Skip to content

What’s More Important To A Poem – Sincerity Or Tone?

“As one who once considered himself in the vanguard of writing as writing, it is difficult for me to describe my feelings when confronted by a new generation of writers who are dedicated not to an exploration of any particular literary dimension I can identify beyond a snotty tone of voice. I know this isn’t something I ever had in mind.

Beyond that, there are a number of other identifiable trends, which I would characterize briefly as: 1) Poems that prove how smart I am; 2) Poems that prove what a master of rhetoric I am; 3) Poems that prove I am a dope addict; and 4) Poems that just generally prove how hard I am to understand in any way…”

You might assume this was written by a critic as an indictment on today’s crop of poets. However, it was written way back in 1974 by Aram Saryoyan, commenting on the New York School (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and others who followed them), and I found it on Don Share’s Squandermania blog.

I guess all poets fall into some of these the identifiable trends at times, even without trying to. At least, those who never fall into them must have no ambition whatsoever. There is a fine line between writing something brilliant and something merely to ‘prove how smart I am’, between something uncommon and original and something that only proves ‘how hard I am to understand in any way.’ It’s easy to fall onto the wrong side of that line. The only way to avoid doing so is to play it safe and not even try to be brilliant.

On the other hand, the idea that writers have given up on genuine feelings and ideas of substance in favour of tone, snotty or otherwise, might be a damning indictment. Or does tone – especially the stylish, ironic tone that largely gives up on sincerity, insight and truth, and that does characterise much 21st century writing – have a more important role to play in poems than Saryoyan admits? Can the tone of a poem arrest a reader and make a poem memorable every bit as much as an exploration of emotion or ideas? Or has Saroyan hit the nail on the head and identified why so many poems will never stick in a reader’s mind?

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. I am not sure about this, but I THINK that stylish, ironic tone is not incompatible with sincerity, insight and that other dangerous concept ‘truth’. That is to say, I rather like both, and I believe I have found them together happily co-existing and may even have combined them myself in poems, although that’s not really for me to say. But even coupling ‘stylish’ with ‘ironic’ tends to suggest the writer is more intent to achieve a style statement than tell it like it is.

    I certainly think tone can be arresting, yes. I love tone. It can be part of playfulness too, and what is poetry without playfulness? See

  2. I certainly agree more with Helena than with Rob Mackenzie, though my bête noir is poetry that is incomprehensible except after a 3 page explanation. Tone of voice in poetry is important, as is playfulness. I always try to write truthfully and from the heart, but do sometimes inject a different voice or persona into my poems, which may not necessarily reflect my natural ‘take’ on a subject.

  3. Likewise, I don’t think there has to be a choice between tone and authenticity of voice. I suspect that poems that are seriously lacking in either department are usually failures. Is it not possible to be both ironic in tone and at the same time sincere?

  4. I tend to agree with Helena, too– though that’s not to say I don’t find poets who attempt to marry the ironic to the sincere in their poetry obnoxious and largely unsuccessful. The resultant poems are typically blips of self-amused wordplay and THAT’s why they don’t stick in THIS reader’s mind. It takes a poet who isn’t so easily amused to pull of sincere irony. And it takes a peer group that isn’t so easily impressed.

  5. There should be sincerity in each poem. The tone is the poets choice. Ironic or not, the way the words work and sound should rule the poem.

  6. Okay, Helena…try this (I’m wondering whether ‘supercilious’ might be a matter of tone or an ironic stance – but I sense here a danger of disapearing up our own semantic fundaments)

    In an Election Year

    “I wonder if we shall be famous first
    for our poems or our paintings,” you joke,
    a purply H-shaped blur as you sit
    too far back over the knee-high buxus
    sempervirens and tumble laughing among
    the aquilegias.

    Underground nearby
    tiny workers tending a queen ant sense
    a subtle change in their environment –
    as if a very ‘wrong’ candidate had somehow
    got elected – and switch the ingredients
    they feed the larvae so more soldiers
    will grow up to defend the nest.

    Two gardens away no-one cares.

