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[Back to Essays]

The Trap of Anti-Sentimentality in Poetry

By sentimentality, I mean the poet's expectation that the reader will respond with knee-jerk emotions to non-aesthetic signals. I mean, also, unearned responses. I mean also uses of language (and/or thought) that drain the language of utility for future use rather than add life to language (and/or thought). For example, it is now hard to use the word "love" effectively because the word has been milked too strenuously, a sort of masturbation. Good poetry takes a word like "love" and renders it usable, returns to it energy and clarity and richness. Bad poetry simply drains the word.

Any poetry that treats the energy in language as a given to be used up will be sentimental. For example, a slam poet who thinks that the word "fuck" is automatic intense or automatic bold or automatic crude will simply use the word to death, so that, increasingly, the word "fuck" will become a blah word that communicates very little, whereas when Lawrence used it in LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER, it was dynamite (passionate, bold), and when Joyce used it in the Circe chapter of ULYSSES, it was rudely hilarious.

We try, with our poems, to get people to see newly, to think new thoughts, see new visions, to feel strongly, etc. But people are uncomfortable with the new, the unfamiliar, so it's tricky to put across anything fresh. It's easier to give them what they already know. Thus, if people agree that "God is good" or "Autumn is magnificent" or "Children and kittens are cute," all we have to do is give them benevolent God, magnificent autumn and cute kiddies and kittens, and they'll applaud and buy our greeting-card poetry. Why? Because we're patting them on the back and telling them that there's nothing new, nothing they don't already know.

It's as if we were hired to teach someone a skill, and instead we simply flattered all their lousy efforts. Students of such a teacher might love the teacher who so praises them, but would go into the world and find themselves unhirable, having never learned a skill. Similarly, fans of such poets will find their lives as boring and unrewarding as before, rather than enriched by the poems.

I have no affection for sentimentality as described above, nor do I welcome sentimental passages in my own work. But I do have some ADDITIONAL considerations about sentimentality that make me leery of critics who too readily label poets and poetry sentimental:

1. Most poets don't seem to understand the scope of sentimentality. Most of them, for example, seem to assume that only POSITIVE things (love, mother, beauty, God, country) are sentimental. They don't realize that NEGATIVE things can be equally sentimental (fuck, hate, despair, etc.). Because of this silliness, critics pushing an agenda of depressing poetry (critics for whom despair is always "profound" and joy is always suspect) have misused the label "sentimental" to condemn upbeat poetry.

2. Too many poets and critics have the idea that certain words or topics or ideas are sentimental. It's not the words or the topics or the ideas that are sentimental. It's the lazy use of these words, etc. There's nothing sentimental (innately) about God or motherhood or patriotism, for example. These things may go in and out of fashion, but that doesn't mean it's ever impossible to write intelligently and movingly of love for one's nation, for example. It can become difficult, but that's just the sort of challenge a poet should welcome.

Sure, if millions of poems are written to hail one's nation while one's nation is murdering 6,000,000 Jews and is self-destructing in the process (or committing suicide in Vietnam), then patriotism will go out of fashion. But the real cure, politically, for such a situation is, not to abandon all nations ever, but to do one's best to make the nation better. And the cure, poetically, is to find what is of value in one's nation and affirm that. Nonetheless, I'm sure that for about 30 years after WW II, it was difficult for any German poet to write a non-sentimental patriotic poem about Germany. And it's a little difficult now to do so about the United States. But it can be done.

In general, when a subject has been done "to death" (so it seems -- but no subject can be made so dead that great poetry cannot reanimate it), it gets misidentified as a sentimental subject. But there ARE no sentimental subjects. There are only subjects which are more or less likely to tempt a poet into sentimentality. Another way of putting it is that there are subjects that we are so accustomed to seeing in a certain limited way, that it takes a strong vision to get us to see that subject in a new way.

The danger of our failure to recognize this is that the subjects that have been made most difficult to deal with happen to be among the most IMPORTANT subjects to deal with. Motherhood is important. Patriotism is important. Love is important. Truth is important. Children and beauty and all the other corny things (so called) are important. Despair is important. After all, why do certain things become sentimental to begin with? Because they are full of life and energy and relevance and truth. Therefore mention of them packs a wallop. Therefore poets overuse them.

Take the idea that people are fundamentally good: The basic goodness of people has become a "sentimentality" to most critics. How can one think that the Nazi monsters were basically good? Of course, some Christians believe that we are all basically corrupt, but the other strain of thought (that we are basically good) also has a long tradition, and even those Christians are only talking about man as born into flesh ("Born in sin"), not the spirit of man ("The kingdom of God is within you"), which is not necessarily born.

