'Something that stutters sincerely'
Contemporary poetry and the aesthetics of failure
[T]o be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail … all that is required now … is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes, an expressive act, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation. — Samuel Beckett, Three Dialogues
In discussing work that expresses its own malfunction, Burt makes an argument for a distinctive contemporary poetics of failure. While he claims that the form is ubiquitous because it allows poets to privilege craft over the failure of content, I will be arguing here that the significance of this poetics of failure is not so much tied to the technical challenges involved in forms like the sestina, but rather arises out of a more pressing concern with the authoritative claims of the previous generation’s aesthetic commitments. This concern seems to produce texts that respond not only to a sense of the exhaustion of innovative techniques (and therefore advocate a kind of renewal of traditional expressive aesthetics), but also which respond to the increasing sense that artistic innovation is culturally ineffectual anyway.
Thus, Christian Bök in “Writing and Failure” discusses what sorts of possibilities are left for innovative poets presented with what he calls the “intensified irrelevance of poetry as a cultural activity.” He seems to pinpoint various sources of this fading interest — critical skepticism, readerly neglect — amounting to a sense of “doomed labour.” Bök’s response to this sense of failure is to offer a suggestion for how the “doomed labour” of the avant-garde might be redeemed: “If we want to succeed in the future, we may need to … write poems more addictive than any neurotoxin, more seductive than any centerfold, and more infective than any retrovirus;” a poetry, in other words, that attracts and holds readers through its viral character, appropriating the methods of mass-culture markets. Similarly interested in the social situation of the avant-garde, Christopher Nealon argues in “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” that “post-Language” poets are faced with the unique difficulty of writing “from within the presumption of totality.” The avant-garde failures that for Bök are incentives to a newly viable poetics operating within the terms of their failure become for Nealon a world of “damaged materiality,” which in turn produces a poetics of socio-economic aporia. This work “recognizes that even its awareness of the obsolescence of its materials, as a literary strategy, is obsolete,” and as a result exists in a suspended state, waiting for (rather than, as Bök seems to do, announcing) a messianic art-to-come. I will return to all of these problems later in this paper, but I want to stress that while clearly interested in distinctive features of contemporary poetry — Burt with particular formal choices, Bök with the avant-garde as such, and Nealon with the latter’s relationship to political and economic realities — what all of these views share is an acknowledgment of atrophied artistic possibility and a concern for what poets can (or can’t) do with this critical sense of impasse.
This is not to say that aesthetic failure or discussions of its prevalence are in any way unique to our moment. The limits of literature and the struggle to overcome such limits has often been an artistic preoccupation, particularly in modernist and postmodernist texts, and no doubt will rise again. But what distinguishes this recent interest in poetic failure from earlier iterations is the source of its discontent: these contemporary poets are grappling with the failure and exhaustion of the postmodern itself, and the postmodern object of resistance is, in the case of poetry at the turn of the century, Language writing.
What this paper will focus on is one subset in the practices of aesthetic failure as a response to the Language movement, what I will characterize as the effort to achieve a “sincere,” “naïve” or “childlike” quality in poetry, resulting in what has been called in certain contexts “The New Sincerity.” In particular I’m interested in how the work of poets like Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky, and Nate Pritts, among others, is engaged with notions of risk and failure, and I want to suggest that by adopting “failure” as an aesthetic stance, they are claiming a kind of paradoxical literary authority. This kind of authority thrives on testing the grounds of sentimental or sincere modes of discourse, and serves to reveal a more widespread sense of anxiety younger innovative poets are experiencing with regard to literary tradition and aesthetic possibility. My analysis is concentrated on two particular writers, Matt Hart and Tao Lin, because they have (in different ways) provoked considerable commentary concerning issues of risk and failure, irony and sentimentality, and the idea of literary authority on the whole; by extension, Lin and Hart seem to be testing the limits of what counts as poetic practice through their testing of these categorical frameworks. I hope to show that this current crop of poems that flourish in their own “fidelity to failure” are actually engaged in finding ways to resist authority by appearing to claim it by other means; that the gestures many see as “sincere” or “childlike” are in fact efforts to assume authority by seeming to reject it — a simultaneous abandonment and seizure of authority. Put differently, the idea of being comfortable with one’s own failure is a way to assert power; it is a way of achieving success through purposefully appropriating its opposite.
Is it true we’re in a struggle with language?
Because that’s not at all what I expected. I was hoping
for great white sharks or parking tickets, bad seats
at the symphony. — Matt Hart, “Pet Cricket”
In the work of Hart, Lin, and others, I will argue, this deliberate embrace of failure is worked out through an explicit departure from an allegedly exhausted aesthetic and a movement toward a renewed emphasis on emotion. This ends up looking like a testing of the grounds between, on the one hand, the sincere or expressive, and on the other, the ironic or unemotional. The form this relation takes, though, depends upon thinking about postmodernism as representative of modes of discourse which thrive on techniques like parody and pastiche, on aesthetic distance and heightened self-consciousness through a variety of methods (recycling of old forms, appropriation, collage). Though postmodern art is obviously far more complex and diverse than the above characterization acknowledges, poets like Hart and Lin seem to see postmodernist poetics as having reached its limit, and are now in a position to critique its methods through (ironically) oscillating between an embrace and rejection of such techniques. But what specifically are these poets repudiating? What about the postmodern avant-garde is problematic to them?
