From a 2010 Poets Forum panel discussion titled "Sincerely Ironic" featuring poets Jericho Brown, Tina Chang, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Meghan O'Rourke, and Mark Wunderlich discussing the use of irony and sincerity in contemporary poetry.
Olena Kalytiak Davis: When I think about clarity, I think about ambiguity, and in some ways irony. It made me want to try and understand Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. Because it seems like it's the same thing. We're talking about layers.
Meghan O'Rourke: And to me the layers are the thing I go to poetry for. I keep thinking about the Berryman line that you quoted, Jericho: "Life, my friends, is boring," which is a brilliant, beautiful and extraordinary line precisely because it stages two things at once in that poem. It says "life is boring, life is dull, it's the anti-Romantic." It also says: "life is boring." It bores into you and pierces you. Right? It does those things in one. It's self-contradictory; it's holding in mind the contradictory-ness of experience.
OKD: But it also is followed by "but we're not supposed to say so." I think the whole argument has been pushed further beyond that. Yeah, there's the self-reflexivity, and that can be annoying as hell too—and not get anywhere. Originally irony was a tool for exposing hypocrisy. And now we don't really have something that we are opposed to. There are too many...we've gone to too many to too many to too many. It's exponentially more complicated, though I do think that we would all say we are trying to be sincere, we are going for truth, we are going for beauty, no matter how ironic. I mean, you do what you have to do. You do anything you have to do.
Jericho Brown: This thing that you're saying about exposing hypocrisy, for instance, and how it extrapolated...all of this has something to do with this idea that poems are only for poems. Like in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot said "every time you write a poem you change all the poems before it." People thought that meant, "Oh, every time I write a poem, the only thing I'm doing is writing poems." As if nothing else can be affected by that. The truth is, yeah, I change all the poems, but I also change my hair, and I change Matisse, and I change getting on the subway. Which is really what I think about poetry.
MO: That would be cool if poetry really changed my whole life.
OKD: Well, it's also starting from scratch. Again and again. Despite everything you're using, all the allusions you're making, you really want to start from scratch.
Mark Wunderlich: One thing we're always doing is grappling with the problem of language's ability to represent experience, language's ability to represent the self. A number of people also spoke about Whitman and Dickinson, and the thing that they do in so many of their poems—in Leaves of Grass, but also of course in Dickinson's individual poems—is they reinvent these personae, over and over again. They reshape them, they retool them. Dickinson speaks through—you know, it's polyphonic—she speaks through so many different personae in those poems, and Whitman creates one persona that he's constantly changing and modulating and shaping as you go through that whole long book. Because they don't believe that they can represent one single thing with one personhood, with one persona. So, they invent multitudes.
This event was hosted by the Philoctetes Center and held during the 2010 Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on October 29, 2010.