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Jason Morris

The Time Between Time:

Messianism & the Promise of a “New Sincerity”

paragraph 1

“I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity”

— Ezra Pound, A Retrospect


Artists in a variety of media have been talking about a “New Sincerity.” In poetry, Andrew Mister, Joseph Massey, and Anthony Robinson have written manifestos. Drawing is the new old thing in visual art; in their use of the long take, among other stylistic devices, Wes Anderson and a few other young filmmakers (maybe quoting Dogme, Expressionism or Neo-Realism), nod toward the medium’s first promise — to be an “honest” representation of reality. In pop music, folk is making a resurgence. Performers like Will Oldham, Cat Power, Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom play with a kind of lo-fi, scaled-back immediacy which has been widely welcomed by audiences and critics alike. The Believer (whose name itself denotes a wide-eyed credulity) is among America’s best and most widely circulated literary magazines; its credo in large part defines it as against the ironic, the cynical, etc. (The Doubter?). And yet all of these seem to be immanent critiques of irony: if irony is the black, rich bed of dirt out of which these movements blossom, to what degree does the sincerity they anticipate remain within its magnetic poles? To what extent are these artists anticipating a telos of irony, even while operating within its present field of influence and drawing on its (bottomless) history? [1]


Many of the contemporary poets to whose work I might initially turn in trying to locate the possibility of a “New Sincerity” would most likely shudder at that or any such appellation. Along with Andrew Mister, Joseph Massey and Anthony Robinson, I’m drawn to a group of poets as diverse as Dave Berman, Catherine Wagner, Dean Young, Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Frederick Seidel, and Arielle Greenberg, to name just a few. What characteristics could the poems of this extremely varied crowd share? In Tao Lin’s poems, as in Catherine Wagner’s, there’s a level of directness that’s like a punch in the gut; I find this (albeit at a more subdued register) in Seidel’s poems as well as Dave Berman’s. Matt Hart and Dean Young often share a Romantic exuberance, a slow, child-like wonder at the world that makes it no surprise they consider poets like Gregory Corso and Kenneth Koch big influences. Revealing their mutual debts to the work of poets like Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan (among many, many others), in the work of almost all of the poets on this provisional list, the distinction between “poetic” concerns on the one hand, and the jetsam of pop culture and the everyday details of life on the other, has long since vanished.


          When I first read Greg Fuchs’ poem “Charles” in CyPress magazine, I was struck by how generously it seemed to accommodate all of the various characteristics I’ve provisionally listed above as possible parts of a “New Sincerity” within a radically artless tone of voice. It’s probably worth pointing out that this effect is pretty natural: apparently, Fuchs collaged the piece together out of journal scraps left behind by his friend, Charles. The poem surges feverishly across 3 or 4 pages, mutating to different line-lengths and rarely pausing to catch its breath in a rush to convey any and all of the details of its surroundings:


I talk a lot when I’m nervous.
The six-foot stocky weird guy.
Why don’t I care about the sick guy?
I came for your urgency.
Your life was one long emergency.
Plucked and pencilled eyebrows.
Barbie pink eye-shadow. Liquid eyeliner.
Public high spirits in the night. The hot wind blows by the door
solidly solitary. Hacienda hotel at LAX.
Here are all the hookers. Wanting a cowboy hat
reading Low Life. The cripple on the corner cries
out nickels for your pity. Eng 30 Amer Lit. What is
your expected family contribution. Nick E. 668-9141.
In Hoboken to hear Urge Overkill. Feel real weird.


A surfeit of detail — from the totally mundane (“wanting a cowboy hat”), to the merely practical (phone numbers), to the nightmarish (hookers, cripples) — exists in simultaneity, flattened. The sincerity the poem offers is emphatic, democratic, collapsed. There is a sense of urgency in wanting to convey as much information as possible, with as little artifice — as much “sincerity” — as possible, regardless of whether or not the information conveyed “matters.” Lyrically formulated, “poetic” concerns (“solidly solitary,” “urgency” / “emergency”) bump elbows with administrative language (“expected family contribution”), which gives way to pop-culture references (“Urge Overkill”).


          I was similarly awe-struck when I opened an issue of Canary and read Matt Hart’s poem “I was Dumb with Pearls, I was Dumb.”


