Going Deep:  Some Notes on Sentiment & Sentimentality

by David Graham

Whenever I am faced with one of the perennially crucial, unanswerable questions about the art of poetry, such as "what is the difference between sentiment and sentimentality?" I am typically struck dumb, at least momentarily.  Then I am usually tempted to quote a bouquet of aphorisms and advice from my various teachers and muses, some contradicting each other in good Whitmanic fashion—all in hopes of fashioning a collage of notions to stand in creative tension rather than settled firmness.  To start with, then, I might quote Donald Hall, who in his key essay "Poetry and Ambition" remarks "Nothing is learned once that does not need learning again."  Certainly this has proved the case in my own life as a poet, in which I find myself often feeling I must start afresh, each new poem calling into question much of what I thought I knew.  And it certainly means that I find myself revisiting, testing, and questioning many of the "rules" of poetic composition that I have ever learned.

In a lifetime of thinking about poetry as both poet and teacher, I have also noticed that poets rarely agree on even the most basic of definitions.  What is sentimental, for example?  Where does it shade into something else?  Where is the essential difference, if any, between sentiment and sentimentality, and can it ever be defined?  Or is sentimentality like pornography in the famous legal formulation—impossible to pin down in a definition, but obvious enough when you encounter it?  Of course, that's exactly the sort of copout that helps no one but the person making the claim, I think, a gesture toward surety when clearly there is little to be had.

Of one thing I am quite sure, however.  Theme or subject based definitions of sentimentality are doomed to fail.  That they are also extremely common is a mildly annoying illustration that humans are prone to folly in every age.  I would certainly be much wealthier if I had a nickel for every time I heard fellow poets mocking the Grandfather Poem, or solemnly intoning that poems of religious faith are inherently sappy, or rolling their eyes at yet another Birds at the Feeder lyric, or snorting over a Cute Things My Kid Said poem, or advising younger poets to avoid poems on love, dead pets, politics, and on and on.  The fact remains that poets will continue to write about love, religion, nature, mortality, politics, and all the other thematic staples for the simple reason that these things are important and engage us.  It may or may not be intrinsicly more difficult to write a good poem on such themes (frankly, I doubt it), but poets will keep doing so, and the best of them will do so well.  Were they still alive, I would look forward eagerly to May Swenson's next poem about birds at the feeder; or Emily Dickinson's one about religious doubt; or Robert Lowell's new Grandfather Poem; or a fresh suite on Irish politics by Yeats.  Sometimes I am surprised that it needs saying, but apparently it does, and is another thing in need of continual re-learning: to put it bluntly, it is not themes that are sentimental, but poets, at least in their mediocre poems.  In a marvelous essay titled "Dull Subjects" the late William Matthews took up this idea with sardonic relish, including a hilariously reductive list of the main themes of lyric poetry down through the ages.  (For instance, he reduced centuries of poems on mortality to this summary:  "We're not getting any younger.")  His point, of course, was the one I've just been making.  In his elegant phrasing, he denies the existence of inherently "dull" or otherwise unpromising subjects, saying "dull subjects are those we have failed." 

So far so good.  But that still leaves unexplained what sentimentality actually is, if it's not inherent in our themes.  How do we avoid failing our own themes?  The sturdiest, cleanest definition I know comes from James Joyce, who called sentimentality "unearned emotion."  The notion of having to earn one's own feelings introduces an interesting moral dimension to the discussion, as if a failure of artistry is also somehow a lapse in virtue.  Art is tough going, in this vision, and we must work hard to earn each effect.  The difficulty is somehow part of the virtue, and by extension fluency and even accessibility become suspect.  The problem with this definition, I have come to believe, is related to the problem of high modernism itself, which tends to prize difficulty, challenge, and subversion for its own sake.  At the same time, too many modernist poets seemed to distrust or even denigrate emotion itself (I'm looking at you, T. S. Eliot!), as if the only acceptable sentiment is that which is undercut somehow. 

When pressed too far (I'm also looking at you, Gertrude Stein!) this attitude manages to sweep away much of the greatest art we have, because it lacks the proper degree of ambiguity, irony, allusiveness, complication, and subversive intent.  It leads to the cul de sac of a book like Finnegans Wake, a brilliantly unreadable work for any common reader, one which was unfortunately composed by the same writer who was capable of something as great and good as "The Dead."  In poetry, this attitude also leads to the problematic dismissal as inferior much of the historical canon, such as the relatively straightforward lyrics of Herrick or Campion.  And it downgrades (with terms like "folk poetry") the wonderful work of artists as various as Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and even Langston Hughes. 

That won't do.  So back to the definitional drawing board I go, perhaps looking to the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, where we find the emotion-heavy Richard Hugo claiming with his usual charm that if you aren't risking sentimentality, if you're not nudging right up to the edge of blubbery unchecked emotion, you aren't doing your job as a poet.  To pull back (say, into T. S. Eliot's doctrine of classical "impersonality") is to write either blandly or pretentiously—or at least, in Hugo's way of thinking, it is to devalue the flaming core of what makes poetry moving in the first place.  Again, it seems that here is a kind of moral vision—admittedly one I am more attracted to than Eliot's or Joyce's—but equally one based on notions of risk and reward.  To put it metaphorically, Hugo sees sentiment as the live coal we must handle with care and boldness in order to ignite our fires.  If we don't tend to the coal properly and diligently it dies, leaving us nothing but ash. 

