Nobody wants his grave spray-painted and then vomited on, but these things happen to Jim Morrison's grave in Paris, and those who do it maintain they are not being disrespectful, or dishonoring his memory; they are being sincere in their homage and tribute. It would make an interesting trial, ethically speaking.
Irreverence and sincerity are not opposed; we all know this, yet it is a common occurrence in life that our behavior is in direct opposition to what we know.
Both the irreverent and the sincere congratulate themselves and they have the sin of pride in common. Both can be feigned, and both depend on the eye of the beholder.
Irreverence implies a word or act that strips a person or thing of its dignity, but a subversive word or act that is irreverent on the surface may be an attempt to restore a dignity or autonomy that has been lost to those in the margins.
No one truly irreverent—bent on defaming the dignity of the genre—would take the time to be a poet, for the simple reason it takes so much time, and I have often observed that people usually spend their time doing what they like to do.
Irreverence is a way of playing hooky and remaining present at the same time.
Irreverence and sincerity are both forms of exaggeration, yet Gauguin maintained there is no such thing as exaggerated art—he, of course, did not have to speak as he painted. His medium was not under constant scrutiny by everyday users of its particles.
The truth on the page does not distinguish between the lived and unlived, the irreverent, the sincere, the eggplant and aubergine. You can't be Job when you read, you have to be God.
When T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx met, Groucho wanted to discuss The Waste Land and Eliot wanted to discuss Duck Soup.
All subjects are the same; we're wondering if life has any meaning at all outside the sensory pleasures of being alive that are briefly granted to most (but not all) of us.
Isn't all art irreverent? It is irreverent to create that which doesn't exist; the newly made thing flies in the face of the already created and as such is based on negation (what already exists is simply not enough!), but born also out of the greatest reverence for all that already is. When Borges, visiting the Sahara, picked up a little bit of sand, carried it in his hand and let it fall someplace else, he said, "I am modifying the Sahara," and he wrote that this was one of the most significant memories of his stay. What Borges did is what we do when we write poems after millennia of poem writing. We aren't saving the Sahara, we are modifying it, and you have to be irreverent to think you can modify the Sahara in the first place, and sincere in your attempt to do so.
Art is irreverent in another way: it can shatter fixed ideas; how can the "sudden growth" (Pound's term) it engenders take place unless something is shattered?
The poem, more than any other art form in existence, is the perfect vehicle for the direct expression of personal love. I think this is why, given the long history of love utterances in poetry, most people equate and continue to equate poetry with unqualified sincerity that has somehow escaped the mouth. The poem as a made thing, the poem as imaginative vision, as a moment of searching—all this is secondary to most people's desire and demand for an understandable truth that will make them happy. And who can blame them? It's heartbreaking.
Mostly we've been educated to perceive irreverence and sincerity. We've been educated in our responses, and it has been helpful and even necessary, but one reaches the point—if one is to continue to make or behold art—where such assumptions no longer facilitate the personality who seeks to remain vulnerable to the unknown.
I read an interview with Margaret Mead in which she said, surprisingly, that declarative sentences are not important, they are merely incidental statements. "If one goes into a strange society and can do these three things, ask a question accurately, give a command accurately, and gloom and exclaim and enthuse at the proper moments, most of the rest of what you have to do is listen." I don't know anything about anthropology or linguistics, but it sure reminded me of poetry.
If there were a perfume named Sincerity and a perfume named Irreverence, I'd choose Irreverence, on the assumption the top and base notes would be somewhat contradictory. But in a line of lipsticks, I'd choose Sincerity, based on sentiment and hoping for a pure, deep color ... my own impulses are therefore confused: my lips sincere and my gestures irreverent.
I offer my dinner guest, after dinner, the choice between regular and decaf coffee, when in fact I don't have any decaf in the house. I am so sincere in my effort to be a good host that I lie; I think this probably happens all the time in poetry.
You hear so much talk about risk-taking in poetry. Lying is a form of risk-taking, but no one talks about that.
If there is any irreverence in my own work, I hope it is the irreverence I bear in mistrusting my own sincere self, which then sincerely mistrusts the irreverent me. If there is a bottom to this, I think it is a life's work.