                                                           What was
funny stayed funny, because nothing was funny
anymore. I was your man, and we were awfully sad.
I was boiling peanuts and bluebirds for the big game

on Sunday. I was a mess of bright lights and redecorated
walls. Physical prowess had never been one of my
strengths, and now it would have to wait until spring
everlasting. I was famished. I was taking the enemy
blue cheese in a bag, wanting a friend more than anything else.


The jacket copy for the book in which the poem later appeared, Who’s Who Vivid, reads, “Matt Hart brings the so-called ‘New Sincerity’ to the forefront of American poetry with his stunningly kinetic debut collection. Stripped of the pretense, hyper-irony and posturing of much of the writing of his peers, Hart’s is a heartfelt poetry that alternately celebrates and berates human existence.” Matt Hart’s excellent essay, “An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity,” was one of the first to name a “New Sincerity” as such. What might make a poem like “I was Dumb with Pearls, I was Dumb” sincere, or part of a “New Sincerity”? Like Fuchs’ poem, there is a sense of urgency to the way the poem moves along; also, there is a candor that seems un-self-conscious it might be veering toward sentimentality (“wanting a friend more than anything else”).


          Jon Woodward’s excellent book-length poem (or collection of very short poems) Rain seems to epitomize a lot of these characteristics of a “New Sincerity.” Its opening lines signal a willingness on the part of the poet to give equal airtime to both the heavy problems of the heart as well as the most everyday concerns of living in twenty-first century America. The book opens,


in spite of which it’s
hard to imagine it all
going to shit the pinkflowering
dogwood for example is my
newest favorite tree the decay

of what world we’ve got’s
not exactly what I’m afraid
of not now the woman
brings the cheeseburger I ordered
here come the selections the

jukebox converted five of my
quarters into in the correct
order what questions then to
ask for what if anything
about this coffee these fries

-------------------------------------------------- page break / new poem ------

it’s going to rain I’m
going to go see Spider
Man by the time the
theater lets out it’ll be


In medias res, immediately in lower case, we are presented with the idea of “it all / going to shit:” although the possibility is cancelled as it’s presented, it’s recalled in the phrase “what world we’ve got.” But this grave line of thought into which we’ve been thrown resolves into waiting for a cheeseburger, putting songs on a jukebox, and going to see Spider Man. As in O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, or Ted Berrigan’s “list” poems, the juxtaposition of these details within a more “poetic” train of thought suffuses the speaker’s tone with a disarming kind of artlessness that could be called “sincerity.” There’s an artlessness to the form, here, as well: each of the poems (or stanzas) in the book are made up of five lines, with five words to a line, and no punctuation. The lack of punctuation also lends to the poems a subdued but forceful directness. This is a rigorous form, but it comes across as very straightforward. The narrator of these poems could be writing them on a napkin, quickly, giving as much weight to whether or not the jukebox will convert his quarters into songs in the right order as to how easy or hard it would be to “imagine it all / going to shit.”


          That all of these workings of “sincerity” are being engaged in Woodward’s Rain seems apparent at first glance. But there’s a profound disjointedness of temporality running through these poems which often seems to be the source out of which they’ve sprung to life. To begin with, there’s the weird near-prolepsis of “it’s going to rain /... / by the time the / theater lets out it’ll be / raining” (an oblique nod, maybe, to Stevens’ “it was snowing, / and it was going to snow”). The whole opening of the book signals its deeply complex, paradoxical portrayal of time. By the time the narrator considers “the decay / of what world we’ve got,” this consideration slightly unravels the previous assertion “it’s / hard to imagine it all / going to shit,” which has itself already been neutralized by the (missing) qualifier in front of “in spite of it all.” The chronology of cause and effect makes it impossible to know whether it’s possible to imagine it has or has not already “all gone to shit.”


In the midst of “Rain, Ocean,” the second section of Rain, the narrator realizes the event of the poem with startling clarity. He’s talking about his friend, Patrick, and he writes,


it’s not that he died
it’s that he won’t stop
dying and reemerging fully ordinary
through ordinary doors saying in
his own voice hey brother


In the chronology of the poem, Patrick’s death has been both digested and remains undigestible: up to this point in “Rain, Ocean,” Patrick has existed as a character. As readers we are taken by total surprise to learn that Patrick is dead, just as it seems to have taken the narrator by surprise. The death of the narrator’s friend is the event which, in the poem, always has yet to occur and also has always already occurred: in this way the poem gathers force and momentum and comes into being precisely within a temporal paradox. In a world in which it’s possible to imagine everything going to shit, it’s equally possible to imagine everything already has.[2]

