The New Sincerity: On Daniel Bailey’s Drunk Sonnets

December 4, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Posted in contemporary, flarf, irony, poetry, sincerity | 10 Comments

Huge swaths of the American population have always been into sincerity: Christians. Truckers. Moms. Emo kids. But since the early 20th century, anybody who’s identified as “cool” — with the exception of emo kids and arguably of hippies — has thrived on ironic distance. But as anybody who’s been tracking hipster culture lately knows, we are currently going down a rabbit hole in which irony is trying so hard that it’s turning into sincerity before our very eyes. Case in point: Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets, recently out from Magic Helicopter Press, a triumph of postironic poetry and a harbinger, perhaps, of the world to come.

Now, the hipster ironists of the poetry world are the Flarfists, whose blog features a giant unicorn and the slogan “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world.” But of course, their poetry is anything but mainstream — it is assembled from the detritus of the internet as targeted through google searches, and it is nothing if not hostile to interpretation. Flarf poetry is extremely resistant to sincerity, and even to communication. It’s a parody of poetry, and a parody of the internet, and if sentiment does creep into Flarf poems it’s with invisible quotation marks around it, as in this excerpt from “Spanksgiving,” recently reposted for the holiday:

Now Ride! By now a lot of people are showing
up for their holiday weekend in the desert. A large
contingent at the retail store for “Leather Happy Hour.”

Spank hard…spank safe!

The only Turkeys I’ll be seeing this Spanksgiving are my dear
friends Brook, Katie and Baby Richy. I was very happy
to help them mark this moment in their family’s growth.

Spank hard…spank safe!

We got lots more smut in store for you all month long!
(And on a school night, nonetheless!) I had to kill
them to make them happy or some shit.

The middle stanza drips of sincerity and is probably a real excerpt from somebody’s blog except for the poet’s substitution of “Spanksgiving.” But the “spank hard… spank safe!” refrain and the bondage/smut references in the adjacent stanzas make it clear that we are supposed to smirk at the sentiment. The “mainstream poetry” Flarf slogan may be meant to indicate that the vapid and absurd internet material that the Flarfists draw from IS the mainstream now, and if their poems end up being more scatalogical and incoherent than most “mainstream” people can deal with, then maybe those people should learn to face up to the reality of their own culture. But slapping “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world” on your avant-garde poetry website might just as easily be read as hipster posturing — the equivalent of wearing a Journey T-shirt to an Animal Collective concert and challenging people to wonder about whether you really listen to Journey and whether you would be more cool or less cool if you did.

On the surface of it, Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets (and the multi-author blog on which they were first posted), have a lot in common with Flarf. All Drunk poems, both in the book and on the blog, are written in all capital letters — the international internet language of idiocy and/or assholery. Like Flarf poems, Drunk poems feature inanity, banality, and frequent topic shifts and interruptions. But unlike Flarf poems, there is real emotional content in Drunk poems. Bailey’s book consists of real live sonnets — most of them are Italian sonnets, with an octave and a sestet and a turn and everything — describing the speaker’s alcohol-drenched misery following a breakup. Here’s one of my favorites:

Sonnet 14

IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY
I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME
INFOMERCIALS HAVE STARTED AND I KIND OF WANT TO DIE
I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE

OK SO ACTUALLY IT’S FOR THE BIBLE OR SOMETHING
SO IT’S A COMMERCIAL FOR TRYING TO BE HAPPY OR SOMETHING
BUT I AM NOT HAPPY TONIGHT NO I AM NOT JUST HERE
IF HAPPINESS EVER WORKED THEN HOW — I DON’T KNOW

HAPPINESS IS A LIZARD IN THE SUNLIGHT GETTING WARM
AND THEN IN THE NIGHT BENEATH A ROCK EATING FLIES
AND SWALLOWING THE MEAT OF THE TRASH OF THE DIRT

AH, SO TONIGHT IS A LITTLE DRUNK AND OK OK OK
THAT IS GOOD SO LET ME BE — THERE IS NO LOVE TONIGHT
GOD IS LIKE BONO — SOME DICKWAD NO ONE WILL EVER MEET OR LIKE