There really is a beach in Western Australia where kangaroos swim in the sea and sunbathe afterward, those short white forelegs stretched in the sand.
Nothing would make me happier than to see an international ban on fact-checking.
Was Walt Whitman irreverent or sincere when he wrote his first unrhymed poem (March 22, 1850)?
"How often we forget that to stimulate and to satisfy oppose each other!" Paul Valéry.
James Wright announcing he is speaking in a flat voice, then quoting the King James Bible.
Emerson: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius." One of the more radical statements ever made, and if true, it would have to be true whether the private thoughts were sincere or irreverent.
After he was decapitated, Saint Denis walked with his head in his hands ... an act of irreverence toward those who had beheaded him, an act of sincerity toward his own self's faith.
Irreverence usually hides an unnatural obsession with what is revered. He who doubts wants to be believed, he who hides wants to be found. He who curses with regularity uses God's name as often as one who prays.
Youth versus age. Play versus work.
Most artistic "movements" will be irreverent toward whatever movement preceded theirs. In that sense, almost all movements are adolescent—absolutely necessary and inevitable and their manifestos ridiculous.
Remember also that the "youth culture" of this country, founded after the Second World War, is an enormous economic force, a commodity unto itself. If it is based on irreverence, that irreverence continues to make money, unabated. Revolt has the capacity to grow very rich very fast.
Some poets are sincere in their youth and irreverent in old age (Yeats) while others are irreverent in their youth and sincere in old age (Wordsworth).
A poem is a finished work of the mind, it is not the work of a finished mind.
What about Neil Armstrong, who wishes he could go back up there and take his footsteps away?
All the major religions in the world have sects that employ irreverence as a valuable tool for transmitting theology.
"There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but it is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusions. Any belief you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an illusion." Robert Frost.
If seeing something beautiful "de-centers" you, as Simone Weil maintains, and is conducive to goodness, I can't disagree, I can only add that seeing something irreverent toward that beauty—a carcass as opposed to a rose, Mona Lisa with a beard as opposed to without—also has the power to de-center you, and it is also conducive to goodness. They don't show those cadavers to the monks for nothing!
If irreverence is audacity, then the most irreverent poem in existence must be "This Living Hand" by John Keats. It is absolutely appropriate that it was written as marginalia; for the marginalized, the excluded, the unrepresented and unrepresentable, are desperately unhappy, and irreverence is born in unhappy soil.
I am a great believer in mood as the final arbiter of perception. What you like in October won't necessarily hold any appeal in January. I think this is particularly true of poetry: X, whom you read with relish in October, might be a bloody bore in January. It happens. But to have a poet bring you out of one mood and into another—that's the most powerful experience of all.
To those who think poetry is dependent on the past: it isn't. It is dependent on the present, the moment of the poem's making, the mysterious presence of its absence (that pressure in the head), and after the artifact of the poem has been made it becomes, rather quickly, a thing of the past, and so readers and critics will treat it as a past event—the one thing the poem was unaware of, and didn't want to be—and yet became, was becoming! If poetry was dependent on the past, there would be no such thing as young poets, and thank god there are and thank god they stupefy us.
You cannot eradicate personal experience: you cannot. You can destroy people, you can kill whole populations, but you cannot destroy the sense of personal existence that the living still carry as they are borne forward in time. When I think of life, I think of my own personal existence as it is borne forward in time, or I think of the lives of billions of strangers as they are being borne forward in time, but I seldom think of myself and these billions at once. It is the difference between Life and being alive. I do not know on which day I am most being sincere. And then there are those days I think only of the dead, and those are the days I think of everybody together—myself, the strangers, the dead—because we are all of a group, we are a class unto ourselves. To consider myself and others among the already-dead, is that irreverent of me?
You simply cannot learn and know at the same time, and this is a frustration all artists must bear.
"Two tasks at the beginning of your life: to narrow your orbit more and more, and ever and again to check whether you are not in hiding somewhere outside your orbit." Franz Kafka.
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About the Author
Mary Ruefle's Selected Poems won the 2011 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In addition to ten books of poetry, she's published The Most of It, a book of prose, and a book of her erasure, A Little White Shadow. Ruefle is the recipient of numerous honors, including a 2010 Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Bennington, Vermont, and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College.