II. Koolhaas, Nealon, Agamben


Rem Koolhaas, in a brilliant attack on the architecture (and, more generally, on a kind of cultural ambience) he calls “Junkspace,” puts his finger on the concerns of a lot of younger American poets writing in the wake of Language poetry. He writes,


Earthlings now live in a kindergarten grotesque...Junkspace thrives on design, but design dies in Junkspace. There is no form, only proliferation...Regurgitation is the new creativity; instead of creation, we honor, cherish, and embrace manipulation... Superstrings of graphics, transplanted emblems of franchise and sparkling infrastructures of light, LEDs, and video describe an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar...Pretending histories left and right, its contents are dynamic yet stagnant, recycled or multiplied as in cloning...


Poets in their twenties and thirties, who have grown up in this “authorless world beyond anyone’s claim,” have made it their job to untangle its paradoxical simulacra: that it is “always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar,” and maybe most importantly, that it “pretend[s] histories left and right,” that “its contents are dynamic yet stagnant, recycled or multiplied as in cloning.”


In his essay “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” Christopher Nealon identifies one of the primary stances contemporary poets have taken in the wake of Language poetry toward the cultural ambiences Rem Koolhaas identifies in “Junkspace.” Nealon writes,


Many of the post-Language writers seem to have taken a kind of Frankfurt school turn in their poems, by which I mean not so much that they are crankily denouncing a culture industry — though they may — or critically miming ‘‘authoritarian’’ types of language — though they do — but that they have become invested in a historical story about what Theodor Adorno called “damaged life,” or what Susan Stewart might call the ‘‘fate’’ of the material world, its pasts and possible futures. Unlike Adorno or Walter Benjamin, though, many of the post-Language poets have struck a kind of camp posture toward the ‘‘damage’’ of late capitalism, in a way that borrows from but re-interprets both the messianism of Adorno and Benjamin and the subcultural (especially queer) trajectory of camp.


We all know what camp is. Camp is the knowing reappropriation of cultural objects that are ‘all surface,’ that are way over-done. Tiffany lamps. Black velvet Elvis paintings. Dale Earnhart wall plaques.[3] But what is meant by a “historical story”? If  a lot of younger poets are writing about “the ‘fate’ of the material world, its pasts and possible futures,” to what degree might these concerns reflect or grow out of what Koolhaas describes as Junkspace’s tendency to “pretend histories left and right”?


Camp is probably an inevitable style for poets who are writing in and for a culture awash in artifice and stylization, for younger poets born knowing that more eloquent, earnest tones of voice have been priced off the market. Maybe those poets who wish most passionately to critique what Koolhaas calls “Junkspace” cannot resort to anything other than the camp mode in order to do so. Envisioning it this way, a New Sincerity that billed itself as such would be an immanent critique of what it seeks to align itself against: a moment simultaneously within and beyond camp, commenting on its history as the history of Junkspace; the moment perpetually marking itself off as irony’s last gesture, or (same thing) as the commencement of a “New Sincerity.”[4]


Very basically, I want to suggest that the element of Camp, in Nealon’s “Camp Messianism” tempers a “messianism” granted freer rein by the prospect of a “New Sincerity.” I want to investigate the degree to which the messianic impulse inherent in the promise of a “New Sincerity” is primarily a modality, and to suggest that, as such, it is a technique. Sincerity in new poetry is, above all else, the hyper-awareness of a paradoxical modality; it is a writing from within the paradoxical already / not yet of the possibilities of Nealon’s “Late-Late Capitalism,” which Koolhaas enumerates in “Junkspace:” globalization, the inescapable ubiquity of irony, liquidation of subjectivity, total commodification, pure war. A lot of the best poetry in which there seems to be a drive toward a kind of sincerity also seems intelligently aware it is always already arriving too late. It is a kind of sincerity putting on its hat as it runs out the door: an “impotential” sincerity — a sincerity cognizant of its own “teleological ineffectiveness” — a modal sincerity — a sincerity “too late” to have effected (itself). Like a deer in the headlights, it stands dumbstruck at the onrush of these threats, even while casting an honest glance into the rearview mirror, looking back to see whether or not the inevitable crash has already occurred.


