Louise Glück, “Against Sincerity”

Proofs & Theories by Louise GlückProofs & Theories is a remarkable collection of essays in which Glück speaks candidly about her experience and thoughts on writing. I want to read these notes on craft not so much because she is a great essayist or critic, but because I value illumination into the mind of such a remarkable poet. Most striking to me was her essay, “Against Sincerity”–the very title seemed designed to shock. After all, I found myself ruefully laughing along with Li-Young Lee in an interview he gave with Rattle when he said:

I heard a poet say to me, ‘Oh, I hate sincerity.’ And I thought, oh, what do you like? Insincerity? I don’t get it.

I didn’t get it either. Perhaps partly because the title is so iconoclastic, Glück begins by defining terms, equating her use of the word sincerity with “telling the truth.”

Clearly, the truth is not always interesting. Nor can a poet force a reader to like a poem simply because “it really happened.” This seems to be the single greatest mistake of poets engaged with the personal lyric in our time.

Glück points out that a greater kind of “truth” can be had through a suspension of didactic conclusion, through exercising negative capability. She points out:

Keats’s theory of negative capability is an articulation of a habit of mind more commonly ascribed to the scientist, in whose thought the absence of bias is actively cultivated. It is the absence of bias that convinces, that encourages confidence, the premise being that certain materials arranged in certain ways will always yield the same result. Which is to say, something inherent in the combination has been perceived.

This is another angle on my own understanding that great poetry, in some sense, “executes” in the psyche much like software code runs in the context of computer hardware.

Interesting, also, is that Glück uses two sonnets to illustrate this capability, one from Milton, the other from Keats. This would seem to confirm Phillis Levin’s instinct in including one of Glück’s poems in her collection of Sonnets, and my own recognition of the sonnet’s influence on Glück’s ability to turn a line.

Above all, it was illuminating to read Glück espousing the greater “truth” that can be had through casting off any dogmatic adherence to fact or grasping after homily-like conclusion. What I sensed in a book like The Wild Iris was this kind of greater truth played out through the personae of plants. In a sense, Glück conceivably gives us, in some ways, a more accurate and intimate access to her inner life through this device. Though it is not in any way a factual autobiography, and though the speaker can never be said to necessarily equate to the author, this book of persona poems feels like a kind of “psychic autobiography.”

Glück confirms this as a possibility later in the collection when she writes about Eliot. Clearly, the character Prufrock is not the author Eliot–but Glück points out that Prufrock embodies many of Eliot’s concerns and that many of his later poems take the same kind of tone or voice as Prufrock. It is in this sense that exploring through negative capability helps a poet to arrive in truly unique and interesting territory–the questions that remain in the reader’s mind as perpetually more interesting than any statement of fact or any stroke, as it were, of “sincerity.”