Friday, June 10, 2011

Sincerity Once Again

Jeff Koons - Cut-Out
So, was he being sincere when he (maybe) made this?

Describing movements and artistic tendencies is always going to fail in the face of examples, due to overriding differences in temperament among the authors in the movement, so I’ll stick with just this question of sincerity and leave the other half of the movement that questions and works with spirituality (and myth and Necessary Fiction, etc.) off for now, but I’m still thinking about them as part of the same general tendency. And once again, because I listen to a lot of music, I’ll start with a couple bands for the soundtrack (look them up on YouTube, if you don't know them well. It'll be worth your time, promise):

Destroyer – Kaputt
Bon Iver – Bon Iver

You can tell immediately the gestural, non-linear lyrics, the use of cliché or kitschy arrangements that sound like they’ve been appropriated whole measure from a 1986 Pat Metheny recording session.

“You’ve got to be kidding me” is one reaction this work risks.
“Is this hollow irony? Is it satire? Is it serious?”
“Is it making fun of me for listening to it/reading it?”

Moments of incongruity abound in this art (music, poetry, visual art). Syntax that twists, breaks, stutters, or otherwise risks incomprehension. Methods that utilize outdated, or kitsch, or tonally “inappropriate” material. Earnest, non-winking delivery. Playing it straight: Just because we’re scared of death doesn’t mean the poem is.

This poetry will usually have surreal elements, and/or elements from the rhetoric and imagery of fairy tales. There will often be something in it that someone will call “inappropriate.” It’s usually playful, which can contribute to a feeling of inappropriateness, depending on the content. Is it serious? Does this poet mean it? This is why the question of sincerity rises.



Heather Christle: What I actually said was “Bewilderment is the new New Sincerity,” which was a very funny joke.

I try not to aim for bewilderment too often, because I find I get more excited about making confident statements, ones that are frequently misguided. I like a poem to steer me wrong. I like an authoritative gasp of the absurd. I don’t want to be a sad little adorable poet in a big confusing world. I want my poems to be the big confusing world.

That said, there are moments when my poems and speakers do get into that bewildered state. It happens. It’s okay.

Good, wholesome fun? Comment on society and gender? And what does the ASPCA think?

What some have called “The New Sincerity” (which started as a joke, but maybe caught on, and then is maybe furthered by Christle as a joke, but which seems to be catching on), isn’t about sincerity, it isn’t proclaiming itself as sincere, and it isn’t using direct autobiography. What it does is it raises the question of sincerity in much the same way that Jeff Koons does in his art. Examples, along with the poetry of Heather Christle: Zachary Schomburg, Julie Doxsee, Mathias Svalina, and Julia Cohen, to name just a few (off the top of my head). There are many more. I’m being kind of Octopus-centric in my thinking right now.

Here’s a poem at random from Heather Christle, from Boston Review:

Acorn Duly Crushed

Dear stupid forest.
Dear patently retarded forest.
Dear beautiful ugly stupid forest
full of nightingales
why won’t you shut up.
What do you want from me.
A train is too expensive.
A clerk will fall asleep.
Dear bitchy stupendous forest.
Trade seats with me.
Now it is your birthday.
Someone will probably slap you
about the face and ears.
Indulgent municipal forest.
Forest of scarves and of beards.
Dear rapid bloodless forest
you are talking all the time.
You are not pithy.
You are like 8,000 swans.
I cannot fit you in my mouth.
Dear nasty pregnant forest.
You are so hot!
You are environmentally significant.
Men love to hang themselves
from your standard old growth trees.
Don’t look at me.
You are the one with
the ancient noble terror.
Bad forest. Forest with
important gangs of leaves.
Dear naïve forest,
what won’t you be admitting!
Blunt international forest.
Forest of bees and of hair.
You should come back to my house.
We can bag drugs all night.
You can tell me
about your new windows.
How they are just now
beginning to sprout.

Some of this sounds like the Gurlesque, some of this sounds like Elliptical Poetry. Some people will say it’s nothing new. Some will say it’s wild and uninhibited.