  7. Surprised to stumble across a link to Pentone on here—thanks Helena. It’s obviously meant as a playful exercise, but I am fascinated by the relationship between tone and content. To what extent can you separate the two? Would it be possible to write an ironic, detached version of ‘Daffodils’, or a bright and breezy version of ‘Do not go gentle’? Or would the change in tone so distort the message that it becomes unsustainable (probably). *

    Thinking specifically about the “snotty tone of voice” in the Aram Saryoyan quote, I’m sure we must all recognise that from the worst kind of self-regarding, clever-me type of poem. (Although, as Rob says, there can be a fine line between that and the genuinely clever type.) Conversely, sincerity is also responsible for a lot of bad poetry. The overly-confessional “I am a poet and these are my current personal problems” poem can leave you longing for a bit of obscurity and detachment.

    The Election Year poem falls into neither trap—enjoyed it very much.

    Yours sincerely (ironically)


    * Hey now, don’t be going gentle into that good night! / No harm in raging against the dying of the light now is there?

  8. I will give you a sincere moment of american poetry. When I was at Princeton, Gary Snyder was invited to give a reading, which was very well attended. With him was Allen Ginsberg who did not read but was part of the sxcene. I walked into the mens room of the building where the reading took place and there at one sink was Allen and at another a rather pink faced Princeton undergrad.
    Both were staring at each other intyensely and also intensely washing their hands, oh flows of bubbles over white knuckles, and Alled kept repeating
    We have to do more to say the earth, and the Princeton guy would nod happily at each delcaration. they were still at it when I zipped up and left the room Sincwereity on parade. Is it hte poet’s life or their words. I think sinnical poems, satire not nearly as tart as Juvenal, or political fishing hooks(even in forms of brag or confession) come from MFA cadence counting. After 30 years in Japan, and one reason I went was Snyder said I shouldn’t, I now evidence meaning blows like wind through print lkke thoughts flow through the brain, so poems.

    Little mags need a comeback and a fredomn from MFA schools. Otherwise, its lots of energy spent debating the best color of bath towels for the new bathroom.

    Maybe tone is what you cannot escape and sincerity is what other people think.
    What to I know. I’m just an old dog that barks mostly from the porch.

  9. Sincerity is a matter of tone, surely. What determines whether we readers experience a poem as sincere if not its tone? Careful study of the poet’s diaries?

    On another note, Rob, I wish you’d given us your own thoughts straight rather than quoting Saroyan, who, if nothing else, is absolutely wrong about the New York poets. Say what one might, they were and are not unmemorable, and they certainly don’t seem to have a sincerity deficit. On the contrary, they seem to me to have rather too much of it at times.

  10. Thanks for some very interesting comments so far. I’m going to pick up on just a few of them, but I have appreciated everyone’s take on the questions:

    “I am not sure about this, but I THINK that stylish, ironic tone is not incompatible with sincerity, insight and that other dangerous concept ‘truth’.” (Helena Nelson)

    I hope you’re right. In fact, I also think you are right, which brings me to Brooklyn’s comment:

    “It takes a poet who isn’t so easily amused to pull of sincere irony. And it takes a peer group that isn’t so easily impressed.” (Brooklyn)

    I found your whole comment very thought-provoking, Brooklyn. Perhaps the keyword there is ‘easily’? It is all too easy to churn out ironic doodling and for a peer group to nod their heads and churn out some more. As John Ash says in his new collection, “Poetry is always difficult/ Like a maladjusted child,/ But perhaps it should only be/ Difficult for the poet, not the reader,” although he does then go on to admit that this knowledge doesn’t curb his evasions or his compulsion, “to mention places no one has heard of” (John Ash is just wonderful!). Poetry should be difficult for a writer, I agree. But if that means telling readers something they haven’t heard a million times before, it must require a degree of commitment from readers too, rather than being easily impressed, which brings me to Travis and Nicholas:

    “Maybe tone is what you cannot escape and sincerity is what other people think.” (Travis Venters)
    “Sincerity is a matter of tone, surely. What determines whether we readers experience a poem as sincere if not its tone? Careful study of the poet’s diaries?” (Nicholas Liu)

    Just as apparent complexity can sometimes be employed by poets to mask the fact that they are saying something very basic, I guess tone can also be used as a mask. I don’t always find that problematic. I don’t share the feeling some readers appear to have that good poems must lay bare the writers’ emotions, but some poems seem to be only tone and have little else to offer. Tone becomes an affectation, rather than an effect. If sincerity is a matter of tone, does that make such poems ‘insincere’? Hmmmm, like Helena, I’m not actually sure of all this, which is why I asked the questions in the first place.
    I am glad to know I’m not the only one who felt that Saroyan’s target, the New York School (some of my favourite poets), was strange.

