Irony (c.410 BCE — 2016)

While irony was first conceived by Socrates around 410 BCE, it sprang fully formed from the skull of Cleanth Brooks and the New Critics in 1949. Rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated after the release of “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette in 1995, but it appears to have been struck a mortal blow in 2016.

For Gen-X, irony was our mother’s black milk. Our heroes were Ferris Bueller with his wink to the fourth wall, Wayne and Garth who flipped their paeans into pain with their cutting reversal “…not!”, and Cher declaring “as if!” in Clueless. Now, we stream Portlandia on Netflix. In some ways, it’s no wonder we’re the largest demographic on Facebook and Twitter, the short posts a natural fit with what’s snarky and glib.

The ironic – the snark and the glib – was funny. Until it wasn’t. When we stopped being able to distinguish real headlines from Onion articles – when the line between real and fake news, treason and politics, blurred and then disappeared – shit got scary, fast. We lost our taste for it. Suddenly, there arose a real urgency to connect, to attach, without irony’s detached consideration, to speak with sincerity to each other.

In the past several years, whenever I taught my seminar on contemporary poetry, my grad students and I would attempt to name the new literature that seemed to be feeling its way post-Post-Modernism. The best we came up with was the New Sincerity: an attempt to utter without guile, without the mediation of irony.

What then seemed like a general movement toward sincerity has now become a focused effort.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the dominant poetry of the past year includes Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” with its hopeful ending “This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful”; or Ross Gay’s gorgeous book (and its title poemA Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude; or Ada Limón’s “Downhearted” which opens

            Six horses died in a tractor-trailer fire.
            There. That’s the hard part. I wanted
            to tell you straight away so we could
            grieve together;

and ends with “The heart wants/ her horses back.”

I don’t think this urgency to speak to each other’s hearts means that we can’t tell the truth slant. As Randall Jarrell demonstrated to his peers, the mythic or folkloric still has its place to tell us the necessary truths. We may need slant truths more than ever, the way the rebellious once cloaked their words in parables, in the parabolic. But we need to believe in the importance of these truths, and use them to connect to each other, to link arms. As our world seems bent on repeating and adding to the horrors of the Twentieth Century, our literature must comment on it, but must keep the focus on what’s humanizing, what’s human. Irony, ironically, Thou shalt die.

Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of two recent chapbooks – Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, and A Is For A-ke, The Chinese Monster – and of the forthcoming poetry collection Maternal Imagination, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at