Thursday, January 27, 2011

A little precision, please, Baby

So, this happened in December, but I just saw it today: In The Week, poet Timothy Donnelly recommends six of his favorite recent collections. Of Raptus by Joanna Klink, he writes, "Part of what makes Klink’s poems so remarkable is their refusal to rely on the ironic tones and gestures that are stock-in-trade among her contemporaries." Again, this fallacy that irony is a filter, a trick, a tone, a gimmick, a layer on top of the default, toneless baseline of sincerity. But no, sincere and ironic are both tones, both choices poets make. Saying that sincere poems "refuse to rely on ironic gestures" makes as much sense as saying that ironic poems "refuse to rely on sincere gestures." It's like saying that Shakespeare's sonnets refuse to adhere to the 5-7-5 syllabics of traditional haiku. Or that "The Waste Land" refuses to mention pandas. (There aren't any pandas in "The Waste Land," are there?)

Another line about irony that recently irked me: John Gallaher quoted this bit of a review by Cole Swenson on Monica Youn: "Though the book’s overall pose is highly ironic . . . , the ultimate irony of the book is that these poems are ultimately not ironic at all, and so risk a sincerity that our time has very little time for." I'm sorry, what? I don't know the context, but doesn't this violate the basic rule of logic that for any given property A, a thing cannot be both A and not A? How can the poems be both highly ironic and not ironic at all?

44 comments:

  1. The uninspected assertion that irony is everyone's stock-in-trade also sucks.

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  2. Exactly.

    Anyway he clearly likes irony when he likes it -- Ben Lerner makes plenty of ironic gestures.

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  3. As mentioned on twitter I don't get the objection. It's consistent to hold that "ironic" and "sincere" are both gestures but that sincere poems are relatively rare and therefore remarkable. Which is all I took Donnelly to be saying.

    I don't want to defend Swenson who does indeed sound fatuous, but it seems possible for an exceptionally ironic _book_ to be composed entirely of non-ironic poems.

    And I preemptively hate myself for pointing this out but "Waste Land." Esp. in a post about precision! Or maybe that's the ultimate irony?

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  4. Ha! See, I haven't read The Wasteland/Waste Land since college. Sorry, will correct.

    The thing is, sincere poems are NOT relatively rare. It might seem that way if you hang out in ironic circles, and read their ironic journals, but that's just assuming your little slice of the world is representative of the world at large. Isn't there a name for that bias? I'm blanking on it.

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  5. It's odd that someone with such good taste would say something like that. I hear he's a pretty good poet too.

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  6. Hey, nobody's perfect. It's not a diss on Donnelly as a person/poet/recommender of poetry, I just take issue with that statement.

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  7. There's a panda in my copy of The Waste Land (both TS Eliot's and John Beer's).

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  8. Here's some more context on the Swensen review (I went and subscribed to Lana Turner after I read that excerpt on JG's blog, which I guess is the point of such things...also, interestingly, the issue includes a poem by Timothy Donnelly--and the first I've seen from James Franco, which I take as a elegy on Heath Ledger. Anyway, speaking of A and not-A, ahem...)

    "Though the book's overall pose is highly ironic (e.g., titles such as "Landscape with Ignatz," "Ignatz Pacificus," and "Ignatz at the Shrine of Sinners"), the ultimate irony of the book is that these poems are ultimately not ironic at all, and so risk a sincerity that our time has very little time for. Youn offsets this sincerity through non-sequitur, which keeps emotion from settling and instead transforms Herriman's absurdist humor into absurdist elegance and eloquence. The absurd dimension of elegance and eloquence is the new territory that this book enters. And this is to say not simply that elegance and eloquence can be absurd--that we already know--but that they can use the absurd to carry their integrity and exigency to new extremes. This is what the emptied and renewed Ignatz has to offer."

    That's not the whole thing, but a bit more around the edges. Perhaps she means to say it's a matter of degree and not kind.

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  9. Ah, thanks for the context!

    Seems like the book is ironic in some ways and not in others. In which case "highly ironic" and "not ironic at all" both feel like overstatements. I'd describe those titles as silly or playful more than ironic, myself.