Given the enormity of the threats of Late-Late Capitalism, and what may be perceived as their affiliation with certain currents in contemporary American poetry (particularly with Language and post-Language poetry — see footnote above), it’s no wonder poets claiming the mantle of a New Sincerity would react with manifestos proclaiming, as Joseph Massey did in “EAT SHIT!: A Manifesto for the New Sincerity,”


To talk back to the radio, stinking of your own shit, is to be sincere. To talk back to the radio without making a stupid Derrida-lubricated joke, is to be sincere. The New Sincerity communicates with the little boombox inside of all of us. The New Sincerity ends paranoia by not being afraid to show people the shit particles that hide in every asshole. Don’t plasticize your shit with dildonic irony. Keep it real, ass.

The New Sincerity rejects Top Gun sunglasses and floppy bangs that scream “trying too hard!”

The New Sincerity rejects the inside egg-headed jokes of academic crackers!



On first reading this it seemed to me to fit a very basic, intuitive definition of messianism: Something’s Coming. Something that will do good, something that will heal, something that will reverse wrongs. Likewise, but maybe less urgently, Anthony Robinson, in “A Few Notes From A New Sincerist,” writes,


The New Sincerity has built-in irony. There’s nothing “new” about sincerity.


In simplest terms, the New Sincerist poets try to write and promote poetry that is more than just jokes, or just post-modern, post-language, post-avant, post-lacan, or post-whatever. Poetry that is about theory, or that is overwhelmed by theory is not interesting to us. Neither is poetry that keeps winking at us, winking at itself without really talking. Moving its lips.


We don’t know what literary irony is. Really. I mean is it ironic to cut off one’s hair to buy a gift for one’s spouse only to learn that spouse bought one a set of curlers? Maybe. Or it’s just bad luck. Or good luck. I’m not sure a set of curlers is a very good gift. A comb, maybe. A bejeweled comb. Bejeweled bobby pins.


I propose that we stop using the term “irony.” It confuses me. Its usual application goes far beyond its dictionary definition. What’s that about a word repeated too often...

In that case, both “new” and “sincerity” will be bankrupt terms by the time school starts.


Irony is dead. Irony is not dead. For the New Sincerity, irony is the main event of contemporary poetry. The manifestos urgently preach simultaneously that the end of irony is near and yet that irony is dead. So which is it? In the paradoxical modality out of which both of these manifestos have been written, irony is the event the New Sincerity proposes to write the end of, even while struggling within it, as part of its history. If the New Sincerity preaches that the end of irony is upon us, even while claiming to “have built-in irony,” then the New Sincerity must itself be a remnant of irony (hyper-irony?) coming to terms (terminally) with its own compromised temporality, with its relation to itself as within the temporal scope of the irony it claims to be burying.


Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans delivers the goods on the messianic overtones of any promise of a “New Sincerity.” Read together with Nealon’s essay, it added great depth to my understanding of Nealon’s use of the term “messianism.” Nealon’s use of the term, like Agamben’s, bears directly on what Nealon calls the “redemptive historiography” or “historical story” at work in an essay by Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Without going into great length on the Benjamin essay itself, I want to examine Agamben’s use of the term “messianism,” and then to return to the possibility of a “New Sincerity” bearing that usage in mind.


Agamben argues that Paul’s epistle to the Romans and Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” are the basic examples of what he terms “messianism” in western literature. Agamben writes,


Whatever the case may be, there is no reason to doubt that these two fundamental messianic texts of our tradition, separated by almost two thousand years, both written in a situation of radical crisis, form a constellation whose time of legibility has finally come today, for reasons that invite further reflection. Das Jetzt der Lesbarkeit, “the now of legibility” (or of “knowability,” Erkennbarkeit) defines a genuinely Benjaminian hermeneutic principle, the absolute opposite of the current principle according to which each work may become the object of infinite interpretation at any given moment (doubly infinite, in the sense that interpretations are never exhaustive and function independently of any historical-temporal situation). Benjamin’s principle instead proposes that every work, every text, contains a historical index which indicates both its belonging to a determinate epoch, as well as its only coming forth to full legibility at a determinate historical moment.


