Thursday, June 09, 2011

The New “New” Sincerity (Part Infinity Minus One)

"Bewilderment is the new New Sincerity" - Heather Christle

Forget what the intentions were or weren’t behind the first positing of The New Sincerity several years ago, there is something in the air now that IS sincere and new and does things that many have been steeping in irony in the past.

There are many examples in poetry (I was writing back and forth with Nick Sturm about Heather Christle in this regard), but that would be my word (sincere) against someone else’s (cleverly ironic [Nick and I were in agreement on Heather Christle by the way, that whatever you want to call this, it IS aware of itself as sincere . . . she means it), so I’ll use an example from music.

Justin Vernon was part of the band Gayngs last year making uber-cool, possibly ironically cheesy, prom music for the end of time. Now, he’s back to his usual gig as most of the band Bon Iver (yes, the band name is a play on the French).

The band’s new self-titled album will be out next week, and it’s streaming on the NPR First Listen series right now. The best example of what I’m talking about is the song “Beth/Rest.” To hear it, select Hear Tracks from the Album and then scroll to the bottom. It’s the closing track.

Sincerity is the new New Bewilderment

The review that goes along with the tracks by Stephen Thompson speaks directly to the topic of sincerity:

First Listen: Bon Iver, 'Bon Iver'
by Stephen Thompson

June 9, 2011 "Beth/Rest," the closing song on Bon Iver, is an absolutely diabolical bit of provocation. A plodding tangle of electric keyboards and guitar solos, the track seems at first as if its title ought to include the parenthetical, "Love Theme From Tequila Sunrise 2." Bon Iver singer-songwriter Justin Vernon has compared "Beth/Rest" to the best-known work of Bruce Hornsby, and his appreciation is utterly sincere: The very opposite of an ironist, he boldly opts to close his massively anticipated new album with sounds 25 years out of style.

Jarring as it is, "Beth/Rest" is like the plucky runt of this litter; the song you may well find yourself embracing with the expectation that it'll be unloved by everyone else. Whatever it is, it's not safe. Vernon understands that the most fearless musical expression is raw, naked emotionalism — that a wink is a pose, a pose is a mask, and a mask is a forgery, so why bother with any of that? When he belted out Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon a few weeks back, the last thing Vernon was doing was kidding. For five minutes, warmth had become the new cool.

Bon Iver is a grand, chance-taking record: It sheds the raw nerviness of 2008's perfect For Emma, Forever Ago and replaces it with arrangements so lush and vivid, it can be hard to make out much of what Vernon sings. Out June 21, the whole record dares to be dreamy, and to let Bon Iver's ever-growing backing band paint pictures while Vernon's words dissipate into the ether. Most of these 10 songs induce gasps at one point or another, for any number of reasons: from the forceful jolt of an orchestral boomlet, the delicate shhhhhinnnnng of finger cymbals, or an impeccable bit of vocal phrasing by Vernon, who can still make seemingly slight inflections hit like punches.

Still, an overarching purpose here — the specific messages to these songs — can be oblique and hard to locate. Even the titles mostly signify and evoke places rather than feelings: "Calgary." "Minnesota, WI. " "Hinnom, TX." "Lisbon, OH." Listen to Bon Iver 50 times, and you may still struggle to remember which title matches which song, and why. But the journey to familiarity with the record is circuitous to the point of impossibility. For all its emphasis on place, it beckons you to come get lost.


At 6/09/2011 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is sincerity in art mean anyway? What does it look like?

- Chris

At 6/09/2011 9:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I've had this conversation with people many times. Sincerity means that you mean what you say, right? That you're being genuine, honest, and free from duplicity, as the American Heritage tells me.

So I would posit that an artist (poet, etc) can be sincere or insincere, but the art itself just is. I mean, otherwise, how can you tell? I have to take the poem itself as manifest, and to do so I have to approach it as a sincere object. I think that's the difficulty of New Sincerity or New Spirituality or Flarf or anythign else where we bring our ideas of sincerity into it. The only way an art object can seem to be insincere would be if it were parody or satire or something, but even then, it has to be approached as a sincere parody, satire, right? Otherwise it just fails as art, I would think.

Insincere artists, I would imagine, could produce as great of art as sincere artists could.

At 6/09/2011 9:55 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

The difference between sincere and insincere parody is very obvious.

Take Louis Zukofsky's "Poem Beginning 'The'" for example. The poem parodies, Eliot's "The Waste Land" most obviously, but also Poe's "Helen" and any number of other works, but underneath all this play is some real genuine desire to not be an outsider, to participate in the poetic conversation.

Then look at Flarf. The point was to write bad poetry and try and infiltrate the mainstream. How do you have any sort of critical standards where the point of the object is to produce laughable results? What does failure look like in this situation? And most importantly, after we're done laughing, what else is there?

At 6/09/2011 10:16 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Ah, is that what the point of Flarf was.