Jason Morris is representative of this sense when he notes that a recent upsurge in “sincere” tones and earnest depictions of emotionality “seem to be immanent critiques of irony,” and that “contemporary poetry has so fully digested irony that it’s ready and willing to discuss it openly — ‘sincerely’ — in plain view.” The press material for Matt Hart’s Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2005) 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.” And in reviews of Tao Lin’s you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006) the explicit rejections of a postmodern aesthetic are replaced with claims about tone: “that sort of so-insincere-it’s-sincere tone is his trademark. The irony approaches poignancy, but only because its purposes are so transparent,” but what ultimately seems to be heard is “a real person underneath it all.” What looks like a critique of irony, then, actually appears to be a way to embrace it on new terms; it is an employment of irony in the service of making more visible the “human” or expressive elements of art. In the case of Lin, moreover, we can see that the logic that connects sincerity, unpretentiousness and a critique of irony with a revelation of the “human” is also bound up with a certain “transparency” of “purpose” or intent.
While the above statements all seem to involve a fluctuation between embracing and refusing irony (and by extension, a postmodern aesthetic), it’s still hard to tell what exactly that aesthetic is and why it’s being critiqued. The poets themselves are similarly vague on this point. Hart declares that “poetry needs to utilize the experimental muscle of the last century to move beyond mere experimentation and instead start amounting to something — something fully beautifully human,” and Lin, when asked in an interview about his writing technique, answered “I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing … This includes not making the audience feel bored or think I’m smarter than them or something.” These writers seem to be rejecting a poetry which is either too committed to its own experimentation to enable anything “beautifully human” or whose difficulties end up alienating its readers.
As I have already suggested, the poetry that corresponds most closely to these experimental commitments (and for that matter, whose reception often observed these alienating effects) is the Language writing of the preceding generation. I don’t mean to suggest here that the Language movement is the only object of resistance for these poets, nor do I mean to exclude other literary dominants that have clearly been resources for these writers; I simply intend to focus on Language writing as the primary force against which much of this poetry is aimed because of its overwhelming presence in ’70s and ’80s avant-garde practice. One of the more recognizable components of the Language aesthetic is its reconsideration of the speakerly elements of poetry, often involving a direct critique of “voice” or the so-called “lyric subject.” Such a poem is interested in a sense of unity and closure that Language writing sees as limiting and authoritarian — a “closed” rather than an “open” text, to recall Lyn Hejinian’s well-known essay. And the desire to “open” the poem translates into a desire to “open” the possibilities of speaking beyond anything like a persona or, perhaps more important for our purposes, a “self.”
Younger “sincerist” poets like Hart and Lin seem to have fully digested the rhetoric of Language writing and in so doing, are free to select those aesthetic techniques which they consider useful and dismiss the rest. In other words, they tend to view the movement as a set of literary strategies from which they are able to draw, without needing to identify themselves with its ideology. The notion of art as a collective, and in some cases, a redemptive project, is a concern that bridges the gap between the two generations, as these younger poets’ practice seems to grow out of the collaborative nature of cooperative presses and a thriving online publishing scene. They continue to share with their predecessors a desire to undermine traditional understandings of power relationships between writers and readers, and I hope to show that these writers have a similar relationship to dominant forms of power. But the differences between the two produce interesting problems. The fundamental resistance lies in ideas of personal literary authority and, by extension, the place and presence of the “I” in poetic expression. Indeed, Hart and Lin, while borrowing from the bag of tricks that Language writing makes use of, also continue to rely heavily on lyric gestures. But as Language writing has transformed from an icon of the avant-garde to a more institutional presence in American poetry, these “sincerist” poets purposefully have constructed the object of their rebellion by adhering to an emotional rather than a theoretical core, while still making use of innovative practices.
Matt Hart touches on this strategy when discussing what he sees as one of the most vibrant aspects of this new aesthetic: “What’s exciting to me … is that there’s a ton of great work being made which is not only weaving together avant-garde techniques with more traditional, human aims, but which is also … walking that fine line between sentiment and sentimentality — which in this day and age is where the risk really is.” The reason this seems risky for Hart is because of its deliberate adaptation of experimental forms to a content (“traditional, human” sentiment) that seemed denied on the earlier model.
A saving grace and a disturbing handicap it is to speak from the top of your head, putting all trust in yourself as a truthsayer. I write from the top of my head and to write so means to write honestly, but it almost means to write clumsily. No poet likes to be clumsy. But I decided to heck with it, as long as it allows me to speak the truth. — Gregory Corso, “Some of My Beginning … And What I Feel Right Now”
The idea of risk in the form of sentiment — moreover, the idea of risk as such — is a significant component of Matt Hart’s project, one that serves as a vital and generative tool. In a blog post he outlines a definition of the poem as “a series of resistant gestures — not only to what the poet knows and is comfortable with, regarding both poetry and the world, but also to the poet him/herself — and furthermore to ordinary language.” Hart’s aesthetic, therefore (particularly in his first book, Who’s Who Vivid), is one that pulls against epistemologies: that resists knowledge of “poetry and the world,” of language, and of oneself. He characterizes this resistance as “a sort of active, deliberate recklessness” in the face of the known, and this recklessness seems to occur with respect to technique:
In my process, I feel like one of those little wind-up godzillas that bobbles mechanically across the floor, shooting sparks out of its mouth. Then I throw everything into the blender and see what it tastes like … The trick, of course, is to come up with something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts — something more than experiment (procedure), technique (craft), and all that one knows and can articulate about poetry.
What’s striking about Hart’s articulation of his process is its reliance on mechanical metaphors: it is an “engine,” a situation in which he’s first a windup toy shooting sparks, then a blender pureeing whatever is produced (or perhaps, we should say, already destroyed). The goal, however, seems to be a poetry that’s more than just a result of a mechanical process, and whose success lies in one’s inability to account for how it was produced: “marvelous poetry always contains something inexplicable — an impossible ingredient that’s there in spite of the person who wrote it.” While Hart appears to be resisting the idea that a successful poem is a result of organic development, he’s also resisting the idea that a successful poem can ever emerge only through experimentation and technique.
