(Ed note: This week Edward Hirsch is presenting terms from his new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
I’d like to close my week with the notion of sincerity and the idea of the accursed poet.
sincerity Sincerity, which Lionel Trilling defines as “a congruence between avowal and actual feeling,” was a negligible term in criticism until the second half of the eighteenth century when it came into vogue with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, an autobiography of unprecedented frankness completed in 1769, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), an early novel that passionately exalted feeling and attacked rationalism in the name of sincerity. The Romantic poets placed a high value on the uniqueness of individual experience. They made the expression of powerful emotion, what Keats calls “the true voice of feeling,” a crucial touchstone, a raison d’etre for poetry itself. Romantic sincerity, like Romantic spontaneity, was an artful construction that gave the feeling of an utterly authentic relationship between the poet and his subject without any intervening artifice. “There is nothing of the conventional craft of artificial writers,” Leigh Hunt said about Keats’s luxurious poem “The Eve of St. Agnes”: “All flows out of sincerity and passion.”
There are two counter-movements related to sincerity in the second half of the nineteenth century. On one hand, Victorian poets and critics gave greater moral weight to the idea of sincerity. Writing from the heart, the appearance of sincerity, became a measure of poetic integrity. The most genuine poetry corresponded to the poet’s deepest state of mind. Matthew Arnold spoke of “the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity.” On the other hand, as Nietzsche said, “Every profound spirit needs a mask,” and insincerity, the idea of a dramatic pose, also gained traction. Charles Baudelaire enshrined the idea of the dandy, a cultivated figure, and Robert Browning created the fictive speakers of the dramatic monologue, a type of poem that marginalizes the idea of poetic sincerity. The advantage of posing would culminate in Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
The true voice of feeling speaks in many registers. The modernist poets entered poetry by taking on different personas, which they made a central feature of their work. They also shifted the idea of sincerity away from self-expression, the honest transcription of feeling, towards verbal accuracy, artistic precision. Sincerity is reflected in making. Ezra Pound said, “I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity.”
poète maudit French: “accursed poet.” A French term for the poet as outsider, lost, unrecognized, ill-fated, rejected by bourgeois society, damned. Poets who are criminally inclined or socially off-kilter, prone to alcohol or drugs, crazy or suicidal, are often labeled poètes maudits. Alfred de Vigny coined the term in 1832 in his philosophical narrative, Stello, in which he argues that poets such as André Chénier and Thomas Chatterton come to unhappy ends because they belong to “a race always cursed by the powerful of the earth.” Paul Verlaine subsequently took Les poétes maudits (1884) as the title of his homage to six symbolist poets: Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Villiers de ‘l’Isle-Adam, and Pauvre Lélian (an anagram for Paul Verlaine himself). The fifteenth-century French rascal François Villon is the prototype of the poète maudit. The shadow of mental breakdown hangs over such eighteenth-century poets as William Cowper and Christopher Smart, who described his agony: “For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God, hath sent me to sea for pearls” (Jubilate Agno). Pierre Seghers redeploys the term in his 1972 anthology, Poètes maudits d’aujourd’hui (The Accursed Poets of Today). The curse can be a description, a cliché, a mode of praise, or all three at once. “Les Maudits,” Robert Lowell writes in his poem “For John Berryman, “the compliment / each American generation / pays itself in passing.”
“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”