The poem begins with a sort of open-ended plea that reflects the internet age in its very vagueness. Most Facebook and Twitter updates are not addressed to anyone in particular; they are just thrown out into the abyss and we hope that some of our friends will respond. This diminishes our responsibility for our own feelings as well as potentially diminishing the intensity of our relationships; instead of calling a friend to vent about a problem, you can just post a vague allusion to it on your Facebook and receive a bunch of vague support from whatever acquaintances happen to have logged on in time to see your post. In this poem, there is real pathos in this vagueness : “IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY / I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME.” This is a person who is lost and lonely. In the last line of the first stanza, the speaker appears to be able to laugh a little at his own misery — “I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE” — but in the next stanza his joking façade cracks, and he says straight out that he’s unhappy.

Then suddenly, in the first stanza of the sestet, there is a total change of tone from the banal to the imaginative. The lizard seems to be a figure for the banal — feeding, as it does, on the “meat of the trash of the dirt” — but it is at least a figure in a poem that until now has been aggressively anti-poetic. I don’t think it’s exactly a metaphor; I don’t think the speaker is saying that happiness is LIKE a lizard, but rather that only simple things like lizards are happy. It’s the same construction as “happiness is a warm gun,” and I think the use of “warm” to describe the lizard might not be an accident. After this little reverie, the speaker realizes he is drunk, makes temporary peace with his loneliness, and curses God. The tone switches back to banal rambling, but the God = Bono simile betrays a wry poetic sensibility that few drunks (who aren’t poets to begin with) are capable of.

What gets me so excited about Drunk poetry as written by Bailey and friends is that it breaks down the pervasive assumption that experimental form is incompatible with emotional content. That this assumption exists baffles me, since Joyce’s Ulysses stands as an enormous and wildly famous testament to the contrary, but I have observed it in many (though not all) of my students, my colleagues, and the scholars in my field. Most importantly, I have observed it in the experimental poets of today, many of whom seem content to be tricksters and treat “feelings” as counterrevolutionary.

That’s not to say that Bailey’s sincere moments are always delightful, however. The breakup theme gets tedious (and maybe that’s intentional?), and the poetry is frequently at its wretched worst when he is at his most sincere: “I LICKED THE SPOONS THAT WE HAD SCOOPED INTO OUR HEARTS / AND I GAVE YOU TWO SCOOPS EVERY TIME — I WASN’T CHEAP.” I mean, puke. Puuuuuke. But this is an interesting post-ironic moment. Is it a joke? When we puke at these lines, are we puking with him or on him? What about these lines?

I COULD PRACTICALLY RIP MYSELF APART
AND WHAT WOULD I EVEN FIND BUT YOUR LOVE
THAT I’VE SAVED UP LIKE CRUMBS

The hipster in me recoils at the naked sentiment — last night I marked these in my book as “puke” lines, but today they look kinda nice. And this oscillation, this indeterminacy, is precisely what is going to characterize the post-ironic age. I am not proposing that a return to Byronic levels of sincerity is imminent or even advisable, but that as we feel our way back from posturing in silly haircuts to occasionally being able to say what we mean, we are going to encounter a lot of weird situations that look a lot like Bailey’s poems. The trouble with foreclosing on the possibility of sincerity — as Flarf more or less does — is that you cut off a whole lot of interpretative possibilities. But if you do occasionally say something “real,” you open up the downright dangerous possibility that anything in your poem might be “real.”

It’s not an accident, though, that Bailey & friends have adopted drunkenness as their aesthetic banner. The speech of drunk people is frequently a fascinating blend of comedy and sincerity, and it moves in and out of self-awareness pretty fluidly. One minute your drunk friend will be saying something absurd, the next minute he’ll be telling you that you are truly one of his best and most excellent friends, and in another minute he’ll be laughing at himself and telling you how drunk he is and not to listen to anything he says. The fact that Bailey’s speaker is drunk allows him to be sincere with relatively little risk; we know that our drunk friends’ resolutions generally come from genuine feelings, but at the same time we’ve learned to take them with a grain of salt.