This aesthetic stance thrives on the tension between knowing and not knowing what one is doing or why (yet still proceeding), between resisting and expressing the self (which I’ll discuss later on), and between real or inauthentic displays of emotion, or between the sincere and the ironic:
I often get the feeling in talking with people of my own generation that responding to something imaginatively, creatively, expressively — in art or life — isn’t allowed, because the perception (and theory) is that it isn’t any longer possible — that a real emotional reaction always looks fake, but emotional displays (which are fake) seem real — or at least they’re the only sort of emotional content that anyone will buy … Thus, one can only hope to stutter sincerely — send oneself out as a pulse, a broken signal, a set of squawks and beeps in hopes of making real contact and having real communion with others in the world.
The blurring of the lines between authentic emotional expression and its opposite, Hart seems to claim, makes the production of the former much more difficult, and diminished the possibility of readers taking such expression seriously. The only alternative for Hart, then, is to combine sincere emotion with procedural or mechanical form (self as a “set of squawks and beeps”); that is, to resist both sentimental divulgence and unemotional formalism by synthesizing the two.
The energy that’s produced through the act of artistic resistance produces a poetry that is volatile, ebullient, and “neo-Romantic” to some, earning him the label of a “New Sincerist” (in reference to a short-lived but intense flurry around a mock manifesto published online by Andrew Mister in 2005). But Hart’s relationship to this phenomenon is a tricky one. Hart seems ambivalent about his involvement with this “group” — at times adopting its implications (as in “An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity”) and at times doubting its existence (“New Sincerity … uh? I have no idea what the Old Sincerity was …”), and his work reveals the tensions that emerge from writing within a synthesized aesthetic (“weaving together avant-garde techniques with more traditional, human aims”). This synthesis is evident in “Revolutions per Minute”:
Now, with dust in my hair, collecting marbles,
I see with renewed interest the devastating past
and the erasable future. O dust pan, O floor mop!
Cat toy. Ted Berrigan. Floating casino. I may
putter my life away, but at least these genuine antics
are genuine antics: antlers, wall sockets,
a wire brush tail — Who do I think I am?
Here the reader is presented with a coherent voice and a set of objects set in temporal and spatial disarray. The poem gives the impression of a self in a space full of unrelated material, the junk or detritus of accumulated culture (Ted Berrigan, casinos, electric sockets). Surrounded by such a disparate array of stuff, the speaker seems to be at a loss for how to make it all cohere, and senses the possibility of it not cohering, of failing to make his subject legible. The effort is rewarded, however, because “these genuine antics / are genuine antics,” even though the speaker then questions his own voice and his ability or right to assemble them (“Who do I think I am?”). The poem continues in this vein, presenting the reader with more seemingly random material and then asking her to consider both its significance and the authority of the speaker, whose voice seems to shift in tone through the variety of objects he absorbs:
The blur I feel in the face
of all our greatest tragedies is merely the punch-
line to a beautiful joke: paintcan, sour apple, Zurich.
Tristan Tzara Tristan Tzara Tristan Tzara. Welcome
to America, may I take your order. I don’t want to
destroy anything, not even a paperclip.
In the face of the face of the new-fangled machinery
my Star-Spangled Fruit Loops wear everybody out.
I’ll substitute your everything for my colossal nothing.
I’ll make my revolutions your problem.
This kaleidoscopic shifting of focus — from a paint can to Zurich to Tristan Tzara — seems to enact Hart’s idea of the poem as a blendered thing, as the result of throwing unrelated objects together in the hopes that they cohere. But the speaker admits personal and social exhaustion with his own performance (“my Star-Spangled Fruit Loops wear everybody out”), and admits, too, that it all amounts to a “colossal nothing” or a failure to write anything of consequence; the poem’s process has taken us through a cyclone of material only to end up with nothing that matters. In “Revolutions per Minute” Hart essentially acts out his own failed aesthetic by responding to the “everything” of American poetics with his own inability to contribute an artifact of value.
This trajectory is one that works to characterize Who’s Who Vivid as a whole. Hart’s poems continually discuss their own failure, and the book is littered with apologies for its own broken or damaged goods: it is a collection in which objects shatter or are lost, people disappear, deadlines are missed and buses run late. These seemingly minor or temporary crises ultimately add up to “the grand catastrophe of self” in which the voice of the poem risks disintegration at any moment. As a musician as well as a poet, Hart likens poetry to the nature of punk rock and states “I want [my poems] to have some similar characteristics and effects — the noise, the energy, the sense that everything could fall apart at any second. Sloppiness. Elasticity. Negation.” The energy of the poems, like Hart’s understanding of punk, seems to come from the possibility of not succeeding, from the “annihilation/exhilaration” of artistic process, and the charged energy linking coherence with collapse.
Negotiating this space becomes for Hart a question of negotiating both the limits of emotional expression as well as the experimental processes by which authentic emotion is able to be communicated. To turn back to Hart’s statement that “there’s a ton of great work being made which is not only weaving together avant-garde techniques with more traditional, human aims, but which is also … walking that fine line between sentiment and sentimentality — which in this day and age is where the risk really is,” we can see that there’s a friction, too, between the avant-garde as resource and the avant-garde as obstruction. In thinking about the avant-garde as a poetic resource, Hart seems to rely on particular experimental techniques in order to move him toward emotional possibility, which is where the methods of the avant-garde seem to fail and where more traditional “human aims” take over. As seen in these lines from the end of “Only a Transmitter,” the voice divulges its interiority to the reader, unsure as to what counts as real and what doesn’t, and by extension, unsure of the viability of his own poetic authority:
When I tell you I’m only a transmitter, when I sound off
my beeping life as both shepherd and keeper of the jar
of my mind, all I’m really saying is I don’t have anyone
to talk to, and when I do, I confuse them with chatter
and noise. Isn’t there a manual I can read for my life,
a drippy faucet I can fix or an appetizer to invent? …
I know nothing at all of the fortune
I crave, how to tell the truth plainly from finish to start.
My style is no style. My form a pigsty.
