March 16, 2010

The Frank Ages

We’re in the middle of the Frank Ages, an age that prefers directness, sincerity, and a conversational tone over the old formal subterfuges, coteries, and codes. The current popular aesthetic is so assertive that at times it seems merely a matter of course: it is only natural that we are allergic to artifice, pretense, and ambiguity, which are essentially pejoratives now in the same way that "raw," "emotional," and "forward" struck a previous generation as indecent. The vaguely moral sense of permanence and superiority that we enjoy now is caused by our immersion within the Age. Furthermore, despite the bellowing of generational critics and academics, who concern themselves primarily with preservation rather than engagement, and who believe that web culture, including blogs, forums, and social sites, are the cause of this cultural shift, the Age of Frank was not brought about by Sesame Street, Kurt Cobain, html, and Twitter. Instead, these cultural elements are a measure of our immersion within the Frank Ages.

And yet our fascination with frankness does not preclude the existence of secrets, coyness, and deception. Often our frankness is a fog sprawled over the old models of discourse and cultural pollination. Our generation has, it sometimes seems, mastered the art of standing naked in the open without being necessarily naked or open.

I do not mean to infer a dislike of the Frank Ages; I revel in it and experiment with the aesthetic often. And frankness, as an poetic aesthetic, has many tendrils; the three dominate arms of which might be described as follows:

1. Idiomatic Frankness: A casual, open, conversational tone which fosters a sense of familiarity between reader and text.
Idiomatic frankness not only assumes a bond between writer and reader, it also infers equality. Readers, especially "mass-market" readers, are very sensitive to the inference of tone, and the hierarchy (education, class, region) that is insinuated by a non-conversational tone. A clever writer, a sheep-dressing wolf of a writer, can use a popular tone to communicate and explore unpopular or uncomfortable ideas. Poets like Al Purdy, Gary Snyder, and Charles Bukowski strike me as masters of idiomatic frankness.

2. Sentimentality: A preference for direct, clear, and often resounding sentiments; a clarity of purpose.
Sentimentality is often pooh-poohed by writers for the same reason that many journalists squirm in the presence of puns. Sentiment is low fruit, is easy work, is the cheap shot. But sentimentality is more than wistfulness and nostalgia (which are often misapplied as synonyms); sentimentality also contains a straightforward verdict, an explicit purpose. Judgements are generally easier to make in retrospect, and this is perhaps why sentimentality is so often paired with nostalgia, but sentimentality is not necessarily simple or gilded. James Tate, Sharon Olds, Charles Wright (among many others) are examples of poets who could, in places, be called sentimentalists: poets who used sentiments to both focus their work and to implicate their readers in the meditative act.

3. Self Disclosure: The act of divulging elements of one's own life; to make the self the subject.
Self-disclosure is perhaps the most radical and revolutionary of the Frank Age aesthetics. Self-disclosure challenges norms by contextualizing (and humanizing) the alternative; it allows readers to more readily identify the communicative element of the artistic transmission, which is sometimes overwhelmed by its expressive nature; and self-disclosure presumes that while we may aspire to be authorities within the world, we are first the authorities of ourselves, and to never speak of ourselves beggars our genius. Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, Larry Levis, Philip Larkin, and Adrienne Rich all, at one time or another, used self-disclosure in their work.

Of all the elements of our Frank Age, this predilection for self-disclosure troubles me the most. Ideally, writers will use self-disclosure to leap into the world, to draw others in, to expound on the Universal. Ideally, this divestment is not habitual or the result of a kind of high school existentialism. Ideally, the writer does not merely unburden themselves or confess themselves, thereby burdening their readers or ordaining them as confessors. Ideally, the writer does not direct a sad, blue light upon a sad, cold body. Ideally, the writer will not assume that they are interesting just because it is the only area of their expertise. Ideally, poets will not infer that suffering and hardship are revelatory. Ideally, the poet is not impregnating posterity and making us watch as they pitifully hump their way into the immortal imaginations of speculative generations.

Now I'm talking to myself.

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