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  10. He's saying that the book's "overall pose" is "highly ironic." While I'm not sure exactly what he means by pose (faceout on the shelf?), I think it can be said that it is different from the poems themselves.

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  11. Cole Swenson is a woman, FYI. I don't really buy that a book can be highly ironic on the whole when the poems within are not ironic at all. But it would be interesting to see how that's possible.

    My guess is, she's trying to say the poems aren't just ironic -- but that doesn't mean they're not ironic at all.

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  12. I found the Youn book dull, myself. Competent in a sort of baseline high-tone lyric MFA way, but not much more. A few decent poems and moments. Neither very ironic or very sincere, if you ask me. The poems also do little with the cartoon context that their titles highlight.

    Re ironic and sincere: Trying to defend the idea of sincerity in poetry is very often a desire to defend the most conventional verse of our time not only against "ironic" verse, but against any innovation whatsoever. The sincere, emotionally "resonant" (If you say so) free verse poem remains the baseline of conventionality, in American poetry anyway, which of course is why its defenders often think of themselves as defending "tradition" against the inroads of you smartass whippersnappers who didn't walk ten miles in the snow back to your farm before you wrote your slight, ironic faddish verse.

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  13. Mark, doncha know, we don't write ironic verse, we write sincere poems, then run them through irony software.

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  14. And I'll add this new wrinkle though: these days, the concept of innovation has won out to the degree that nearly everyone wants to imagine themselves innovative. Thus, these days, sincerity often gets posited as the new innovation struggling against the common dominant conventionality of irony. I kind of long for the days, actually, when some poets would defend the value of being old-fashioned.

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  15. Yeah, I find the whole "sincerity is the new experimentalism" thing kind of facile, since the poetry best-sellers, poems in The New Yorker, stuff that gets taught and so on is all still pretty much sincere/traditional.

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  16. Yeah, I'm aware that Cole Swenson is a woman. I'm fairly familiar with her work. I was referring to the person writing about her book.

    Wait, I just got it. I was reading this whole thing as a reviewer calling Swenson's book ironic/non-ironic, not the other way around.

    Never mind.

    Hey Wallace, yr cd is in the mail.

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  17. I don't know of a particularly vivid name for that fallacy -- Wikipedia gives "fallacy of the lonely fact" and some other blander def's. I used to call it the Pauline Kael fallacy myself -- "I'm amazed Nixon won, no one I know voted for him" -- but it turns out Kael didn't really say that.

    I don't read enough poetry mags to have a sense of overall irony/sincerity ratios.

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  18. Yeah I may have been thinking of some combination of availability bias and projection bias (as in, project what seems "normal" to you as normal for everyone).

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  19. "...assuming that your little slice of the world is representative of the world at large" -- the first word that occurred to me to describe this kind of assumption is "provincial."

    Provincial (in this sense), obviously, doesn't refer just to things of or in the "provinces," out in the boonies, etc. People in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco can be just as provincial (in attitude, aesthetics, thinking, etc.) as people in Peoria or Lubbock or Walla Walla.

    To me, the key word in quoted passage by Cole Swenson is "pose." "Though the book's overall pose [my emphasis] is highly ironic..." I understand Swenson to be saying that although the book pretends to an ironic viewpoint or approach, what little bit of irony there may be is mostly just a surface affect, and that the poems in the book are not, in fact, very ironic in substance.

    I'm commenting here just on the sense I make of the short passage quoted here (both in your post and in one of the comments above). I've never read anything by either Monica Youn or Cole Swenson (other than the passage from Swenson quoted here), and I don't have an opinion about the actual substance of what Swenson is saying with regard to Youn's book.

    It seems to me that very much of life can be both A and not-A. I'm guessing that anyone who has ever been in love (just for instance) has had moments when some aspect of what they were feeling was both A and not-A.

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  20. Lyle, forgive me, but that strikes me as semantic messiness. If something seems to be both A and not A, you really mean it is [some concept close to A] and [some other concept close to A]. To simply say the thing is really A and also very much not A seems very lazy to me, a failure to find more exact terms, as well as to an attempt to sound good via repetition.

