by Matt Hart
Slope Editions 2006
Reviewed by David Sewell
A Whole New Sincerity
The New Sincerity is just like the old sincerity, except now the earth is melting. “Grasshoppers on fire!” you’re probably thinking, what the hell is this new sincerity? Well, here’s a somewhat longish quotation from Matt Hart that appeared in a (well-deserved) love letter he wrote to Gregory Corso in Octopus:
What I want to talk about in this appreciation is how Gregory Corso and his work can be seen as a precursor to New Sincerity in poetry, one that I’m beginning to see in the work of many of the poets of my own generation—and which frankly I’d like to see more of—a poetry which thrives on the ideas that 1) capital-B Beauty and other aesthetic and human values are real and available to us both experientially and intellectually, 2) that language is so inefficient with regard to the _expression of essentials that we need poetry to make it work significantly, 3) that as poets, we need to emphasize poetry as a means to an end, rather than merely as an end in itself, and 4) 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.
The first two items might be summed up as nothing new at best, as a stab at the fog with a sword made of gravy at worst. The third item sounds fine as a jab against self-referential, onanistic writing-about-writing writing, but, again … oh, I’m sorry, I thought I heard a foghorn. The fourth, though, is crucial. The relevance of poetry depends on it.
These days, we’ve been awhile at reaping the bounty that the past century’s experimentation has afforded us—freedoms that even the most repressive government can’t legislate away. And now, with the freedoms gleaned from these experiments firmly encoded into the poetry DNA, we can again see that poems should—or at least, can—aspire to something other than art for art’s sake. (Rah! We’re human again. Rah! And, yet, we don’t feel the need to confess our childhoods or mental illnesses.)
Even if Hart’s points, including number four, are descriptive rather than prescriptive, they’re still worth hollering down the halls of liberal arts/arts colleges everywhere. The youth, when they’re sober enough to put one foot in front of the other, are either being led astray or are wandering off on their own.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with wandering off, but there’s nothing really valuable in wandering off if it’s being done over well-trod ground. There are lessons to be learned, or at least rediscovered, from the recent past, in lieu of reinventing the iamb: collage all you want, transcribe conversations with your Aunt Jenny after she’s had two bottles of Shiraz all you want, cut and paste and stitch and glue and associate and jump around like a ritalin-addled child in a moonwalk all you want, but if you expect the reader to care about your poems because they’re weird or difficult or experimental or conceptual or whatever, even if they’re devastatingly smart and clever, don’t hold your breath. Perhaps this is another piece of the flotsam floating away atop the wake of 9/11; perhaps it’s just the pendulum swinging back from whence it came.
Theodor Adorno’s proclamation about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz was a moral call and too complicated to do much with here. Hart’s is not. His words are nothing more (and nothing less) than a preemptive defense of poetry, an attempt to rescue it from the Manichean trap that ghettoizes much of poetry today to one of two camps: the esoteric and impenetrable/experimental and the calmer, clearly resonant capital-P Poetry that swallowed the confessional aesthetic like a python dislocating its jaw around a gazelle. Lines have been drawn in the sand and sides have been chosen. But, as Greenland turns into a lush rain forest and the oceans swell with the runoff, the lines in the sand risk being washed away. This could be a good thing—at least for poetry, that is.
In Who’s Who Vivid, Matt Hart’s first book, there’s love and longing and regret woven into oft discursive and entertaining (and almost always surreal) poems. There’re lists and philosophical proofs and dialogues and monologues. There is, at the heart of many of the poems, heart. It’s appropriate, then, in an aptronymic sense, that the poems in this book behave as they do.
Here, in “In Fifteen Minutes,” is Hart at work:
Later somebody spilled some water and somebody else
slipped and fell and started leaking. That’s when I ran
to get the baking soda and subsequently missed
the flower delivery. That’s when I broke
through the overwhelmed ceiling
and did what I could to get you alone.
Ignoring the not-terribly-interesting flying metaphor, we can see Hart trying hard to make something of combining details surreal with connections emotional. Hart’s world is his world— anthropomorphized ceiling, the ability to fly, unhinged (that is, highly personal) details (did someone die, say?), a wild enjambment—but there’re also, transplanted into it, emotional/relational touchstones that keep the poems from floating away—something happened or didn’t happen, and the speaker feels something about it; might we too?
If, in his role as dean of the New Sincerity, Hart intends to lead by example, then his goal must be to go past mere accretion (say, to a stalagmite) in his poems and actually amount to something (say, an ice cream cone). Whether the poems are dramatizations of a mood or emotion or consciousness, narrative threads allowed to fray, bald-faced enactments of something otherwise ineffable (all of which I’d call, if done well, “something fully beautifully human”), or other things entirely, they should arrive somewhere, not at meaning, per se, but at the embodiment of something, beyond the experience of reading the poem, that matters—to the poet and to the reader, hopefully. As Hart says in his letter to Corso, poems should be seen as the means to an end (as well as being ends in themselves). And, for the most part, Hart’s poems do achieve his goals, with a few caveats.
There’s no getting away from the alienating feeling that jumpy poems produce, and Hart’s poems are jumpy in the way that’s de rigeur for young, smartish poets these days. But, at the same time, somewhat paradoxically, the twists and turns along the road foster emotional connections between the work and the reader—the reader must stay astute and engaged and must really care to be dragged through the motions—the reader is moved to feel something in the act of reading the poem. But the reader must be led somewhere other than the carnival. And Hart does, most of the time, lead the reader somewhere, and not in the trite, lazy way of stapling on the transcendence, in the clearest writing of the poem, at the end of the poem, as if it were a worrisome afterthought.
“Breakable Swan” achieves most of the points in Hart’s rubric. Here we have the resplendent—“Now I drink something lukewarm / out of a cup the color of a trailer park.”—the wonderfully evocative—“In the distance a foghorn, / and all the while I’m tracing shapes / in the air with a dessert fork.”—and the unfunny/unnecessary—“Triangle, triangle / let down your hair!” That Hart sometimes overreaches is not surprising, nor is it a particularly sharp criticism. His poems are all about chance—or personality, to think of another poet—and they don’t, no, they can’t, always work.
The best poems in the book are those that go beyond mere pedantic exercises in smarty-pants poetry; the best poems somehow capture something that couldn’t otherwise be captured, inviting readers to care about what’s happening and interesting them enough to try to find out why. For instance, the following from “How I Know I’m Still Missing”: “When I cross the bridge at midnight / I pretend I’m a sparrow escaping a star.” What more do we ask for in poems than that?—a brightly painted door that suddenly swings open, and all we have to do is step inside.
Nowadays, it’s goddamn brave to make poetry that risks popularity or, gasp, being understood. Which is not to say that Hart’s poems run the risk of being either of those things. But he’s clearly concerned with moving in that direction, or of trying to find out what happens when the imagination is let loose within the confines of his four points above.
And whether he achieves success in every line, he knows what he’s up to. Here’s the ending to “Letter to a Friend I’ll Never See Again,” which, appropriately enough, sums everything up quite nicely:
I’m not being clever, but rather just the opposite.
I’m telling you I love you, but it sounds like a rant.
It sounds like somebody plastered in Ohio.
This is how I’ve burned all my bridges.
As far as I can tell, at least one bridge is still standing.