Just look how far I haven’t come in the dark.
This poem seems to be about, on the one hand, explaining its methods of communication (“I’m only a transmitter”), and on the other, about the futility of poetic practice. The helplessness expressed here is aesthetic (“My style is no style. My form a pigsty”) and the result of two conditions: not having a readership (“I don’t have anyone / to talk to”), and having one but not knowing who they are (“I confuse them with chatter and noise”). All the elements of a successful poem have failed this speaker; he has no material, no message, and no receiver.
But who is this self-deprecating speaker? How are we to see the “I” of these poems, particularly when thinking about them as challenging an experimental aesthetic that rejects the stability of the speaking subject? In “Remodeling,” Hart writes
Hey you, reader, I’m no speaker.
I’m the guy writing this, the guy who just wrote this,
a guy who has been M*** H***, thirty years old.
It’s July 18, 2004. He fights with my wife, but I’m okay.
These lines seem to indicate to the reader that we should take the voice to be Matt Hart’s. However, he seems to immediately pull back from this assertion, refusing to commit fully to his own authority by replacing the letters of his name with asterisks, then deliberately distancing the speaker from that identity by rendering it as a third-person “he” in the last line.
This tenuous relationship to one’s own poetic identity is a widespread preoccupation for younger contemporary writers, as Tony Hoagland argues in “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” He claims that younger poets who have absorbed the aesthetic of Language writing are now writing poems of “lyric-associative fragment” that involve “greater self-consciousness and emotional removal.” He defines the “Poem of Our Moment” — by which he means the poetry that is currently being written by younger “post-avant” writers and that is the object of resistance for poets like Hart and Lin — as
fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and dissociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral. Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence … it seems capable of incorporating anything … yet all this motley data — i.e. experience — doesn’t add up to a story. Even as the poem implies a world without sequence, the poem itself has no consequence, no center of gravity, no body, no assertion of emotional value.
A poem without emotional weight (“cerebral”), and thus without consequence, is what poets like Hart, Lin, and others are resisting; they are deliberately rejecting the “Poem of Our Moment” by testing the limits of sentimentality while still adhering to experimental techniques. Hart’s Who’s Who Vivid, as I have begun to show, exemplifies this friction between the avant-garde and the lyric tradition it sought to criticize. Where he is lyric (subjective voice, emotional expression), he tends to destabilize himself by either refusing subjective identification or by turning authentic expression into inauthentic sentimentality. Where he borrows from the preceding generation’s avant-garde (procedural techniques, alphabet exercises, fragmented syntax, blurring of the “poetic” with other discourses, collage-like assemblages), he tends to produce poems that feel like linguistic exercises with little relevance beyond their own boundaries. The success of Who’s Who Vivid, then, rests on Hart’s ability to balance these two impulses through continually undermining each.
The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential. — Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
i have moved beyond meaninglessness, far beyond meaninglessness
to something positive, life-affirming, and potentially best-selling — Tao Lin, “eleven page poem, page three”
I have tried to show that Hart’s poetry seems to rely on a formula for success that involves the delicate give and take of experimental technique on the one hand, and assertion of emotional value on the other. This balance is difficult to maintain, particularly when accounting for the complex relationship Hart has to his own poetic authority and the poetic tradition on the whole. What I hope to demonstrate here is that Tao Lin — though similarly “sincere” in tone, and like Hart, troubled with the notion of literary authority — seems to prohibit any sort of recognizable model for success, and that his poetry instead gains power through a more radical sense of “annihilation” than Hart or other “sincerist” poets manage.
With his two collections of poetry, you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006) and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Melville House, 2008), Lin has provoked violently oppositional responses from his readers. John Gallaher argues that you are a little bit happier than i am “almost means something, then demands that it means nothing,” but that the feeling of an actual person, “wanting and not wanting to be there, who couldn’t care less and is craving for attention” is what makes it “such an interesting book.” To offer even greater praise, K. Silem Mohammad claims that it “may be the greatest book of poems ever written.”
Simon DeDeo, by contrast, begins his review of one of Lin’s poems by applauding certain aspects of what he sees as a new aesthetic: “a raw, associative kind of work that is struggling to lift poetry up out of … pretentious italics and historical references and put it back into some kind of living, breathing form,” but complains that this comes at a price: the tone that emerges is one that embraces a “macho, masculine, fuck you, attitude that is not only posturing, and not only aware of its posturing, but also smugly aware of its awareness of its posturing. In other words, it fails.”
So what is it about Lin’s writing that provokes such extreme praise and vitriol? The feature that seems to draw attention in reviews is the tone expressed in the work. One reader claims that “Lin favors flat and accurate articulation of feeling over language play” which gives the poems “a tone of totalitarian sincerity.” This style, called by some “The New Childishness,” has garnered attention for being at the forefront of a manner of writing that valorizes innocence or naiveté. Elisa Gabbert, for example, identifies this mode as “a ‘cultivated artful artlessness’ in tone employed by artists like Tao Lin, Joanna Newsom and Dorothea Lasky … this childish tone can be employed to great dramatic effect — creating ‘insta-intensity’ … [and] tends to inspire love-it-or-hate-it reactions in people.” If Hart sees his poetry as a form of risk-taking, Gabbert argues that this mode might actually be a means of defending oneself against critique: “I’ve sung the praises of Lin and Lasky here before … [but] there’s something preemptively defensive about this Innocent mode — as though by announcing upfront one’s vulnerability, one could become invulnerable. As in, Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid.” This characterization seems to recall DeDeo’s complaint about Lin’s allegedly “masculine, fuck you, attitude” as well. What this ends up looking like (although the above statements are all responses to the work rather than examples of it) is an aesthetics of posture and stylization rather than authentic emotional expression; indeed, the antithesis of sincerity.