Messianism, Agamben argues, is marked most primarily in both texts by an exigency inherent in the writing. Both Paul and Benjamin are writing out of a radically contracted kind of temporality, a sort of collapsed modality. If messianism offers the possibility of recoverable meaning, it does so in full knowledge of the crushed time-frame in which that offer stands. Agamben writes, “messianic time is the time that time takes to come to an end, or, more precisely, the time we take to bring to an end, to achieve our representation of time.” And elsewhere:


It concerns a tension that clasps together and transforms past and future, typos and antitypos, in an inseparable constellation. The messianic is not just one of two terms in this typological relation, it is the relation itself. This is the meaning of the Pauline expression, “for us, upon whom the ends of the ages are come face to face with each other.” The two ends of the olam hazzeh and the olam babba contract into each other without coinciding; this face to face, this contraction, is messianic time, and nothing else.


Any “New Sincerity,” it seems to me, would emulate the urges Agamben locates in Paul’s messianism. It would assume a (secular) messianic style, one in which the events foreclosing it were all the threats of late-late capitalism, particularly the inevitability of the camp mode itself. In other words it would be a style operating out of the following temporally paradoxical formulation: is it too late to be unironic / has the time come that we are beyond irony? Insofar as irony operates stylistically as a dumbshow, miming the impossibility of a hermeneutics of recovery, the messianic offers a temporally contingent, impossibly potential, opening in the text. In the case of the possibility of a “New Sincerity,” the offer of a messianism without the prefix “Camp” to qualify it allures that group of younger poets for whom it is precisely that qualifier itself which they seek to interrogate. A “New Sincerity” would therefore be a part of what Nealon describes as Camp Messianism, but a form of Camp Messianism in which the Camp element has been stripped away, or has been so fully devoured and digested that it has been rendered invisible. For a lot of contemporary poets, this secularized version of Agamben’s messianic “time of the now” has become an unavoidable concern.


It is the messianism of Camp Messianism, in the sense Agamben gives the term (and not simply in the sense of “something’s coming to reverse the wrongs”), that is the promise of a “New Sincerity.” Sincerity is, or should be, above all else, a radical awareness in poetry of modality, of temporality. It is a writing from within the paradoxical already / not yet of the terrible possibilities of what Nealon calls Late-Late Capitalism, and which Rem Koolhaas enumerates in “Junkspace:” total commodification, globalization, the inescapability of irony and the camp mode. What is most important to these poets is that these threats may already have happened, that their outcomes may have already come to pass. Perhaps there is a quality in certain contemporary writing which senses that these threats are no longer threats, that we are living and writing in their wake.

III. Actual Air, The Totality for Kids, What Is Said To The Poet Concerning Flowers, Rain


Actual Air, David Berman’s collection of poems, made a huge impact on me. I remember inhaling it the same summer I first read Skid, by Dean Young, and I’ve read and re-read the following lines of “Self Portrait at 28” many times since:


There are things I’ve given up on
like recording funny answering-machine messages.
It’s part of growing older
and the human race as a group
has matured along the same lines.
It seems our comedy dates the quickest.
If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare’s jokes
I hope you won’t be insulted
if I say you’re trying too hard.
Even sketches from the original Saturday Night Live
seem slow-witted and obvious now.

It’s just that our advances are irrepressible.
Nowadays little kids can’t even set up lemonade stands.
It makes people too self-conscious about the past,
though try explaining that to a kid.

I’m not saying it should be this way.

All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones,
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.
We will travel to Mars
even as folks on Earth
are still ripping open potato chip
bags with their teeth.


Like Fuchs’ “Charles,” Woodward’s Rain, and Matt Hart’s “I Was Dumb With Pearls, I Was Dumb,” “Self Portrait at 28” is delivered in a laconic, desultorily “artless” tone of voice that nevertheless happens to always hit the mark; it doesn’t mind allowing heavier, more ostensibly ‘poetic’ concerns to meld into the dolorous concerns of modern living, and it honestly strays toward sentimentality, even while letting you know it’s aware that it may be doing so (one of my favorite lines from “Self Portrait at 28”: “Friends warned me not to get too psychedelic / or religious with this piece”). One main difference between this poem and those listed above is that this section, and maybe the poem generally, takes up as its subject the time between time, the messianic “now.” The poem sets up camp in the DMZ of this temporal paradox, and becomes about its own place in the already / not yet of the right now: “It’s just that our advances are irrepressible.” It’s as if the poem’s understanding of its own obsolescence is built in, and comes to constitute its power.