    If the poems in question have an ironic pose, then they cannot be "not ironic at all" -- they are ironic in at least one aspect (their pose). If they're not ironic at all, then they're not ironic at all.

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  21. To be a little more clear, it only seems possible for a poem to be both ironic and not ironic because "ironic" is assumed to be fuzzy and subjective.

    It doesn't seem very helpful, for example, to describe a zebra as both white and not white, when in fact it is striped.

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  22. Are zebras black with white stripes or white with black stripes?

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  23. White with black stripes, but the ultimate irony is that zebras really aren't striped at all.

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  24. Yay voice for precision. And also I totally agree that both irony and sincerity are forms of ARTIFICE. We can't get outside of it and sometimes we like to draw attention to that and sometimes we don't, right? (off to go draw pandas all over The Waste Land. (actually run and then frost cupcakes, but it's kind of the same thing, right?))

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  25. Thanks, Bronwen! Frost one with a panda for me.

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  26. Sarang: That's exactly what I meant, you got it right. This rant against my sentence seems cut and pasted from another conversation and not an unfamiliar one at that -- nor an unimportant one, I'll admit. That said, you're being a little rabid in your watchdogging, Elisa. There's nothing in what I stated that indicates "this fallacy" it means so much to you to refute. It seems that you understood my sentence on Klink's work to mean something like: "The reason Klink's new book is excellent is that she doesn't muck up the truth with dirty stupid irony like everyone else does." Hardly. Instead, you might have taken it to mean something closer to this: "One of the ways in which Klink's work differs from that of many of her contemporaries is in its relatively low incidence of certain kinds of irony readers may have come to expect from the poets of her generation." Granted, I didn't put it that way, but not because I have some weird problem with irony -- take a look at Beer's book, why don't you, or even my own -- but because that kind of phrasing would be tedious and otherwise ill-suited to the venue, and because I had crazy space constraints AND was edited and moreover, yes, because I do mean to praise Klink for what she does, which is not to say that I want to praise her for writing "largely sincerely" per se, but rather, for remaining true to her sensibility and vision despite the fact that they're at odds with, say, certain preponderant tendencies. This shouldn't imply a negative judgment of these tendencies -- again, look at what else I like, or publish, or write -- nor should it imply that I misunderstand Klink to be completely alone in this regard.

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  27. Timothy, it wasn't a criticism of you, your work, or the books you recommended, as I wrote in another comment -- I very much admire your poetry! And I admire the poets you recommended, insofar as I'm familiar with their work. Ben Lerner's book was one of my favorites of the year as well. I simply took issue with the statement, because it seemed to me to A, praise the book for something it was not doing, rather than something it was, and B, hold up irony as a kind of overused gimmick.

    I don't agree with Sarang, or you, that sincerity in poetry is rare, but I mean no disrespect to either of you. I don't see how stating my own opinion on the matter -- because the way poets and critics talk about irony is of ongoing interest to me -- is a rabid form of watchdogging.

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  28. By the way, I wasn't remotely angry when I wrote this, so I don't see how it qualifies as a "rant." Hence the joking around about pandas and whatnot. Is voicing a disagreement always a rant?

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  29. "Rant" to me doesn't mean angry per se, but excited, passionate, and usually out of proportion rather than calm, reasoned, measured. That said, you do suggest that my comment "irked" you, which indicates irritation or annoyance, right?

    I mean "watchdogging" insofar as you seem to be particularly invested (here, at least) in protecting irony from rude forces, "rabid" because it seems to me you have somewhat overzealously found them to be at work where reflection should have proven they were not.

    I don't take issue with your position on the case of irony v. sincerity, I think we probably feel similarly about it. Rather, I take issue with having something I wrote pointed to as just another example of lazy or careless thinking on the matter, when in fact it seems to me that it was rather lazily and/or carelessly misunderstood. Is that surprising?