But if the responses to Lin’s work are, more often than not, responses to a certain tone, it is important to understand what sort of tone this is, why it is being mobilized, and to what end. In a 2007 blog post, Conn O’Brien describes a type of writing that corresponds closely to what seems to be happening in Lin’s poetry:
[T]here are two main styles in which a person can write — one is overtly emotional, while the other is neutral (or “dead-pan”). Here is the difference between the two styles: if an emotional writer wants to write about a sunset, they will say something like, “Conn’s face was bathed in the deep, dynamically-shifting fiery glow of the life-giving, untouchable solar body, as, all the while, the northern wind caressed his skin.” [B]ut a neutral writer would say something more like, “the earth rotated so that the sun was no longer visible to Conn.” The difference is that the emotional writer continuously makes moral and qualitative judgments about what they are describing, whereas the neutral writer only expresses what actually happens, without including their own judgments.
According to O’Brien, neutral literature or “dead-pan” writing is committed to representing the objective actuality of event rather than the subjective interpretation of that event. The essential difference between the two for O’Brien is a difference of value judgments: the neutral writer refrains from imposing his or her interpretation of value on the object or event that is being expressed, which in itself could be considered an act of assigning value to one’s own practice.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy defines itself by adopting what appears to be this neutral tone. However, Lin tests the limits of this method by deploying it to describe what could only be construed as emotional events, as in “eleven page poem, page one”:
i looked away from the computer with a slight feeling
of out-of-control anger; i saw you wearing a coffee-colored star-suit
there was a barely perceptible feeling on my face
that i was being crushed by the shit of the world
then i saw beyond the window to the tree, the house, and the street
the house and the street made mysterious binary noises
that negatively affected the tree’s immense happiness
i observed this neutrally, without falling out of my chair
Rather than sketching a situation in which a speaker feels “out-of-control anger” and then responds to this anger aesthetically (i.e., writing it out), Lin chooses to sever the connection between the emotion and the supposed response to that emotion: the speaker considers his anger, wears the feeling externally (on his face), and though he views his surroundings as taking part in a larger scheme of oppositional forces (“binary noises”, happiness, anger), he observes — rather than reacts to — these events “neutrally,” without allowing them to affect either his demeanor or his account of them. This neutral tone is similarly employed in “fourteen of twenty-four”:
‘i don’t know anything’ is an irrational
and melodramatic pattern of thought
most emotional and behavioral responses are learned
while answering emails, according to empirical science
that was the day my philosophy
created between us ‘an enormous distance’
which i think we both knew was uncrossable
but looking at it was therapeutic
so i put quotation marks around it
in our time of suffering my poetry will remain calm
and indifferent — something to look forward to
The speaker in both of these poems acknowledges his emotions (“out-of-control anger,” “suffering”) but chooses not to express them. Rather, he expresses the event of not responding to them, of choosing neutrality through, for example, direct observation of oneself (“without falling out of my chair”) or by deliberately calling attention to language usage (“i put quotation marks around it”). Moreover, the “voice” is flattened out in both of these instances, in part as a result of avoiding punctuation. Rather than helping the reader interpret “intention” or mood by offering linguistic signposts — exclamation points, question marks, periods to indicate syntax breaks — Lin chooses to leave off these directives.
This technique of omission is one of the ways in which Lin repeatedly presents us with overtly emotional scenes but refuses to present us with his feelings about these emotions; it is a paradoxical formulation of extreme emotional states expressed neutrally. His project seems to be to reveal himself to the reader, to show the reader the materials that make up his world and the thoughts that create that world, but to do so in such a way as to fail to dictate how the reader should feel about or respond to that world. His aesthetic question is how to render emotional extremes with the least possible amount of emotion.
In an interview with 3 A.M. Magazine, Lin discusses this technique. He chooses, even here, to distance himself from his own claims: “The tone I currently am writing in … is ‘neutral’ I think. I am writing it like a journalism thing maybe … ‘severely detached.’” And in the notes to you are a little bit happier than i am he writes:
you are a little bit happier than i am is I think a non-fiction poetry book. The narrator is myself, “Tao Lin.” I wrote most of the book to console myself against unrequited feelings, loneliness, meaninglessness, death, limited-time, and the arbitrary nature of existence, maybe.
There are two separate techniques being used here to, on the one hand, distance Lin from himself as the agent of actions and feelings depicted in the poem, and on the other, maintain a neutral tone in their depiction. The first technique involves the overt use of scare quotes, which calls attention to words and phrases as linguistic units or ideas rather than as given facts (“The tone I currently am writing in is ‘neutral’; ‘severely detached’”). He does this with his own name (“Tao Lin”), as if he is refusing to own the poem or commit himself absolutely to the role of author. By creating aesthetic distance of this kind, Lin avoids having to fully bind himself to any claim he might make in his poetry. These gestures are ultimately protective in nature, and recall Gabbert and Božičevic’s notions of “The New Childishness” as a way of defending oneself against critique (“Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid”). This resistance of one’s own authority also recalls Matt Hart’s similar refusal to fully identify with the role of the author — or at least the grammatical indices of that author (the “I”) — and reveals an ambivalence in both writers toward the idea of asserting any kind of absolute power over creative work in the face of what’s perceived as diminishing aesthetic resources.
The second technique involves the constant qualification of statements. He tends to make assertions (“I wrote … to console myself against unrequited feelings”), then undercut them by qualifying their accuracy (“maybe”), thereby destabilizing his own authority. This is evident in “that night with the green sky”:
it was snowing and you were kind of beautiful
we were in the city and every time i looked up
someone was leaning out a window, staring at me
i could tell you liked me a lot or maybe even loved me
but you kept walking at this strange speed
you kept going in angles and it confused me
and that hurts
why did you want me gone?
i don’t know
some things can’t be explained, i guess
the sky, for example, was green that night
This poem refuses to commit absolutely to any particular claim. The speaker thinks the auditor is “kind of” beautiful, thinks “maybe” she loves him or that “maybe” she was trying to ditch him, then moves into a set of repetitive questions (“why?”) and ends inconclusively, almost helplessly (“some things can’t be explained, i guess”). This qualifying diction is characteristic of the book as a whole, and as these vague phrases accumulate, we begin to form an idea about what sort of a project this is: Lin oscillates between assertions of truth and undercutting or negating those truths. Ultimately, this avoids absolute identification with any statement and widens the gap between the speaking subject and his material.
