The New Sincerity Movement in Poetry

The very existence of a new sincerity movement has sparked some interesting reflection in my mind. First, I think of poets whose sincerity and focus on beauty predate this moniker: Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, B.H. Fairchild. Clearly, there has been no lack of sincerity in poetry even during the darkest hours of the postmodern period. Yet the idea of a movement, a rallying point for change, is perhaps the most “new” component of this approach.
Whether or not the label sticks out over time, the notion intrigues me. Foremost, I think of the difference between sentimentalism and sincerity, and applaud the choice of term. Sentimentalism endeavors to focus on eliciting an emotional response. Sincerity endeavors to focus on an object that might elicit such a response (such as something beautiful) and render it in an authentic way. Therefore the object of criticism in postmodernism–the deliberate attempt at an emotional appeal–has been revoked by this refocusing on not the sentiment but the authenticity, the complete rendering of the thing.

More importantly, the thing should not be rendered in a vacuum if it is to be sincere. The poet must exist, and her relationship to the object (or objects) must also exist in some form within the work. Otherwise we are talking about realism–the object rendered whole without the artist anywhere in sight. Because the relationship must exist, the tools for rendering sincerity are always in danger of slipping in to sentiment. Yet the ultimate goal of sincerity could guide the hand of the writer to steadiness. If, indeed, this were the kind of sincerity espoused by this movement.

Yet in the work I have perused so far of some poets who have taken up this badge, there is very little sense of carefulness about what is being described. So far, the only poet I have seen that approaches something uniquely sincere and also new is Joseph Massey. Others are quite the opposite–espousing a deliberate casualness, I dare say flippant, a kind of fast-talking ones way into delirium as a means of transcendence. This is itself a kind of irony, a kind of plainspoken relation to ones thoughts and senses that is deliberately fast and loose and therefore nothing like “sincere craftsmanship”. In fact, if there is any object to be carefully rendered, it is the thought. In this way, this reaction to postmodernism and post-language-poetry has failed to shake off its fundamental influences.

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.