A few years ago, Stephen Dunn and I tackled the issue of the aesthetic of irony that has dominated postmodern poetry. About this aesthetic, I think David Foster Wallace put it best in Infinite Jest, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” That may be the case in our everyday lives, but in poetry, it’s a no-no. Remember, Wallace Stevens noted that “[s]entimentality is a failure of feeling.” The best poems, a teacher of mine once suggested, needed to approach sentimentality without ever crossing the line.
According to Paul Mariani’s terrific biography, on August 12, 1879, Gerard Manley Hopkins saw that “there is something in the poems he [had] been writing—about altar boys and bugler boys—that [had] been verging on the sentimental,” and so he decided to try something closer to a “chastened style.” I find the notion of a “chastened style” as a corrective to sentimentality (as opposed to irony) compelling. The chastened style in my understanding removes the excesses of self-conscious sincerity, those moments of earnestness, what The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls “indulgence in the exhibition of pathetic emotions for their own sake, poetic indulgence of more emotion (often self-regarding) than seems warranted by the stimulus, [and/or] excessively direct poetic expression of pathos without a sufficient artistic correlative.” Often, these indulgences come in one of three forms: overt abstractions, excessive modifiers, or easy, familiar, and leading images/metaphors.
Poems that come off as sentimental or earnest usually use language in such a way that the emotional response to the poem feels like a moral imperative rather than a natural response. “You should feel this way,” the poet seemed to declare, rather than “You should have this experience and having it perhaps you feel something.” The latter is what I expect from poems; the former insists something I often don’t inherently trust. For instance, the opening of Alexander Morgan’s “Big Sister” pushes a bit too hard:
For nine months you knew our mother’s voice.
She sang to you and gave you the comfort of her beating heart.
You took air for only a few moments, lungs sputtering.
Did you have time to spit rage? Curse your inept maker?
Did you love? I hope so.
In my heart’s movie you hold
What are the indulgences of this opening? What leads us? To begin with, the opening stanza in which the mother is pregnant tells us nothing we don’t already assume about the joys of pregnancy, but offers none of pregnancy’s hardships and difficulties. I have no doubt to the sincerity of the poet’s feelings; however, such earnestness risks schmaltz. It’s designed not to have us invest in the experience of pregnancy in any real way, but rather it wants us to be aware of a particular emotion. The third line with its quirky “You took air” emphasizes the brevity of the baby’s life in a powerful way, but “lungs sputtering” feels forced. All of this, remember, is imagined. This is followed by questions that express the speaker’s concerns. The adjective “inept” is meant to lead us to some god-anger. While “Did you love? I hope so” is designed to emphasize the emotional opportunities the child was deprived of followed by a statement of the very self-regarding emotion the Princeton Encyclopedia warns against.
The last of the excerpt displays numerous of these excesses. “In my heart’s movie” again highlights self-regarding emotion, followed by the easy Norman Rockwell scene of the older sister holding the young boy’s hand. Although my older brother and sister both held my hand (it was usually because they were obliged to!), they also tormented me. Our relationships were complicated in those ways that children in a family have. The poem has none of the ambivalence that complicated relationships, real relationships, real emotion, has.
I remember once the poet Carol Frost saying to me about her husband Richard, “Sometimes I hate the son of a bitch, but I always love him.” That, of course, although not poetic, is an unsentimentalized, honest expression of love. It’s a much more chastened style. Earnestness is not the same as honesty.
Let’s compare the first excerpt to this poem by Kate Knapp Johnson. “Reasons” recalls a miscarriage (a subject easily open to making saccharine) in a way that approaches sentimentality without ever crossing the line. She avoids overt sincerity and opts for a subjective coolness when possible.
The doctor’s report arrived today
like the doctor himself, blowing
through the door—late, charming,
endlessly vague: “No
fetal autopsy was possible. . . .”
What does this mean, “possible”?
One of the things that happens here for readers is a little bit of mystery: we don’t discover the emotional drama of the poem for five lines. Instead, we wait, the way the patient waits for the doctor. The second consideration regards how the poet uses enjambments to get some counterpoint from the lines; Johnson avoids the line as statement that the first excerpt suffers from, and thus allows for ambivalence on a line by line level. The sixth line merges the writer’s and reader’s experiences as the poet asks the very question the reader has at that moment.
This poem continues with a glimpse of the relationship that remains:
from where it’s freezing
rain changing to snow, say
you might be back Tuesday,
Wednesday. I see your face
asleep, arms asleep
on your face; your life
I see it going on
The changing conditions of weather embody as metaphor the changing conditions of their relationship and their expectations. It doesn’t have to be said: the imagery is inherently metaphoric. Abstract language and insistence aren’t necessary: narrative and image do the work. More, the “you” doesn’t return right away, isn’t even sure when he’ll be back. The poem doesn’t over-dramatize the relationship but accepts it in all its complication. The speaker on the other hand imagines him sleeping where he is, living his life. This excerpt ends with the risk of sentimentality, a touch of a pity party. So Johnson has to pull back.
this drift, this isolation? Because logic
can’t persuade the heart
not to lower its wounded black
head, its white horns.
Because certain things happen
by chance and still
chance is not diminished:
we wanted this baby
and did not get him.
And I love you
and you love me,
And we did not get him.
The break on “why,” of course, is to break on the question of why did the miscarriage happen, but that’s not the question she intends to ask. Instead, she’s reflecting on her own moment of s maudlin melodrama that preceded these lines. And its followed up by an original metaphor, the heart as a wild beast, self-protective. The black head and white horns establish the duality of love in this moment.
The poem then leaves the emotional language and looks for a bit of wisdom, almost sounding like something the doctor might say, further pulling us away from the sentimental. What we’re presented with then is fact: “we wanted this baby/and did not get him.” Its language is flat but in the context of the poem, it’s just directly honest. It’s a fact in an emotional hurricane. The next lines relate back to the phone call, surely a conversation that had to end with reassuring expressions of love. And then the repeated expression, emphasizing the loss in the face of that reassurance.
Like the best poetry, Kate Knapp Johnson’s “Reasons” uses language to make us feel, but, unlike “Big Sister,” it doesn’t tell us how we ought to feel. The sentimental poem always demands the reader to feel a particular way. More, it indulges in its emotional morass and does so in often the most self-regarding ways. The “failure of emotion” Stevens refers to, perhaps has more to do with how the writer thinks she/he should feel in the experience of the poem, rather than any real feeling happening in the experience of the poem. For the reader, such poems don’t offer us experience but rather tell us about one, keeping us out from the potential emotion of the