The fluctuation between making and dissolving propositions, as well as using authorial diminishment as an aesthetic technique, are qualities that Hart and Lin share, and ultimately reveal a defensive stance (Hart’s rhetoric of “risk” notwithstanding) toward literary authority in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge. However, Lin pushes this skepticism to its limits by rejecting his own power through particularly deflating linguistic choices. His commitment to both flat neutrality and emotional expression causes a rupture in the text, and the strain between the detached and the expressive is a defining feature of his work. When Lin’s content — failure of communication, of relationships, of social and commercial recognition — is coupled with his clashing techniques, the result is a body of poems that refuse to perform “successfully.” They intentionally resist notions of what counts as “serious” writing, asking us to consider what the official criterion of success is, or should be.
Lin’s work is also stripped of formal self-consciousness. Many poems leave in traces of the revision process, which turns the poems, in some cases, into the unselfconscious divulgence of the labor of poetry. At times, Lin’s revision process is visible:
i am really happy and this is the truth
do you believe me
you don’t believe me
but i am
it is 1:10 a.m. and i am alone in my brother’s studio apartment and i just grinned
(it is 2:24 a.m. inside of this parenthetical and i am doing revisions on this poem and i am not that happy anymore but thirsty; but not thirsty enough to go and drink something)
The act of reading this poem seems almost voyeuristic. We are made privy to the parts of writing and revision that typically occur outside of the space of the “finished product”; but rather than erasing the evidence of process, Lin has chosen to incorporate it within the product, which gives this poem a temporal aspect beyond merely the act of reading. It is difficult to tell, though, whether or not this can be considered an act of choosing what to include or simply an act of avoiding having to make a choice.
While one could think about the above practice as essentially authentic (in that it reveals a commitment to exposing the messiness of craft), some elements of Lin’s aesthetic produce critiques focused on his poems’ lack of authenticity. In a scathing review of the poem “i’m tired,” Simon DeDeo claims that by using simple syntactical constructions and childlike diction, Lin is refusing to “directly confront the self: the articulate self.” But rather than imagining that the employment of such techniques produces a poetry of greater authenticity through embracing a regressive or childlike tone, DeDeo thinks it creates a poetry that’s ultimately insincere:
Tao’s verbal device — apart from the occasional apostrophe to the Pulitzer Prize or a snippet of telegraph-speak — is to ventriloquise the spoiled child, cursing and wailing alternately. It’s a ridiculous performance … there is nothing here but raw, embarrassing id — and, again, the ego looking down at it. And, again, the ego taking sideways glances at itself looking down.
Where some readers see Lin’s unselfconscious divulgences of interiority as signposts for an actual speaker, DeDeo sees the regression into childlike language as ultimately disingenuous.
If we return to Christian Bök’s “Writing and Failure,” we can see this sort of rejection as an instance of what the essay forecasts:
[T]he avant-garde relies upon subversive strategies of asyntactic, if not asemantic, expression … [and] often seems to resemble the nonsense produced by either the unskilled or the illiterate, camouflaging itself in the lousy style of the ingénue in order to showcase the creative potential of a technique that less liberal critics might otherwise dismiss as a fatal error. … Even though such critics refuse to see the merits of, what must appear to be, a completely capricious act of wilfull [sic] failure, the avant-garde nevertheless insists that, by abusing the most fashionable instruments of great style, the poet can in turn highlight a new set of virtuosities that have, so far, gone unconsidered, if not unappreciated. … What constitutes the precondition for failure in one style now becomes the prerequisite for success in another style. What we define as a mistake to be avoided is almost always the foresworn direction for some other more revolutionary investigation.
What is at stake here is a longstanding question — how we can determine whether something is art or not — and more specifically, whether “bad” techniques can serve to revitalize stagnant art. These are questions that have been asked at least since the twentieth century was confronted with Dada and surrealism and later, conceptual art.
The idea that the avant-garde is responsible for pushing the limits of what can be considered art comes with a risk, when the question of definition — what makes something art? — seems necessary to ask of those objects that clearly do not seem to be performing in the ways we think they should perform. What is notable about this particular situation involving Hart, Lin and others is both its mode (childish discourse, sentimentality) and its motive or object of resistance (Language writing and its second-generation adherents, the “post-avant”). But the desire to create art that deliberately fails by certain standards means that it intends to succeed by others. Lin describes you are a little bit happier than i am by saying:
If my book’s creation was explained as a theme park’s creation I would be building it and then I would build it wrong but the roller coaster materials would already be ordered and then it would have to be built or delayed 3–5 years and I would feel a lot of despair most of the time. When it was finished I would just want to sell the theme park to someone else, but I would think about one part of the theme park a lot, like the fish pond, and feel okay. It was really “a terrible process of despair” or something not unlike being in a relationship and like fighting a lot at night and “needing resolution” before going to sleep. I’m not really sure if this is all true.
What we feel here is a sense of exhaustion, not just with the postmodern or aesthetic possibility, but with the writing process itself, and once again, Lin deliberately weakens his claims by deflating them (“I’m not really sure if this is all true”). What has been expressed and described is immediately dissolved by its own qualification, and as a result, the poetry that Lin has been in the process of constructing is simultaneously obliterated as well.
