- Poetry:The 1940s to the Present
Do we have any reason to trust a poet more than a used car salesman, or a president who looks us squarely in the camera eye and tells us that he did not have sexual relations with that woman? If the truest poetry is the most feigning, then poets are by nature four-flushers. Don't believe a word they say, and be especially on your guard when they begin to profess their sincerity. Such thoughts came to mind while reading five books up for review this year that take up the perennial topic of poetry and feigning, about which Plato, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare's Touchstone, Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden, and numerous others have had their say. Susan B. Rosenbaum's Professing Sincerity: Poetry, Commercial Culture, and the Crisis in Reading compares how three British Romantic poets and three 20th-century American poets—Frank O'Hara, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop—"professed" sincerity. Rosenbaum rejects any inherent opposition between sincerity and theatricality, or between lyric and commercial culture, and probes sincerity as a rhetorical practice conditioned by intricate relations of gender, commerce, and cultural fictions. In One Kind of Everything:Poem and Person in Contemporary America Dan Chiasson also examines how poets write autobiographically and construct personhood in a culture where sincerity is a suspect commodity. He shows how Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank Bidart, Frank O'Hara, and Louise Glück get away with it, and even Language School poets have a go at it. Reena Sastri's James Merrill: Knowing Innocence demonstrates that when it comes to innocence—sincerity's sister virtue—and to Merrill, [End Page 18] innocence is not at all so "innocent" as one might normally suppose but is all the better for it. In James Merrill and W. H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence Piotr Gwiazda notes that even before The Changing Light at Sandover Merrill outstripped Auden in making his homosexuality an overt subject in his poetry but that his "rhetoric of inauthenticity" was nevertheless vital to his self-fashioning as a gay poet. Peter Nicholls's George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism elucidates the poetics of a sober-minded poet not interested in foregrounding himself but for whom truth-telling, feigning, and sincerity were fundamental concerns in the formation of a poetics of being.
The feigning-sincerity issue is one I myself sometimes face when struggling to deliver my verdict on a book or an essay. Which mot juste will do this time? Brilliant, profound, stunning? Or smooth-as-silk "fine," although when someone writes to me of "your fine piece," I always suspect they are trying to avoid saying it bored them to tears. I therefore avoid mealymouthed "fine." The sincerest instance of my finally hitting on the right, precise adjective occurred a few years ago when, after racking my brains, I decided to call a book on rape discourse "seminal." The editor warned me I would be strung up if that ever got printed. I left it to him to find a proper encomiastic adjective. He managed just fine, without having read the book.
i Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg
Steven Gould Axelrod complicates the bedtime story of how modernism morphed into postmodernism, or didn't, in "Between Modernism and Postmodernism: The Cold War Poetics of Bishop, Lowell, and Ginsberg" (PCP 42: 1–23). He argues that Cold War poetry, coming between the two movements, fissures their status in a master critical narrative. Bishop, Lowell, and Ginsberg, chosen as exemplary poets, do not forsake the experimental spirit of modernism but detach themselves from the modernist project by espousing a "skepticism toward the institution of poetry, and toward official or aestheticized notions of art itself." This deidealizing stance afforded access in their work to deviant sexual and mental states and sanctioned a rapprochement with mass media discourse. In an era defined by what Alan Nadel has labeled "containment culture" and Tom Engelhardt "victory culture," Cold War poetry "gnaws away at the containment structures and triumphalism of normative sexuality, mood, and language." It also abandons the efforts [End Page 410] of the Anglo-American modernist project, as shaped...