I contend that the various ideas and emotions associated with the perception of the basic goodness of people (e.g., in much romantic poetry, in Rousseau's "noble savage") had power and expressiveness to people a few hundred years ago, but were rendered hard to take by too much and too simplistic use of them. The simple good poor, for example, appeared to be rather vicious in the Paris of the French Revolution.

BUT there are important truths in the idea that we are basically good. I know of no evil that doesn't stem from good (but misled or confused) intentions, and I've never seen a person become more himself without that person also becoming a better person.

In general, corn has become corn because it is close to important truths. Too often critics use sentimentality to throw out the baby (truth) along with the bathwater (sentimentality). Poems are labeled sentimental for trying to say something true and important that, however, is perilously close to sentimentality. Sometimes these poems ARE sentimental; that is, they don't quite succeed. But it is seldom that a critic praises them for their ambition. Instead, the critic prefers safe, dull, trendy poems that don't TRY to say anything of much importance, but avoid obvious sentimentality. THAT is the main reason I object to the label "sentimental": I'm sick of poetry that works harder at avoiding sentimentality than at attaining to a bit of truth.

3. I'm also sick of critics who dismiss out-of-hand popular poets (Rod McKuen, Jewel) because they are "sentimental." The facts are: (1) They are popular; (2) Most of the poets these critics like are NOT popular, are unreadable by the great mass of people; (3) It is difficult to write poetry that is both popular and profound; (4) Any poet who aims at a wide audience is doing a worthwhile thing; not only the elite need to see things freshly; (5) It is a lot easier to write "unsentimental" stuff if you are writing for an elite inner circle of fellow poets; (6) In some cases, in guise of sentimentality, these popular poets sneak some rather lively lines and images into their work.

The point is, SURE they're sentimental (so are many of the profound, elitist poets, but in less obvious ways). That's like saying fish swim. But to condemn them for sentimentality and then dismiss them is to fail to realize that they are tackling something difficult and ambitious and worthwhile that our prestigious poets are afraid to do. Take Rod McKuen, for example. It would be better for our "serious" poets to admire his strengths (often a clean, clear lyrical line, a strong message, etc.) and learn from him, than to sit back and gloat because McKuen overindulges himself in beautiful-sad sunsets. We dismiss him out-of-hand as "sentimental," so fail to appreciate the things he does RIGHT.

For all these reasons, I am inclined to object, in many cases, to someone labeling something "sentimental." And one other reason: Often the labeling is simply wrong, a failure to read the poem intelligently. People miss irony, for example, or have their own axes to grind, their own odd notions of what is sentimental. When I object, I may play the gadfly, may say, "No, it should be MORE sentimental!" I don't really want the work to be more sentimental. I want it to take more risks.

The poets I know often accept as good poetry stuff that I personally find sentimental and sometimes condemn as sentimental poetry that I find moving and interesting. Oddly enough (since I seem to be defending sentimentality), the former is more often the case: I frequently hear work being praised that I consider sentimental. Usually what I object to is an emotional resolution tacked onto the end of a logical progression that is, in fact, illogical. It's easy to dismiss such objections as "merely" logical, but poets who use logic should accept the penalties for using it sloppily.

For example, Frost's "Two Paths Diverged" is sentimental to me because its ending loads with significance the one choice that has since made "all the difference," which is inconsistent with the initial implied premise that we are capable of making choices that change things - because if we are, then we can make LATER choices to change things in other ways. In other words, the poem tries to have it both ways, to reap certain stock emotions from the notions of freedom, while also undermining them with the stock emotions of fatalism.

If, indeed, the choice of one path made all the difference, then there must be an unbroken chain of immutable causation from the point of that choice to the implied unavoidable result of that choice. But in that case, it could be argued there WAS no choice (and hence no drama of small choice leading to big result), since that "choice" itself must have been predetermined by "influences." Whereas, if choice occurred, millions more choices could occur between the first choice and the "result."

That's an example of the sort of sentimentality I associate with illogic. Not that it's a bad poem: I enjoy the poem for it's beginning, it's sense of the forking of choices and the way choices are made, of the speaker standing at the fork in the road and actually pervading the future and "knowing" all choices before choosing one much as a composer chooses the next note or the chess player chooses a move. It's a moment of enhanced awareness of choice and possibilities.

In summary, I do not consider my own poetry sentimental (though I take more CHANCES in that direction than most poets do). I do not care for sentimentality. BUT I consider that the criticism "It's sentimental" is overused and too often misused and is particularly destructive because it's so often used to punish poets --

1. for trying to say important things that need to be said;
2. for writing upbeat poems with positive messages;
3. for trying to reach a wide audience.

I think it is important to ENCOURAGE each of these three points and may make the difference between a dying culture and a lively culture. There are fates worse than sentimentality. We need to teach poets to take the RISK of sentimentality, not to shun any near approach to it.

Copyright c. 2004 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved.


Last Updated: December 13, 2004