The techniques of failure that Lin, Hart and others employ seem to reveal a “passive-aggressive … relation to meaning itself” in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge (although the poetry they produce, I hope I have shown, differs sharply from that of the post-avant). Indeed, the acts of resistance that Language writers performed mirror somewhat the acts of defiance we are seeing in this newly “sincere” aesthetic. However, the ways in which Hart, Lin, and others go about undermining meaning or conforming to “a grammar of experience” include the deliberate appropriation of sentimental gestures and, in some cases, indirect rejection of post-avant techniques. Hart’s and Lin’s poetry moves against this contemporary thrust by risking explicit self-expression and forms of knowledge through privileging modes of discourse that are essentially sentimental at their core. When these techniques are coupled with a failed content, Hart and Lin refuse the possibilities of the “successful” poem and instead embrace a poetics defined by its own failure.
These poets ask us to consider what the value is for such poetry in a culture which, as Christian Bök has shown us, views the literary arts as increasingly irrelevant. As Hart writes, “In poetry, one has to be open, willing, and able to fail every second. One has to court it, failure. Something’s at stake.” The idea of risking anything implies that what is being risked has a certain value; what’s at stake for these writers seems to be the possibility of human expression in any form. The hazards involved with the divulgence of interiority (embarrassment, sentimentality, readerly critique) turn it into a necessity in which one is required to risk the self in order to produce art. But this risk reaches beyond simply aesthetic concerns and extends to the world of actuality: art becomes a social obligation with the capability of “making ourselves, and everything, better.” What is at stake, then, is not just poetic assertions of real emotion and human value, but those emotions and values as lived in the world.
In a dialogue with Georges Duthuit, Samuel Beckett claims that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail”; that “all that is required … is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes, an expressive act, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation.” By Beckett’s standard, what is required of an artist is that he make aesthetic failure productive of more than itself, to make “a new occasion” as a result of aesthetic obligation. The artist, both unable to make art and obliged to do so, perpetually exists in a sphere of impotentiality; but rather than shutting down the possibilities for art, a “new term of relation” is necessary. That new term seems to be emerging in the work of these writers, whose “fidelity to failure” is authentic in its intention: “just to make something that stutters sincerely.”
2. Stephen Burt, “Sestina! or, The Fate of the Idea of Form,” Modern Philology 105, no. 1 (2007), 218–41. Burt looks at sestinas by Shanna Compton, David Lehman, and Terrence Hayes, among others, noting similarities between the constraints of the sestina and the more radical techniques of the OuLiPo or Flarf poets. Burt claims that such formal limitations “show frustration with their poems’ inconsequence” (238).
4. “The sestina is a favored form now as it has not been since the 1950s … because it allows poets to emphasize technique and to disavow at once tradition, organicism, and social or spiritual efficacy” (ibid., 221).
6. Bök, “Writing and Failure (Part 8).”
7. Christopher Nealon, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” American Literature 76, no. 3 (2004), 579–602. Here Nealon considers work by Joshua Clover, Rod Smith, Lisa Robertson, and Kevin Davies, noting parallels between their situation as poets in a late-stage capitalist society and those of the New York school and the Language poets, but claims that these “post-avants” are motivated by “a different sense of historical situation” than either of the earlier groups. In his most recent book, The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Harvard University Press, 2011), Nealon continues his study of poetry’s relationship to capital. The final chapter, “Bubble and Crash: Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” extends and revises ideas from his earlier essay in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008.
9. I’m thinking here about the projects of writers like Franz Kafka, Hart Crane, Fernando Pessoa, and Samuel Beckett, who in different ways have grappled with the prospect of literary failure. See Walter Benjamin on Kafka, Joseph Riddel on Hart Crane, Richard Zenith on Pessoa, and Beckett’s three dialogues with Georges Duthuit.
10. The term emerges from a short-lived movement centered on a mock manifesto (“Eat Shit! A Manifesto for the New Sincerity”) written by Joseph Massey, Andrew Mister, and Anthony Robinson in 2005. Although a good amount of work has been done which explores the New Sincerity, the focus of this particular investigation is elsewhere, and I will only use the term as a helpful moniker for a specific set of poets and texts which are tangentially related to my argument. For further reading on the New Sincerity, see Anthony Robinson, “A Few Notes from a New Sincerist,” Seth Abramson, “The New Sincerity: Is It and Does It Matter?” (blog post, 2005), Matt Hart, “An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity,” Octopus 6, and Jason Morris, “The Time Between Time: Messianism and the Promise of a ‘New Sincerity,’” Jacket 35 (early 2008).
12. I want to clarify how I will be using the terms “failure” and “success.” There are various ways one can talk about failure and its relationship to poetry: we can talk about 1) poems that fail (always a value judgment according to variable criteria); 2) poems about failure as such; or 3) poems about their own specific failures. It is these last two options which I will be discussing here. Like failure, “success” is usually a function of personal or public taste and tends to be determined by criteria dependent upon a work’s historical situation. In this context, I’m interested in success in terms of the choices these authors make to write a “successful” poem according to their own aesthetic interests, as well in as how these choices relate to broader criteria for success.
14. In “Telling Stories Again: On the Replenishment of Narrative in the Postmodernist Long Poem” (The Yearbook of English Studies 30 ), Brian McHale suggests that “If there is one feature of postmodernist aesthetics on which most commentators agree, it is that postmodernism no longer seeks to ‘make it new’ but more often to make it again (differently). The recycling of historical styles is a hallmark of postmodernist aesthetics across a range of media: in architecture and painting, in the postmodern historical novel, in cinema remakes and the nostalgia film, in retro fashions and in ubiquitous pop-music covers and ‘tribute’ albums” (256).
15. Jason Morris, “The Time Between Time: Messianism and the Promise of a ‘New Sincerity,’” Jacket 35 (early 2008).
17. John Gallaher, “Tao Lin: you are a little bit happier than i am,” Nothing to Say & Saying It (January 24, 2008).
18. Hart, “An Accidental Appreciation.”
19. Lee Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral: An Interview with Tao Lin,” 3 A.M. Magazine (September 2, 2008).