    I don't feel you are criticizing me, my work, or the books I recommend, please don't think that's what occasioned my response. It's just that it's more than a little frustrating to have that little sentence hang there like an effigy of all the bad thinking about irony you've had enough of.

    Oh by the way to call something "remarkable" is not exactly praise, either. It means something more like "noticeable because uncommon."

    Though frustrating, this has also been interesting enough so thanks, I guess, and please know I mean no offense. I just think you have to be really careful yourself when you publicly call someone out for carelessness, and I don't think that's what's happening here.

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  30. Well, yes, excited and passionate, sure -- a good debate gets me excited, and stuff like this seems worth debating to me. Arguing with people is one of the ways I learn things.

    I'm sorry if you felt I was "calling you out" -- though technically I guess that's true, there was no meanness of spirit behind it, I was simply using the quote as a jumping off point for debate, as in "So and so said this, but I think this." I may have misread your meaning on some level, but I maintain that the "refusal" aspect seems untrue to me.

    In any case: I'll be seeking out some Klink on your recommendation.

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  31. Actually, it seems to me quite possible to describe a zebra as both white and not white, or (for that matter) as both black and not black. Both A and not-A, and/or both A' and not-A', if you like. With the qualification that not all of the zebra is either white or not white (or black or not black).

    Not very helpful, perhaps, to describe a zebra that way, but true.

    This somehow complicates things.

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  32. :)

    Well according to set theory, something CAN'T belong to both the set of things that are white and the set of things that are NOT white. At least as I understand it. Law of contradictions. But there's always fuzzy set theory!

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  33. In set-theory (or at least predicative logic) a zebra would count as both nonwhite and nonblack but neither white nor black.

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  34. To me to be a and not a seems like the normal state of affairs of most things--a/not a is paradoxical/an aporia. For sort of a leap--feminism and postcolonialism strike me as discourses which are ironic/not ironic in the sense that they often embody dynamics which are antithetical to what they're stated as trying to accomplish; but I agree that irony is not the best word choice; a state of tension/aporia/contradiction/lacunae works better for me. I am with Bronwen--both poles are points of artifice, and so perhaps artifice is the clearer term to work within.

    I may as well declare that I think of myself as saluting the sincere, because I tend to think of irony as safe/tidy; that "said," one could read at-least half of the poems I write as intensely ironic. And it doesn't strike me as absurd to ask: how on earth can a poem be sincere when a construct made of language is always already unstable/pollyvocal. For example, a poem which states one should do acts a b and c in the name of justice is inherently ironic because for one thing instruction can always potentially be unjust, and as well the likelihood of anyone heeding the instruction is unlikely so there's a contradictory--or ironic--state. I'm not sure I'm making sense and I hope all's well!

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  35. Donne's Holy Sonnets--to me--are a great example of irony.

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  36. To be in keeping with logic, I'd argue that a poem can be both ironic and sincere, but not both ironic and not ironic.

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  37. Because it's so easy to fall into binaristic thought, I'd argue a lot of people would construe not ironic as sincere, or in the vicinity; I am pretty sure I agree with your point though because the binary I've mentioned is for sure not foolproof!

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  38. Well, something could be not ironic, and still not sincere -- take outright lies, for instance. :)

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  39. I agree--hence my writing against the binary in prior comment. Given this thread, I'd guess you are anti-paradox? Or is that a different state to you? I find myself finding paradox irritating/often an excuse for undeveloped thinking but also can't help but thinkfeeling such states are true, too. Urgh, truth is so often so utterly irritating/gross. I think the notion of truth as always desirable/the golden quantity utterly absurd and hierarchical. Horrifying imperialism is totally true--it's just a really unlovely truth. Oh I think I'm blathering abhout how it seems like people often conflate truth to justice; how lol!

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  40. No, I'm not anti-paradox -- I'm pro paradox in art, but I guess I'm anti contradiction in criticism. Art doesn't have to be logical, but I prefer criticism that is.

    Yep, truth is not beauty!

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  41. I like the art/criticism distinction; I think that may be a major reason why belles lettres style reviews often annoy me: the response to the poem is itself a poem etc.

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