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The aesthetics of failure.

February 11, 2012 \pm\29 12:25 pm

At Jacket2, Jennifer Moore has an excellent essay, ‘“Something that stutters sincerely”: Contemporary Poetry and the aesthetics of failure,’ in which she argues that a range of contemporary poets are simultaneously re-appropriating and undermining the objective experiments of postmodernism in order to get at an emotional subjectivity that both affirms and denies our hold over language, its (non)meanings, and art’s ability to be “art” in the face of contemporary self-awareness. In particular she focuses on Matt Hart and Tao Lin, very different poets who walk the line between sentiment and sentimentality. What’s so good about this essay is how Moore distinguishes between these poets’ desire to say something meaningful, to be sincere, while continually acknowledging that what’s meaningful always alludes them, even works against them, and simply being ironic. A well-known poet once called one of my poems an example of “high-irony” and though the comment wasn’t meant to be disparaging I took it as a serious put-down and, ego aside, a genuine misreading of the poem. I’ve often thought that there’s a gap of misunderstanding between a lot of poets who grew up writing in the 80’s and early 90’s, mired in a writing that came out of a sense of postmodern irony, and younger writers who grew up writing over the last 10-15 years who have subsumed that irony and not so much rejected it as acknowledged it in favor of trying (failing) to make real human connections beyond the artifice. Moore’s essay is a necessary critical step in reconciling that gap. Here’s her thesis:

“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.”[10] 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”[11] 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[12] through purposefully appropriating its opposite.”


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