This contribution initially appeared on the uOttawa website MARGENTO here
Poetries/Communities: Against Sentimentality
When I was growing up, I thought of poetry as a solitary endeavor, one best accomplished in the privacy of one’s room. Poetry, I imagined, was a kind of self-expression, an exploration of some inner emotional complexity. At first, I imagined this complexity was communicated somewhat self-reflexively; that is, the poet thought deeply about his relationship to some event or other, then worked this out in a poem which he communicated to only one person, himself. Later, the poet might allow others to indulge in his own interiority, perhaps at a poetry reading or in the pages of a small literary journal. I do not know why I imagined that anyone in the world should care about my inner turmoil. I suppose I thought that the writing of poetry was a species of what I’d later call narcissism.
Recently, I was asked to make a presentation about sentimentality. Our relationship to the word has changed over the centuries and now, I confessed to the audience, I did not know what it meant. Surely, sentimentality, wrapped up in the softer emotions, is in some ways indecorous or cheap. Surely there is something essentially untruthful about it, often in its overabundance or its misplacement of emotion. There was, I suppose, something essentially sentimental about my early relationship to my own work and to my (mostly imagined) audience, believing that my display of emotion and autobiography might resonate profoundly with others, drawing us together in some intimate literary embrace.
Of course, in the American academy (and among most poetry readers and poets, who have lived in its groves) we abhor sentimentality, have been trained to root it out of our work and to recognize it in the work of literary poseurs and amateurs. There is no greater literary crime, one of my friends recently told me, than sentimentality; one needs only say the word to condemn a writer’s entire oeuvre. (“Longfellow,” another friend once said, “is sentimental,” and with that he washed his hands of him.)
Beholden to orthodoxies passed down to us, we rarely, if ever, pause to ask why this is so. What is it that makes sentimentality rise above all other sins in poetry? And what does this tell us about the way poetry serves the community, about (as you asked) “poetries and communities.”
In 1918, a preternaturally mature Wilfred Owen described the horrors of young British soldiers marching to their deaths surrounded by mists of poison gas. A young man, failing to get his gas mask on in time, slowly dies, his white eyes “writhing in his face.” Then blood “comes gargling from the froth corrupted lungs.” But instead of ending the poem on the harrowing, if meaningless, death of an anonymous soldier, Owen points the finger at Jessie Pope, a writer of sentimental war propaganda, the kind of stuff that convinced young men to enlist in the first place: “My friend,” he writes:
… you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen would not survive the war, but other poets would pick up on his deep distrust of sentimental language, and that distrust would become infused in the Modernist movement. Sentimentality, they knew, is bad because 1) it is often untruthful and 2) it is dangerous. Its potential for untruthfulness is clear: there is nothing sweet and proper about the young man’s death in Owen’s poem. It is dangerous because sentimentality is a powerful mode for communicating to the masses, for using untruth wrapped in layers of sweetness, nationalistic pride, nostalgia, and (for earlier writers) decadent Victorian Romanticism to convince us, against our better judgment, to believe and do stupid, often fatal, things. How often have we seen intense sentimentality used as a way of convincing us to enter an unjust war (witness the rhetoric of George W. Bush during the run-up to the war in Iraq), to keep women in their place (witness the proper housewife of 1950s sentimental movies), to justify the bondage of others (witness sentimental paintings of happy slaves singing in the cotton fields, wanting only to serve their masters well). No wonder so much of our distrust of sentimentality emerged in the work of Modernist poets who witnessed the first World War, and no wonder this mistrust appears only to have grown throughout the 20th century. When the WWII poet Dunstan Thompson looked over the destroyed body of yet another young soldier, he exhorted all of us: “to love him, tell the truth.”
That said, I think I’ve grown into some strong beliefs about poetries and communities. I am suspicious of my earlier self, the young man who wrote poetry imagining that my emotions were of any importance to anyone. They are not. No one, beyond my family and few friends, cares. Why should it be otherwise?
Rather, I imagine that poetry might be a vehicle for telling the truth, for working against the overwhelming tide of dangerous sentimentality, of mistruth wrapped in sugar, of lies told to us by our governments, our corporate betters, and by ourselves. These days, the voice of poetry often seems small and faint—once, in a poem, I imagined it was like the voice of a young man locked in the trunk of a car being driven who knew where by our leaders—but it might, used well, serve as just one counterpoint in a world awash in lies. Poets, I imagine, ought to tell the truth for the purpose not only of self-knowledge, but a better, clearer world.
That said, I don’t imagine that there is only one truth, nor do I imagine that any of these are simple. Poetry is also uniquely suited to expressing the complexity of a moral or theological universe, one in which truths clash, in which one truth confronts another, competing one. (For Emily Dickinson, there is simultaneously a God and no god, there is both an afterlife and the void.) I am not, that is, in favor of poetry that is dogmatic, that simplifies the world, that distorts it, even for good purposes. Nor am at all interested in poetry that sees in a multiplicity of truths only the emptiness of the very notion of truth, that merely throws up its hands or plays around in a Postmodern mode. Instead, I believe that poets might imagine themselves as citizens of a larger universe defined by complex moral positions—that we might think of ourselves if not as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then at least as people who speak the truth to the community in the interest of much more than beauty and self-expression, in the interests of making the world better.
Kevin Prufer‘s sixth book, Churches, is just out from Four Way Books. Among his recent books are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way, 2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and the Poets Prize; and National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly. He’s also co-curator of the Unsung Masters Series, Editor of numerous volumes, and Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.