    “Sincerity is also responsible for a lot of bad poetry.” (Nick Asbury)
    “Skill’s more important than either [sincerity or tone].” (Sheenagh Pugh)

    Yes, as long as ‘skill’ means more than just craft. Skill has an indefinable quality. I like what Lemon Hound is reaching towards in the comments thread at the Squandermania link (found in my original post) where she says of much contemporary U.S. poetry, “There is a kind of burning that I miss–and tend toward. And it isn’t earnest, it isn’t feelgood, it’s a kind of visceral human churn.”

  11. Skill’s irrelevant. Skill produces all the neat little well-rounded poems we could well do without. All your poem needs to be is tight enough so that everyone wants to sleep with it (thanks, Frank.)

    Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you can go a long way…

  12. And the ability to create a “poem. . . tight enough so that everyone wants to sleep with it” isn’t a skill? How odd that you’d choose to define “skill”–a fairly flexible category, I’d think, and certainly not a given–as “the ability to do everything you don’t need to do”.

  13. Fantastic and aposite quote for the kind of contemporary poetry I really dislike. There’s a fine example of an example that shows 1) 2) and 4) on page 50 of the Demon issue. A swaggering boast of a poem. A poem to leave you cold.

  14. Ooh! I am enjoying this exchange.

    To Steve who thinks that skill is irrelevant: try reading some beginners’/students’ poems, before they have acquired any skills. Having only recently ceased to be a student, and now trying to be a poet, I look back on some of my early effusions with horror – sincere though they were at the time. Skill can hone a good poem into a great one. Lack of skill can turn a wonderful idea into doggerel (but that’s a form I rather like!)

  15. I think you’re exaggerating a wee bit, Steve. I know what you mean though – perfect craft doesn’t make a poem. Your own poems certainly are written with considerable skill, even though you may not have to think much about that!

    Robert, I like much of what I’ve read of the poet whose poem you mention, and I thought the final few lines were amazing. That said, I felt it took too long to get there.
    I wonder… If we apply Saryoyan’s comments to clever masters of rhetoric like Wallace Stevens or Dylan Thomas, they’re not just saying ‘I am clever’ or ‘Look what a great rhetorician I am’, are they? They were doing something with words, feelings and ideas they felt was vital. But I guess it would be easy to slot them into categories 1), 2) and 4) as well at times. It’s that fine line between brilliance and self-advertisement. Rhetoric and cleverness and obscurity are only a problem if that’s all there is. Certainly, in the p.50 poem, I dont *think* that’s all there is. On the other hand, I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. What does, after all? So, thanks for your comment.

  16. I would have thought that most writers, poets included, try to play with different aspects of “Tone” in all their works. Sincerity is more difficult as only certain genres of poetry require sincerity of tone and nothing is more boring than reading through large numbers of very sincere teen ‘angst’ poems. Some may be good, some may be derivative, some may be a long list of cliches but they all want the reader to feel their pain. Trouble is that after about five they blur together and the images become a composite. They also follow definite themes, the most common being:
    1.) First love poems, usually the ache of losing the first love 2.) poems about vampires and/or seduction 3.) child abuse (sometimes all of them in one poem).
    Your heart goes out to the writers, especially as many, possibly most, are based on real life but as poetry the tone becomes monotonous and says; listen to me, feel with me, i am showing you my innermost thoughts and emotional pain. I fear this is therapy rather than poetry. After a while you wish for anything that will lighten the tone; a little irony, a bit of satire, some humour, anything.

    Now I’m not a poet; I merely play with words and things as a game, so it seems to me that sincerity is necessary for some types of writing, but not all and, please, not all the time.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top