This review of the new album by the Cults describes this tendency well:

“Madeline Follin’s voice is high and extremely girlish, Brian Oblivion’s arrangements are perky, bright and obviously indebted to a more innocent era of pop. Their first album as Cults can get extremely twee, sometimes aggravatingly precious. What makes the record work is that the two find ways to subvert their youthful sound, or at least add a touch of darkness to songs that would be little more than adorably melodramatic in lesser hand. 'Bad Things,' my favorite song from the album, really creeps me out. It’s very catchy and sounds sweet, but when I hear it, I just expect something incredibly bad to happen to its protagonist. There’s something very portentous about this track — that I can’t quite piece together a narrative but feel sure of the subtext only intensifies my feeling of ‘ahhhh, no!’ when I hear Follin’s tiny voice sing ‘I’m gonna run away and never come back.’”



At 6/10/2011 12:58 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

A 1986 Pat Metheny record? Oh, you mean "Song X," with Ornette Coleman!

Warning: do not listen to this music while tripping unless you REALLY like both tripping and this music!

At 6/10/2011 2:05 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, I guess, thinking further, the production, especially on "Beth/Rest" sounds like a mix of Bruce Hornsby ("Mandolin Rain") and Night Ranger ("When You Close Your Eyes"?), maybe. As for Pat Metheny, I was thinking more along the lines of "First Circle" from 1984. I just guessed at the date.

At 6/10/2011 2:09 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

With maybe a bit of Peter Gabriel here and there, when the drums kick in.

At 6/10/2011 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This week Metheny talked to scientists about musicianship, in terms that could be interesting to poets ...


At 6/10/2011 6:10 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This part is lovely:

“Lately, I’ve been thinking about jazz not so much as a destination but as a process, but even more than that as a symptom.”
—Pat Metheny

At 6/10/2011 6:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That poem seems fun enough, and I get the Bon Iver thing, but it still gives me the feeling of an HTML Giant club. I don't get the feeling they'll return your calls.

At 6/10/2011 7:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's refreshing hearing someone talk clearly and honesty about improvisation. So often I suspect people describe their process as it's supposed to be, according to whatever theory or trope is in vogue. Metheny is actually saying he hears one thing in his head, and then something quite different (often less good) comes out. I'm betting this is a lot of people's experience, but they won't say so, because it's wrong.

In photography (probably my most serious affliction) it's been trendy since the early 20th century to speak of "pre-visualization" ... by which you mentally picture your final print down to the last detail before clicking the shutter. I think this is bullshit, and that no one does this, and that if anyone actually succeeded, the results would be flat and predictable.

But it's not cool, at least in certain traditional circles, to admit you don't employ that magical power.

Both of these examples are about absolute control, in situations where something closer to the opposite might be preferable.


At 6/10/2011 7:41 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Neil Young, for one, speaks almost this same way about playing electric guitar. Poets, I don’t know about. Jamming, or improvisation, has the nearest cognate in what a lot of people would call a first draft, I guess? When talking about that, a lot of poets say something similar to Metheny. At least I think so. That seems a decent description of it. The trick is what a poet does after that. How much to “work it up” or to say “first thought best thought.”


I don’t know any of these poets well, though I do know some of them a little. They seem approachable and nice to me. A lot of people talk about TABLE X (where a lot of these poets can be found) at AWP as a sort of clique, and maybe it is, but it doesn’t seem exclusionary. Maybe it does to others, though? I’ve no idea.

At 6/11/2011 4:39 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/12/2011 6:09 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

The other night I watched a documentary about the making of the film Taxi Driver. Some actors talk about how they altered and fleshed out Schrader's screenplay through improvisation. Off set, Scorcese videotaped them improvising around Schrader's dialogue, and then he made the parts he liked indelible additions to the script. The film you see was shot in a deliberate way. It's Captain Beefhearty: premeditated spontaneity, like Trout Mask Replica: apparently extemporaneous but really planned. I work the same way. I improvise, pick out the good parts, and carpenter together what I call the finished product--a blood-drenched abattoir, like the end of Taxi Driver.

"I really think that meaningfulness can't get along without randomness, and that they somehow have to be brought together."--Ashbery

"The lesson I learned [from bebop jazz] was: cultivate controlled anarchy."--Simic

At 6/12/2011 6:22 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

"I do not like seeing poetry as literature rather than art and I'm not happy with the separation of Poetry and the sister arts, I prefer to see Art as Art."--Michael McClure


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