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
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
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.