At 6/09/2011 10:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm less interested in what people are trying to do while writing a poem and more interested in the poem itself. Unless it's an alien. When aliens write, I mostly want to know why.

At 6/09/2011 11:23 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Aliens encode messages into the dna of bacteria. For the hell of it.

At 6/09/2011 11:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, good. As long as they leave my CDs alone.

At 6/09/2011 12:22 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

The bacteria end up thinking your cd player is Disneyland.

At 6/09/2011 12:26 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I went to Disneyland 35 times when I was a kid. I was trapped once at Yo ho Yo ho, a pirate's life for me, for about 45 minutes. Aliens shouldn't even have to endure that.

At 6/09/2011 12:32 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Thirty-five times? I went twice and that was enough for me.

At 6/09/2011 12:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was just a young kid with stars in my eyes and a dream in my heart.

At 6/09/2011 1:14 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

This reminds me of the barbershop quartet song, Is Disneyland Sincere?

At 6/09/2011 2:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Remember, Amusement Parks don't kill people, people kill people. Or something like that.

At 6/09/2011 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sincerity means that you mean what you say, right?"

How do you direct this question toward the author of fiction? Or any poem in which the character / voice / I / is something different from the author?

This has got to be an old-as-dirt question, but I haven't seen it addressed directly. I only understand the labels when the words pretend to say what the author means. Is that also part of the sincerity equation? Are fictional voices uninvited to the party?


At 6/09/2011 4:29 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


This is precisely why I dislike labels like “sincerity.” Sincerity is this thing, like the old definition of pornography (I can’t define it but I know when I see it), that is tossed around like we’re all talking about the same thing. We’re not. People mostly say art is insincere when they can’t figure out the tone, and the content uses kitsch or “weird” elements.

My further two cents:

Authors, I believe, are insincere all the time. And a writer can write like Sharon Olds and be insincere as readily as one can write like Keith Waldrop and be insincere. I think it’s an unproductive way to address the artwork. One can talk about the tonal complexities and the difficult elements of art without resorting to something that can’t be known. Even if an author says s/he is being insincere (As in Flarf, I guess?), that doesn’t mean the poem is, itself, insincere. Art has its own agenda, and doesn’t much care what an artist is thinking about.

At 6/09/2011 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So when we talk about a movement or quasi-movement like "the New Sincerity," is Sincerity by necessity in quotation marks (which is a funny, thought actually ...) ?

Are we talking about a stance toward the idea of sincerity, since sincerity itself is too slippery to grab?

Reminds me of Stephen Cobert's awesome coinage, "truthiness," or in this case, Sincerityness.


At 6/09/2011 6:10 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

A discussion about poetry on Gallaher’s blog: ‘The New “New” Sincerity (Part Infinity Minus One’.

He begins by quoting Heather Christle : "Bewilderment is the new New Sincerity". This is obviously a reference to contemporary poetry.

John then goes on to say: “There are many examples in poetry [. . .] so I’ll use an example from music”


Welcome, students, to Introductory French. We will now discuss and learn this wonderful language …so let’s begin with an example from Chinese.


At 6/09/2011 6:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, when it surfaced in poetry a few years back, those positing it were thinking of it as "sincerity." But then other people began to think about it without the scare quotes. It was a goof that is no longer a goof, which is why I was thinking about it as a not very good way to think about art (Koons, et al). We really don't have much to go on when deciding if someone is sincere or not. I still think it's better to take the poem on its own terms. Decide how it's working, not what we think the frame of mind of the author is.

But that's just me.

At 6/09/2011 6:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Sure, that might look like the bait and switch, but I was thinking about it this morning when I came across the bit about Bon Iver. As poets mostly ourselves, we have all sorts of aesthetic affiliations that talking about this would quickly devolve into what we think is good art and bad art, rather than what's going on in it, so I thought music, where we could easily see the use of very outdated arrangements and production, would be a more neutral example.

For instance, if I posted a poem by Heather Christle, we'd quickly go down a tangent about clarity and the approaching buffalo.

At 6/09/2011 6:57 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/09/2011 7:27 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/09/2011 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I still think it's better to take the poem on its own terms. Decide how it's working, not what we think the frame of mind of the author is."

Amen to that.
And as far as the abstract value of sincerity, I sometimes find myself leaning toward Oscar Wilde:
"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling."


At 6/09/2011 10:37 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/09/2011 10:42 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/10/2011 7:10 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I must encourage everyone to check out the new issue of Sous les Paves, issue #4: It goes out free if you sign up for the mailing list (though small contributions are strongly encouraged). It also eventually goes up in PDF. (write to get on the list, along with about 500 other people.) Issue #4: Correspondence to editor from Rich Owens and Amiri Baraka, Brooks Johnson, Rodrigo Toscano, Emily Critchley, William Fuller, Linh Dinh, Roberto Harrison, John Beer, Tyrone Williams, Tim Atkins, j/j hastain, Jerome Rothenberg, Hoa Nguyen, Mary Burger, Sotere Torregian, The Rejection Group, Brenda Iijima, Micah Robbins, Edmond Caldwell, Frances Kruk, Warren Craghead. The two prose pieces by Johnson (on self-immolation and ethics) and Caldwell (on the left/avant-garde poetry scene in Turkey) are simply singular, I believe.