20. In “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto,” Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten assert that “the self as the central and final term of creative practice is being challenged and exploded in our writing.” Social Text 19/20 (Fall 1988): 261–75.
22. Along with this “critique of self” is the critique of the “closed text,” which Hejinian characterizes as “one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it” (41–42). She sees this narrowing of possibility as ultimately hierarchical, a poetics that has a “pretension to universality and … a tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth.” The “open text,” in contrast, “invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive” (43). In other words, the reading and writing processes become one in a situation of distributed agency, an experience shared between poet and reader.
23. Hart edits Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, and Light Industrial Safety, developed with publisher and designer Eric Appleby; Appleby also works with Nate Pritts on H_NGM_N, where Pritts is editor in chief. Dorothea Lasky coedits the poetry chapbook series at Katalanché Press with Michael Carr, and Tao Lin founded MuuMuu House press in 2008. Hart has mentioned that he’s drawn to the small press world as it is “a subversion of the standard values of fame and fortune” (David Sewell, “Risky Business: Interview with Matt Hart,” Coldfront Mag [October 24, 2007]).
24. Laura McCullough, “Inside Hart’s Mind: Laura McCullough interviews Matt Hart, author of Who’s Who Vivid,” Small Spiral Notebook (2007). Some of the poets Hart pinpoints as working in this particular mode include Matthew Zapruder, Sarah Manguso, Dobby Gibson, and Nate Pritts.
26. Hart, “Thinking About …,” Bewilderment Inc. (June 3, 2008).
32. A similar aesthetic is evident in Hart’s recent collections, Wolf Face (H_NGM_N, 2010) and Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2010), though the reliance on the lyric tradition seems at times to supersede the more experimental thrust seen in earlier work.
37. “Post-avant” has been a term in circulation since at least 1992, when Ron Silliman used it on his blog. Since then it has gained usage mostly in online venues and roundtable discussions (see Joan Houlihan’s debate on the avant-garde with Oren Izenberg, Stephen Burt, Kent Johnson, H. L. Hix, Joe Amato, Alan Golding, and Norman Finkelstein). Recently Reginald Shepherd has offered this definition: “[post-avant] are writers who … have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and Language writing (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need … to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity … or a particular mode of proceeding artistically” (“Who You Callin’ ‘Post-Avant’?” Harriet, The Poetry Foundation [February 6, 2008]). Examples Shepherd offers of “established” poets in this vein are Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, and Cole Swensen; “emerging” writers include Laynie Browne, Noah Eli Gordon, and Matthea Harvey.
39. A portion of this essay was published at The Offending Adam.
40. Gallaher, “Tao Lin: you are a little bit happier than i am.”
43. Mike Young, “you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin,” Cut Bank Review (May 29, 2007).
46. Conn O’Brien, “Emotional Lit vs. Neutral Lit,” Rhombus Trapezoid Disaster blog (November 17, 2007). Now available at Robot Melon.
48. A similar aesthetic practice that involves neutral tone and paradoxical emotionality is evident in some of the work of Fernando Pessoa. About Pessoa Lin writes, “I like The Book of Disquiet … I like his tone, I think it is ‘emo’ and sarcastic and ultimately playful, like I feel like he enjoys making jokes about how sad and bored he feels because he ‘likes’ his sadness and boredom to some extent, or at least thinks it is funny. Yes, I like Fernando Pessoa. He is probably the earliest writer who had that tone I just talked about that I have read” (Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral”).
49. Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral.”
50. Lin, “Book Notes (you are a little bit happier than i am),” Largehearted Boy (December 19, 2006).
52. Lin addresses this in an interview with 3 A.M.: “I really feel alienated from ‘serious literature’ or something … I think I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing” (Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral”). It seems here that “serious literature” or canonical writing is being characterized as inaccessible, and that Lin, though clearly assuming an unselfconscious stance toward his writing, is consciously trying not to alienate potential readers.
54. DeDeo could not have picked an easier target. This really is a bad poem: “i’m tired / i’m going to eat a lettuce / it’s stupid to make sense / i don’t want to make sense anymore / just let me type something and let it be good / i’m tired / i’m stupid / i don’t care” (Juked, March 2, 2006).
56. Bök, “Writing and Failure (Part 3).”
57. I’m thinking here of the more recent avant-garde movements such as Flarf (often, but not always, deliberately bad poetry created from the results of Google searches) and the related “Mainstream Poetry” (Michael Magee); practices of direct transcription (see Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day); and recent collections of collaborative poetry (Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, Philip Jenks and Simone Muench).
58. Blake Butler, “Tao Lin in Interview,” Keyhole Magazine (August 12, 2008). Lin has similar things to say about his novels: “I feel free to write whatever I want to read and even to ‘ruin’ my books like I did with Eeeee Eee Eeee by adding animals to it. It feels exciting to me to ‘ruin’ a book in that way. I feel like it would be exciting to write a linear, realistic novel that has not been ‘ruined’ in any way, which is what I want my next novel to be like I think. I also ‘ruined’ Eeeee Eee Eeee by giving it certain things like cancer and terrorism (I think) and death to make it more ‘important’” (Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral”).
59. Hoagland, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Hoagland writes that “We have yielded so much authority to so many agencies, in so many directions, that we are nauseous … Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself. In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like — and is — an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest; the refusal to conform to a grammar of experience which is being debased by all-powerful public systems. This refusal was, we recall, one of the original premises of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.” The language Hoagland uses echoes the way Gabbert and Božičević detail the phenomenon of “The New Childishness,” whereby the poet assumes the stance of a child and gains power through a kind of naïve rebellion against a vague power.
61. Hart, “Lake Lake Lake,” Bewilderment Inc. (July 7, 2008).
62. Hart, “An Accidental Appreciation.”