          Several of the poems in Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids (a book excerpted and examined by Christopher Nealon in his essay) also realize themselves as inhabitants of this messianic “time of the now.” They speak out of this compressed time-frame, looking forward toward an unrealized, perhaps unrealizable, end. Two of the poems in the collection mirror one another or work as anagrams of one another. Here’s the first of the two, “Auteur Theory,” in its entirety:


And then at the last second, after the conceptual, after graffiti, after the Top 40, during architecture, after great pain, after mystery, after the feuilleton, after the blue suburbs, after Malevich, after the rise of the south, after indeterminacy, after Gerhard Richter, under the snow, after dinner, after the red suburbs, after New French Girlfriend, after the movie, after unitary urbanism, after indie rock,


What ultimately makes “Auteur Theory” compelling is its urgently headlong rush. Whatever it seeks to name (itself?) at the end of the long prepositional clause of which it is constituted, the poem gains some serious momentum in a quick amount of space, as though it absolutely needs to convey these directions to an impossible temporal location which seems to lie simultaneously in the near future and yet also in the immediate past.  


Although it’s not necessarily immediately apparent, “Self-Portrait at 28” conveys a similarly urgent tone, albeit strangely laid-back. It’s an urgency to mention that it’s “all gone to shit” after it already may have. This sort of laid-back urgency (something like what Nealon calls “rueful astonishment”) may contribute to or even constitute the deadpan humor that runs through Berman’s poem, and through many of the other poems I’ve looked at here. In Woodward’s “Rain, Ocean,” it is this urgency which necessitates the apparent sincerity, rather than the other way around. In order for us to be moved by this profoundly moving poem, we must accept that the poem builds its power precisely within the impossible modality out of which it has sprung (“it’s not that he died / it’s that he won’t stop / dying”). It feels as though it had to have been written in between the time Patrick died and the time he had not yet died. For Agamben, this “had to have been written” is crucial: the defining characteristic of messianism, for Agamben, is an urgency inherent to the writing arising out of temporal crisis.  


This is the exigency Benjamin is writing about when he says, in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,”


The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us:” in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.


Agamben cites Benjamin as writing elsewhere,


it is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal (continuous), the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical, in leaps and bounds.


The dialectical nature of this relation (“of the what-has-been to the now”), and the poem’s genesis out of its workings, are of primary concern to Brian Kim Stefans. The first section of “The Screens,” a series included as part of his excellent collection What Is Said To The Poet Concerning Flowers, chart or diagram the way “what has been” might “come together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” This poem, “Axis Thinking,” shares with Clover’s poem a similar tone of exigency. The poem is a rapid-fire list of disjointed pairs which begins,


Ambient ⇔ “Idiot energy.” “Plain speech” ⇔ Baroque. Eliot’s idea of “good” (Goethe) ⇔ Eliot’s idea of “evil” (Baudelaire). The poetry of bulk ⇔ Arid extra dry. Boy those Asians are smart ⇔ Boy those Asians are dumb. The Who ⇔ The Beatles. Helen Keller / Arakawa ⇔ Anthony Hecht / Yasusada. The standard ⇔ The non-standard. Cult of speed (Bruce Andrews) ⇔ Cult of slowness (Mei-mei Bersenbrugge). ⇔Utopia (punk) ⇔ Fatalism (grunge). Fashion ⇔ Ethics. Extreme ⇔ Center. Pragmatism (American) ⇔ Catholicism (French). Gertrude Stein ⇔ Ezra Pound.


These defy easy logic in their pairings: sometimes they seem to be fields of influence (troubling, perhaps, the chronological neatness of theories like Bloom’s anxiety of influence, or the agon); other times (“simple”) cause / effect, or thesis / antithesis. Of course they also satirize the reductive neatness of the binary as a formulation as such. But as the poem’s momentum builds (it goes on for another forty or so lines), the signifier “⇔,” already maddeningly ambiguous even in this extremely ambiguous matrix, becomes the site of the poem’s urgency. The moment of the poem is this ⇔, which points in both directions (thereby occupying both and neither of the binary categories on either side of it), and leveling or collapsing any ontological or chronological hierarchy between the two. The ⇔ is the moment of crisis the poem takes shape out of; in its compressed ambivalence, it represents a moment simultaneously before and after, a sort of time between time, or, as Agamben puts it, “the time we take to bring to an end, to achieve our representation of time.”