As it happens, I find myself at some level in agreement with both Joyce and Hugo, but still unsatisfied.  If it is that moral edge common to both that troubles me, perhaps another path might be to explore things more at the technical level, to look not so much in terms of moral labor and honesty, but more in terms of freshness or originality of diction, figure, cadence, and so forth; to seek precision of observation and depth of treatment. In such a formulation the enemies become threadbare language, ideas, and sentiments, the whole realm of the clichéd and shopworn.  The sentimental becomes something close to unoriginal.  For a host of reasons I won't detail here, this approach has its attractions, too (and forms the pedagogical basis of most poetry workshops) but ultimately it seems as limited as Joyce's moral imperative. 

Probably it's obvious what my next move is.  In good dialectical fashion I wonder if there is a way to synthesize the moral with the technical approaches in defining acceptable sentiment.  Here again Donald Hall comes to my rescue.  In a textbook he once advised that a good poem not only tells the truth, but tells the whole of a complex truth.  Easier said than done, of course, but the assumption here seems to be that most things worth writing about simply are complex, certainly in the realm of human emotions, and it is the poet's job to render that complication truly and as completely as possible.  Auden remarked somewhere (I wish I had the exact reference) that a poem is "clear statement of mixed feelings," which strikes me as having more than a kernel of truth.  So in terms of emotional content a good poem—an unsentimental one, for instance—is that which fails to oversimplify.  Here is one path out of the Joycean cul de sac, perhaps—a better way to value complication and difficulty, not for its own sake but for the sake of clarity and depth of emotional resonance. 

I'll admit that well over forty years of serious engagement with the craft of poetry hasn't taken me much farther than this, and I confess I must make regular trips back to re-learn what I thought I already had mastered.  So let me conclude by meditating a little on something that happened near the start of my poetic career, something I have been re-learning for decades now.  In a college writing class long ago we had a visit from one of my favorite contemporary poets, the late Denise Levertov.  A classmate asked her about the challenges of writing original poetry, especially for a young writer confronting the vast and intimidating tradition containing Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, et al.  In response she said "Originality is nothing else but the deepest honesty."  I scribbled that right down in my notebook, where I have been pondering it ever since. 

The tricky thing here in this attractive formula, of course, lies in Levertov's careful modifier.  One must not only be honest but deeply so.  In fact, she ups the ante to the maximum with her superlative.  Good luck discovering something to say that is not simply honest but of the very deepest kind.  Again, easier said than done, for sure.

Still, I am drawn again and again to her formulation when thinking about matters of sentiment and originality and the crafting of such in poems.  Levertov may not provide a very precise definition of where the elusive line between sentiment and sentimentality lies, in any given circumstance; but she does give me a worthy goal, I believe, and a good set of questions to pose of any poem being drafted.  Am I being fully honest with myself and my potential readers?  Can I go deeper?  What am I leaving out, and does the omission strengthen the poem or weaken it? 

At the same time, Levertov's definition performs for me other useful functions.  For one, it helps highlight the shallow sort of striving toward originality that really is nothing but a slavish fashionability.  Poets in every era are convinced they are at the cutting edge of something brand new, and with few exceptions are treated by future readers as quaint practitioners of a now-exhausted period style.  As Ezra Pound noted in one of his best remarks, literature is "news that stays news"—a definition I often think of when I hear fellow poets gushing over this or that flavor-of-the-month poet who is breaking new ground in technique or theme.  Levertov reminds me also that I should not even attempt to compete with Chaucer or Dickinson—a contest I have already lost, certainly—but with myself and the best that I am capable of.  Her view strikes me as a healthy frame of mind in which to write, if I can achieve it, in part because it also allows me to worry less about how I stack up against my contemporaries—a mode of thought that can lead to the most toxic kinds of envy, anxiety, and even paralysis.  And Levertov's formula also helps me to look past the flickering candle flames of competitiveness and careerism without abandoning the valuable kind of poetic ambition.

Many years after Levertov's class visit, I found myself in a workshop taught by the late William Stafford at a writing conference.  Some of the other students began speaking about questions of originality, sentimentality, and cliché.  I couldn't help but notice that Stafford said little, mostly just listening attentively to everyone without comment.  After a while I ventured into the furious stream of opinion to tell my little anecdote and quote Levertov's remark.  Stafford smiled, as I had hoped he might, and responded as forcefully as he had to anything so far.  "What a liberating remark!" he exclaimed.

Exactly.  Ultimately, when I am composing a poem, on any subject really, but perhaps especially on the big themes of family, love, faith, and so on, it is all too easy to worry myself into silence by thinking of all the pitfalls of sentimentality, not to mention all the great poets before me who have written so well on these themes.  And thinking haplessly of my own limitations and inadequacies as both craftsman and original thinker.  I find it more useful, more liberating, to challenge myself with Levertov's aphorism, which opens possibilities for my ambition, because I can always go deeper than I have gone before.  Or at least I can try.