So it appears that the Drunk poets get to have their cake and eat it too, which leaves us with just one burning question: are they really drunk, or are they writing in “drunkface”? Fred Astaire claimed in his autobiography that he knocked back two shots of bourbon before the first take of the famous drunk dancing scene from the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, and one before each successive take — and they got it on the seventh take. This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Astaire achieves a balance of grace and sloppiness that could perhaps have only been executed by a legitimately drunk professional dancer. But what about Zui Quan, the form of Chinese martial arts known as “Drunken Boxing” popularized by Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films? Though Jackie Chan’s character is portrayed as actually drunk, real Zui Quan practitioners say that you need to be sober in order to have the balance and coordination necessary to perform the staggering, fluid motions that are merely meant to imitate drunkenness.

Here’s where I go off the conspiracy-theory deep end: Sam Pink, in one of the blurbs on the back of the book (which by the way are the two greatest blurbs I have ever read in my life), refers to “the midwest sadness embedded as deeply in [Bailey] as his Kool-Aid moustache,” and indeed, Bailey’s author bio claims that he is from Muncie, Indiana. You know who else is from Muncie? Tim Robbins’ character in The Hudsucker Proxy, a naïve midwesterner who accidentally finds himself in charge of a big-city corporation. When the femme fatale wants to gain his trust she claims to be from Muncie too, which involves an elaborate lie including singing the Muncie High fight song along with Robbins by following him a half-beat behind and being able to guess about the predicable rhymes. When her betrayal of Robbins is eventually revealed, he’s so naïve that all he can say is “I can’t believe I was betrayed by you….. a Muncie girl!”. So maybe — just maybe — Bailey’s alleged Muncie origin is a winking reference to an absolute sincerity that is, itself, ironized in the Coen Brothers’ film.

So is he really from Muncie? Is he really drunk? Does he sincerely want you to lick the spoon he has scooped into his heart? I don’t know, but I’m having fun trying to figure it out.

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  1. On the subject of ‘drunkface’, also remember that the coniving, pusilanimous, and pretty convincing drunk Withnail in “Withnail & I” was played by Richard E. Grant who was apparently allergic to alcohol.

  2. Great post, Erin. Thanks for giving me something to procrastinate on before I resume the 8 hour practice take home exam I’m 5 hours into…fucking law school…

    Anyway, I think one of the things that comes through in your post is that there is a tension between sincerity and the public character of professional poetry, a tendency that is exaggerated by the internet. One of the reasons that sincerity always potentially collapses into irony is that allegedly sincere poetry always risks signifying sincerity, at which point it stops being sincere. After all, who is the “this” in “this is a person who is lost and lonely?” Is it Bailey? Or is it an implied author, a fictional construction that adopts the conventions associated with sincerity on the internet? And if the latter, how exactly can a fictional construction using a conventional language be sincere? Are you using sincerity as synonymous with emotional content, or does sincerity require a correspondence between emotional signification and the lived emotional experience of a real individual? And if the thing that’s satisfying about the poem is that it raises this question for you, then you’re not really invested in its emotional expression, are you? You’re invested in what it has to say about emotional expression.

    The internet removes poetry from a context in which the author as a historical individual matters to his audience. But publication has always done the same. See my comments on Neruda and O’hara’s Personism, way back when. When signifying sincerity becomes an aspect of the aesthetic appreciation of public poetry, actual sincerity goes out the window. So I suspect a lot of the recoiling at bad, overly sincere public literary or pseudo-literary expressions of emotion aren’t rejections of sincerity, but the reverse – sincere attempts to preserve the concept of sincerity by refusing to attribute it to objects of public consumption, i.e. commodities. Once sincerity becomes something on which you can found an aesthetic or a relationship or a political movement, i.e. once it enters an economy, it ceases to be sincere.

    Of course, the implication would be that you could maybe preserve the concept of sincerity by reserving it for truly private communications with no aspiration of public consumption. But all communication is for public consumption. Even when you’re just talking to yourself, you’re right there eavesdropping and trying to claim the speech stream as the property of that ownmost self which the speech stream is in the process of inventing.

    Anyway, I think the best you can do may be something like you get at in this sentence: “open up the downright dangerous possibility that anything in your poem might be ‘real.'” I.e. the best you can do is preserve sincerity as a downright dangerous possibility, a risk, and never ever call anything sincerely sincere. For sincerity’s sake.

  3. Btw, I should add that I wrote a really sincere, semi-drunken email last night. Note the ironies.

  4. “It’s the same construction as “happiness is a warm gun,” and I think the use of “warm” to describe the lizard might not be an accident.”