At 6/10/2011 7:12 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

The T of C as I presented it is a bit confusing. The letters are from Rich Owens and Amiri Baraka, the rest of the authors have either poems, prose, or art in the issue.

At 6/10/2011 7:54 AM, Blogger Jordan said...


At 6/10/2011 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ovenbird. The ovenbird. The ovenbird.

At 6/11/2011 8:51 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Remarkable, how entwined the fluid lines of pettiness run inside the avant field's sputtering little engine.

But that's partly what makes things so fun and interesting, too.


At 6/11/2011 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what the pettiness is that you are seeing as specific to an aesthetic position.

You're responding to Jordan posting "Must" above. I'm not sure why you consider that petty. He was responding to you posting out fo the blue that you "must encourage everyone" to check out Sous les Paves, issue #4.
As you know.

But I can imagine that you might well have posting something similar if he posted out of the blue something about a new issue of whatever journal. the Nation or something. Yes, we all know: the two of you dislike each other. Get over it, and stop acting so persecuted.

- Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca

At 6/11/2011 9:27 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Federico Garcia Gallaher wrote:

>"But I can imagine that you might well have posting something similar if he posted out of the blue something about a new issue of whatever journal. the Nation or something. Yes, we all know: the two of you dislike each other."

Actually, no I wouldn't do that if Jordan had posted something about a publication he thought was worth noting, as SLP #4 certainly is.

But anyway, and with new sincerity, that's not what I was responding to! (Jordan's comment is so predictable, it doesn't need response, though I guess I can see why it seemed I *was* responding to it, since it *is* typically petty). It was a comment about something else/somewhere else, which I was going to follow up on, but now I don't think I will!

And you know, what you say about the mutual "animosity" betwixt JD and moi is not really true either. I can't speak for Jordan's feelings, of course, but he and I go way back, and even though he joined his name to a threatened lawsuit in attempt to prevent publication of one of my recent books, I still (again, this post is about sincerity, and I mean this sincerely) have a soft spot in my heart for him. Like a father for a wayward child, I suppose.

At 6/11/2011 9:39 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Here's another magazine worth noting, though it's premier issue hasn't appeared yet:

Claudius App.

Watch for it soon. On the World Wide Web.

At 6/11/2011 9:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Look what happens when I go to the gym! OK, so I'll avoid almost all of this to the bit that most interests me.

Kent! I would love to hear you follow up on this: "avant field's sputtering little engine".

I'm never sure what poets are in what category anymore. The New Yorker published work by Heather Christle, for example. (Just one example, examples abound.) If she's even avant.

But if this engine sputters, how does this manifest? What does it mean to have a sputtering engine? Such assertions fascinate me.

At 6/11/2011 10:11 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Federico Gallaher, back from the Gym, wrote:

>Kent! I would love to hear you follow up on this: "avant field's sputtering little engine".

Oh, it's not my best metaphor ever, but I thought it was clear enough:

It's because there barely IS anything we can call "avant" anymore. It's all Official now.

So in that sense, you know-- the sputter would be the last gasps of proclaiming "opposition,"
"radicality," "marginality," stuff like that. Got it now?

Welcome to the machine.

At 6/11/2011 10:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Sure, that works. I agree with that. But I'm not sure why you're conflating me with anonymous posters.

I promise, if I want to say something, I have no problem saying it as me. Or maybe Rilke.

At 6/11/2011 10:21 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>I'm not sure why you're conflating me with Anonymous posters...


Come on out of your lost mass posty-avanti grave somewhere among the withered olive groves, you little pipsqueak, cowardly "Lorca."

At 6/11/2011 10:48 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Dodie Bellamy says the following at HTML Giant, an interview with her. I can't quite tell if she STILL believes the notion, or not (I hope not, copied below). I've written, actually, on this long-discredited, but still widely assumed, simpleminded "post-avant" shibboleth:

>Look at the basic sentence structure of English: subject-verb-object. The subject operates upon the object. This is a syntax of domination, colonization. New experience, we idealistically believed with all our hearts, needed new forms.

At 6/18/2011 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're having trouble getting someone to fight with you these days. You must try harder. Form a group.

- Fernando António Nogueira de Seabra Pessoa

At 6/18/2011 2:39 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Anon Pessoa,

Well, it might be off-topic a bit, but Johnson's question is valid. I meant to go back to it and then forgot.

There's a conversaton to have, and more to be done with that whole critique of sentences that some poets used to say they were participting in. I haven't heard anyone talk about it in quite a while. It would be interesting to see if they are.


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