Like Clover’s poems, Kim Stefans’ poems look “theory-driven,” or “experimental” (compared with, say, Rain or Actual Air): there is nothing conventionally narrative about them; likewise, their brand of artlessness is less traditional. Nevertheless they are  straightforward and direct (in some ways, much more so), and share with Clover’s poems both a breathless urgency and an overwhelming concern with the messianic time of the now. But are “sincerity” and “theory” really mutually exclusive? Like irony, what could exist free of or impervious to theory? When Massey writes, “FUCK YOU, and your THEORY GOGGLES!,” the implied formula is: Sincerity, not Theory. Or, as Anthony Robinson puts it, “Poetry that is about theory, or that is overwhelmed by theory is not interesting to us.” But this is only the most basic, maybe wishful, form of messianism a New Sincerity could manifest, the “something’s coming” formulation in which Theory / Irony stands on one side of an equation against which stands a Sincerity yet to be realized. Instead: both “Sincerity” and “Theory” inhabit the same fugitive moment. The moment of crisis for a New Sincerity is that it exists both before and after the intrusion of theory, or the inevitability of irony. As Kim Stefans might put it: Irony ⇔ Sincerity. The amorphous assumption which may surround the prospect of a “New Sincerity,” the one that holds it out as against the theoretical, is unfounded. The insistence that “sincerity” consists of certain various parts — apparent formal artlessness, the interweaving of “high” with “low” concerns or images, a willingness to risk sentimentality — is maybe half the picture. These elements are just outward indicators of an underlying anxiety about time common to a lot of contemporary writers. The “New Sincerity” is therefore definitely a part of what Nealon describes as Camp Messianism, but a form of it in which the Camp element, as well as its ambivalent relationship to “theory” have been so secretly hyperbolized as to render themselves hidden, thereby amplifying the Messianic. In “Self Portrait at 28,” “Auteur Theory,” and “Axis Thinking,” this seems to be the case. These three poems might suggest contemporary poetry has so fully digested irony that it’s ready and willing to discuss it openly — “sincerely” — in plain view. (But “in plain view:” it’s almost as though such a steady diet of irony has rendered its presentation in all three of the poems weirdly invisible, truncated, or mute.)


The final section of Woodward’s Rain, “Love Poems and Myopia,” resolves in several images of the infinity between two events that renders the events bookending it reversible or unknowable. It’s somehow brilliantly appropriate also that one of these images is of spinners. That this object, a succinct emblem of pure artifice and commodity fetishization (bling), is transformed in the context of the poem into a figure for a kind of limitlessness between stop and start seems totally apt:


they’re putting these hubcaps on
cars now which continue to
spin when the car comes
to a stop sleep is
a brick floor that goes

on forever we breach out
of it like whales out
of the ocean whales silhouetted
like souls what vast tracts
of muscle they must have

and from what depths they
must begin to gain enough
momentum to clear the water
and how they hang for
some seconds in the sun


As in the book’s opening, one of the most trivial and crass images of life in late-late capitalism, the spinners, gives way to a breathtaking image of gravity gorgeously (and very provisionally) subverted. The passage that ends this book has “built-in” irony, is fully aware of it, and allows it to be digested in plain sight, as the spinners resolve into an image of heavily natural suspension: a whale breaching to “hang for / some seconds in the sun.” Both of the two images achieve a representation of time in which irony is not transcended, but in which irony is one event between which the images of prolonged suspension are themselves suspended. In a way, the book’s coda, in its consideration of starts and stops, ends and beginnings, becomes a meditation on the time that remains, the messianic “time of the now.” Four stanzas before this ending, Woodward writes,


I stood still
next to the bed inside
the world as inside a
glacier creeping forward will it

grind us in its works
and if it does will
it matter as much as
it feels like it will


[1] Given the oppressive political climate in this country at the present, this (maybe) naïve impulse among talented artists could strike you as dangerous. It’s instructive to consider, maybe, Heidegger’s enthusiastic embrace of the “blood and soil” ideology—the (aesthetic) trappings of the German volk (he wore traditional German peasant garb to classes he taught in the Weimar years)—and, on the other hand, a book we’re told he never got around to reading, Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity. In other words, when a lot of the best minds of a generation start making truth claims about sincerity it’s right we should sit up and take stock of politics and wonder about the possibility of jingoism. I’m not saying we live in the Weimar Republic right now, can finish the rest of this sentence. Hopefully if you’re reading this after 2008 it’ll be obsolete anyhow.

