Robbins said...

The arrogant, threatening letters are starting to pour in. I'll keep you posted moving forward, though I assure you I have in hand both correspondence and creative compositions from the Rejection Group that I am willing to publish in Sous les Paves with or without their permission.

Keep your eyes to the sky . . .


At 11/22/2010 6:37 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm voting with the last anonymous: "Somewhere, Evel Knievel is crying for our sins."

At 11/22/2010 7:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that Nine Men's Morris was once the most popular board game in the human world, popular from the Celtic islands to China in the medieval period.

I'm not saying this is more relevant to our present discussion that Evel Knievel, but I'm not saying it's not, either.

At 11/22/2010 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...than Even Knievel. It's late, even on this other side of the grave.

At 11/23/2010 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Possibly overrated: J.H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady. I said possibly.

Definitely overrated and/or shark-jumping: Tediously elaborate pranks that make obvious points about "authorship."

Still deserving of reputation: The Dunciad and Dr. Zhivago.

And, of course, remaining anonymous.

At 11/23/2010 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to laugh at discussions of overrated contemporary poetry -- it has to be rated first, doesn't it?

At 11/23/2010 1:48 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Just because no one (mostly) notices doesn't mean it's not rated.

At 11/23/2010 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are not rated; we rate.

--The Rejection Group

At 11/24/2010 6:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11/24/2010 7:59 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This is a paid advertisement from our sponsor:

Next on America's Top Poet, the Rejection Group gets a low rating for taking themselves too seriously!

At 11/24/2010 8:37 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Fuzz against Junk,

Careful, though, as some of these "Anonymous" postings signed with "The Rejection Group" might not really be from The Rejection Group!

In fact, I happen to know that's the case.

At 11/24/2010 9:36 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I meant the comment in jest mostly, if the real Rejection Group responded seriously it would pretty much make it true.

This has been a funny comment stream.

At 11/24/2010 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We hereby acknowledge that Kent Johnson is a lousy poet with lousy ideas and has banked his entire failure of a "career" on struggling, and struggling hard, for negative attention. He's a smudged footnote to a footnote in the most narrow of annals of American literature. A pissant. A nuisance. If it weren't for that poor man's Ed Dorn, the insufferable Dale Smith, and his equally insufferable lackeys, Kent would be the nothing he should be and... in the long run... is.

-- The Rejection Group

At 11/24/2010 4:03 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Someone seems to be in something of a snit.

though I have to admit I do like this.


At 11/25/2010 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He's a smudged footnote to a footnote in the most narrow of annals of American literature." Ouch. Although... still it's SOMETHING... oh, to be so notable. How about a pimple--no, a wart--on the anus of American literature? Now that smarts.

Love the word "pissant." Thought it was actually two words, turns out it can be both. Didn't realize it's an actual species of ant:

Good stuff. Like "you're such a tiny, trivial creature--I will empty my bladder onto you..." or "you're only relevant as to be a target for my urine..." I picture maybe Vincent Price saying this, squinting eyes with pipe and smoking jacket. Or a flat-topped drill instructor, lips flecked with tobacco spit. Or... Mary Poppins, all uppity and irate. How 'bout Mary Poppins as a drill instructor played by Vincent Price?... I must use this word in a sentence at least once this Thanksgiving: "Pass the brussel sprouts you pissant." Then I'll be eating alone for Christmas. Good times.

--Chris D.

At 11/25/2010 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Careful, though, as some of these "Anonymous" postings signed with "The Rejection Group" might not really be from The Rejection Group!"

Careful yourself, Mr. Johnson. One day we shall be All.

--The Rejection Group

At 11/26/2010 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who among us hasn't been Rejected, and what do Kent Johnson or Dean Young have to do with it?

Rejection Group ; The Second Generation


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