    Small note: before “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” we had “Happiness is a Warm Puppy,” the popular Peanuts book. Though heaven knows which Bailey would be alluding to.

  5. I came here through Silliman’s blog, and I wanted to say: Really nice post on a really fantastic book that I just recently read myself.

    One point of disagreement though: I think you’re seriously selling Flarf short. I think the best Flarf has a lot of space for pathos and sentiment mingled, indistinguishably, with the irony. Now, none of this emotion can ever be directly attributed to the author, and there’s never any easy way to tell what’s sincere or celebratory from what’s ironic or mocking — but that doesn’t sound so different from how you characterize the “postironic” in The Drunk Sonnets. It’s true that Flarf doesn’t go into “pure” sincerity or actual confessionalism the way the Drunk poets do, but I think they’re more a precursor than an opposite of what Bailey’s doing (as evidenced by the fact that one of those two back-cover blurbs you mention comes from Flarfist K. Silem Mohammad).

    For examples of what I mean, see poems like Sharon Mesmer’s “I Miss His Big Peninsula” (in Annoying Diabetic Bitch), or Katie Degentesh’s “I Hate My Father” (in The Anger Scale), or some poems in Nada Gordon’s Folly that I couldn’t give you the titles of right now.

    • You’re totally right, Morgan; in an email to Dan Bailey that I wrote in the aftermath of this post I listed both Mesmer and Gordon as Flarfists who definitely do have a lot of emotion & pathos in their work. I think you’re right to characterize the emotional difference between Drunk and Flarf as “confessionalism,” whether actual or imitated; that’s a helpful distinction & something I’ll have to think about more. My primary interest in 20th C poetry has always been the more experimental stuff, which has led me to a general handwaving disdain for the actual Confessional poets of the 50s and 60s, but perhaps Drunk poetry is asking us to rethink that divide.

      • I’m actually a total Plath devotee as well as a fan of Language writing and Flarf, so I’d love to see that happen.

        I also have to say that I’m delighted to throw around “Drunk poetry” as if it were a thing, like a whole movement with a future beyond the (mostly defunct?) blog. Because I don’t think it is, but it would be awesome if it were.

  6. What a terrific post; I’ve read it three times now with increasing pleasure. Bailey goes down very well, and seems like the kind of poet who would absolutely kill at an MFA reading.

    In some sense, I would argue, all of his poems are sincere. The funny parts of his poems are sincere in that they want to entertain through laughter, and the serious parts are sincere in that they want to entertain through self-exposure. Poetry means something different for Bailey, I think, than it did for poets from previous generations; it is like blogging, and it is also like vaudeville. When he suddenly gets “poetical” about a lizard, he is aware that his audience will delight in his suddenly opulent language. It is another gift to us, rather than the product of some involuntary eccentricity of vision, one that could exist even if he thought his book of poems would end up lost in an uninhabited wilderness.

    Along the lines of Andre Gregory’s comment, “Isn’t it funny how a terrorist nowadays looks just like a terrorist?” — isn’t it funny how his poetic line about a lizard looks just the way we would expect? And how infomercials = loneliness, just like they do in Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream and countless other movies or TV shows where the protagonist is miserably channel surfing? I mean, part of the tragedy of these poems, which are a lot of fun, is that we don’t know whether or not Bailey is drunk because even if he really is drunk, he’s also acting like a drunk is supposed to act. (Anybody’s who’s ever had a boring time drinking alone realizes how plastic the ethyl alcohol experience can be.)

    He’s very clever and he’s very cliche, and he refuses to edit himself.

    ***

    TYLER: Oh I get it. It’s very clever.
    JACK: Thank you.
    TYLER: How’s that working out for you?
    JACK: What?
    TYLER: Being clever.
    JACK: Oh, great.
    TYLER: Keep it up, then. Keep it right up.

  7. […] they are a quadra-telemetrist? And, if you don’t think Dan will keep his word, just read this review and this interview and K. Silem Mohammad’s blurb here, all of which hold Dan’s […]

  8. […] if you want to see some New Sincerity poetry, try this… and for movies go for… Dancing with the wolves or any Lars von Trier (and the Dogme […]


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