[2] In all three of the above examples — Fuchs, Hart, and Woodward — there’s a clear emergence of the deadpan sense of humor. Another entire essay could be written on the subject of the deadpan in relation to the concerns of many of the poets considered here. For the present, though, I think it’s worth noting that deadpan humor can serve to transform the obsolescence of an insight into a laconic or stillborn kind of humor: “What was / funny stayed funny, because nothing was funny / anymore. I was your man, and we were awfully sad.”

[3] In her seminal essay on the subject, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag begins her discussion by writing, “To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”

[4] It’s understandable in this context that many of today’s younger poets would perceive the project of the Language poets of the seventies and eighties as part and parcel with the “Junkspace” Koolhaas describes. The Language poets experimented with the idea of form as proliferation (as is in certain ways literally the case with Lyn Heijenian’s My Life). As such, the writing of the Language poets may have come to appear to some younger poets as a project which began as a description, or even as a critique, of this “authorless world beyond anyone’s claim,” but which then became exactly that: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ™. An initial reaction to poets coming after Language poetry would be to make fun of that ™; to Campify, if that’s a word, the project of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E by revealing the obsolescence of a ‘subversive’ poetics by pointing out the inevitability of its commodification. That’s what Nealon is talking about, in part, in his discussion of the “camp” element of “Camp Messianism:” an awareness that this subversive tendency is quaint, coupled with an awareness that the awareness of this quaintness is itself obsolete.

Annotated Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. © 1978 Verso Editions, New York, N.Y. A book of reflections in the form of theses or aphorisms in which Adorno uses the negative dialectic to critique the “damage” of late capitalism.

Agamben, Giorgio, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. © 2005 Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. A book-length excursus on the first ten words of Paul’s letter to the Romans in which Agamben identifies messianism as a temporality inherent not only in the writings of Paul, but also in Benjamin.

Benjamin, Walter, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. And intro. Hannah Arendt. © 1968 Shocken Books, New York, NY. An essay in the form of theses in which Benjamin argues that historical materialism should be read within the larger context of the messianic, or as a form of redemptive historiography.

Berman, Dave, Actual Air. © 1999 Open City Books, New York, NY.

Clover, Joshua, The Totality For Kids. © 2006 University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Fuchs, Greg, “Charles” in Magazine Cypress #2, p.23-26. © 2003 Cy Press. A poem created from the notebook fragments of Greg Fuchs’ friend, Charles.

Hart, Matt, “An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity,” in Octopus. An essay which hypothesizes Gregory Corso as a possible antecedent for a “New Sincerity”

Hart, Matt, “I was Dumb with Pearls, I was Dumb” in Canary #3, p. 30-31. © 2004 Canary River.

Kim Stefans, Brian, What Is Said To The Poet Concerning Flowers. © 2006 Factory School.

Koolhaas, Rem, “Junkspace,” in OCTOBER 100, Spring 2002, pp. 175-190. © 2002 Rem Koolhaas. A manifesto against strip-malls, box architecture, and the non-spaces of post-industrial society by the architect Rem Koolhaas.

Massey, Joseph, “EAT SHIT! A Manifesto for the New Sincerity.”

Nealon, Christopher, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” in American Literature, Vol. 76, No. 3, Sept. 2004. © 2004 Duke University Press. An essay considering the stances of young North American poets in relation to the wake of Language poetry. Nealon’s essay is the basic text my essay is reacting to. It’s really well-written, and the more I read and reread it, and the more I wrote about it, the more I came to agree with it. Ultimately, my position on the possibility of a “New Sincerity” is that it is Nealon’s “Camp Messianism,” either stripped of the camp element or in which the camp element has been radically hyperbolized, almost to the point of being hidden.

Robinson Anthony, “A Few Notes From a New Sincerist.”

Sontag, Susan, “Notes on ‘Camp.’ In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject : A Reader, ed. Cleto, Fabio. © 1999 University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI. The seminal essay on the subject of the camp aesthetic.

Stevens, Wallace, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” In The Collected Poems. © 1990 Vintage Books, New York, NY.

Woodward, Jon, Rain. © 2006 Wave Books, Seattle, WA.

Jason Morris

Jason Morris

Jason Morris is a native Vermonter now living in San Francisco, where he edits Big Bell Magazine and works as a bartender. His poems have appeared in Parthenon West Review, Fourteen Hills, Ping Pong, Mirage #4 Period(ical), Forklift, Ohio and elsewhere.

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