Talking Into Mirrors About Windows (Emotion / Sentiment / Sincerity)
Here, to keep us all on the same page, are the essays I’m thinking about/along with:
This is a long post. Apologies.
First off, let’s set the scene. What the writers in the Pleiades symposium are thinking about are the general tones and moves of our times. So they have to first define what those tones are, and they do. Here are a few observations/ questions that Joy Katz opens with:
“For a few years, I have sensed a growing resistance to sentiment among poets I know, including my graduate students. Once upon a time, a long time ago, poets didn’t fear Feeling; writing a poem that made someone cry was considered heroic, and “sentimental” was not a pejorative but a compliment.”
“Is there an emotional guardedness in the prevailing strategy of surrealism and in the lacquered, impenetrable irony of many poems we read in new books and little magazines?”
“Sally [Ball] and I were curious about what might be going on behind the feeling that feeling is best avoided. We sensed a longing for emotion in conversations about how “easy irony” and “mere cleverness” come at the expense of moving a reader (I wasn’t sure what poets meant when they said “easy irony” and “cleverness,” so I have asked the writers in these pages to clarify). I perceived a craving for fondness and endearment in the sudden ubiquity of the word “little” in poems. Has darlingness become a stand-in for love?”
Before I continue, I want to note that several of the writers in this symposium I consider to be friends, so I want this to be a friendly questioning that I’m doing here. I don’t disagree with these comments as much as I just want to query them. The first query takes me to the dictionary.
1 a: an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling : predilection b: a specific view or notion : opinion
2 a: emotion b: refined feeling : delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art c: emotional idealism d: a romantic or nostalgic feeling verging on sentimentality
3 a: an idea colored by emotion b: the emotional significance of a passage or expression as distinguished from its verbal context
1: the quality or state of being sentimental especially to excess or in affectation
2: a sentimental idea or its expression
And there we have the first problem. Sentiment is defined as a perfectly fine word for art, it even says “refined” in definition two. But then sentimentality comes up with a much more subjective “I know it when I see it” definition.
So sentiment and sentimentality are going to be squishy, difficult terms to pin down (as Kevin Prufer works with in his essay). The problem, part two, is that words like “emotion” often get tossed in as synonyms (and sometimes, in different contexts, sincerity). Emotion can be a synonym for sentiment, but not in all cases. Sentiment has the word “predilection” tossed in there. It’s a word best avoided for its lack of specificity. Emotion is a much better word.
The problem with a word like emotion, though, is that it’s a wider landscape and implicates ALL emotions, including the cool and cold emotions of Stevens in winter as well as Eliot walking through certain half-deserted streets.
But the examples from the poets themselves are equally difficult to render into the sentiment [al] / emotion [al] nexus. For instance, there’s this, from Rachel Zucker:
“Recently I went back to Notley’s poem and saw, underlined in my own hand, two other lines I had completely forgotten, ‘Of two poems one sentimental and one not / I choose both,’ and I started to cry because that’s everything I’ve ever tried to do in my poetry.”
What first struck me is that these lines don’t make me cry. What’s affecting Zucker is her relationship to the poem and to these lines, not simply the lines themselves. The act of bringing the lines into her life, of connecting with them is what’s bringing her to tears. So emotion, or sentiment, in this way needs an active participation from the reader.
No poem has ever brought me to tears. Neither have paintings or dances. I don’t think music has either, but I could be wrong on that. This is not to say I haven’t been moved by them, my body just doesn’t register this kind of relationship as one that has tears as part of it. Is it the poetry that is doing this or is it me? I say it’s me. I’ve only cried in certain books (the end of The Lord of the Rings) and movies (the last quarter of Toy Story III really got me). Does this make novels and movies supreme? Only if I’m gauging worth by tears.
I find many poems of Stevens’s to be moving, as well as many poems of John Ashbery’s. But others consider them cold and distant (as Joy Katz gets to as well). I find some poems by Rae Armantrout or Zachary Schomburg to be moving, where others find them cryptic or ironic.
So what are we to do? (If we have to do something at all.) And yes, if we’re going to be responsible people talking about the art, we have to. Sarah Vap sees it from a slightly different angle:
“I don’t see sentimental poems as a problem. But there is something around the discussion of sentimentality in poems that does deeply unsettle me. It doesn’t have to do with sentimentality, or the risking of it. Rather it is the monitoring of sentimentality in poems, the naming of sentimentality in poems, the connection between this censorship and the belittling of certain life experiences and wisdoms, the diminishing of whole cultures or their ways of experiencing the world, the degrading or silencing or quieting or diminishing of whole subject matters or voices or ways in poetry simply by associating them with the term “sentimentality” that churns in my gut and gets up my fight.”
This is the second move of the emotion/ sentiment conversation. The question of subject. Are some subjects themselves sentimental? Or is sentimentality something that resides in the rendering of a subject? Well, there’s my answer, at any rate. Subjects are subjects. They all bring different baggage, but they are all available. Or they should be. And I think, generally, we would all kind of agree on this. What happens, though, often, when one is talking positively about something, the rendering of emotion, say, there is this tendency to say that something else is, therefore, negative. Joy Katz, in her introduction, describes Prufer’s essay this way: “I think Prufer tacitly implies that irony and surrealism, when leaned on too heavily as a substitute for emotion, are the new sentimentality.”
On the one hand, anything leaned on too heavily is going to be a problem for art. But when tossed out there, it takes on this other life, one where people can get all combative, thinking that their way of writing is under attack. There is nothing wrong with using irony in one’s art. There is also nothing wrong with writing from out of the surrealist tradition. But, singled out like this, things sound more combative than they actually are or need to be. Katz herself, in her essay, defends the poetry of John Ashbery and Mark Bibbins, for instance. Two poets who could easily be considered by people who wish to consider them this way, ironic and distant and/or surreal.
This is always going to be a problem when one is defending or arguing against something in art. If poet X is said, as one of the essays says, to write poetry that is “sliding easily into winking coyness, postmodern self-referentiality” etc, there is bound to be someone who finds that same work to be, not just wonderfully antic, but also emotion-using in a way that pairs itself with the way that person experiences the world. In short, emotional. What if that person, like Rachel Zucker, earlier, finds a poem of poet X’s that speaks within that reader, a poem that becomes personal? In the same way anything (just about) can become sentimental once we read it into our autobiographies, nearly anything written by a human (who will or has experienced pain and who will die) can be considered emotional to a reader receptive to that idiom. An example I like to use is Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. It’s the difficult line poetry like hers, as well as kitsch and other forms of playful and transgressive art operates on.
As one group is being said to, as Katz writes in the introduction, exhibit a “growing resistance to sentiment,” there is this other group of poets who exhibit a growing resistance to the growing resistance to sentiment. Is it a raw and cooked conversation in a new guise? A process of owning the definitions of what is and what isn’t? Or of privileging one mode over another?
“When contemporary poets retreat from strong emotion in order to avoid sentimentality, they misunderstand the term at the expense of a powerful force for their writing. Instead of retreating from emotion, we should retreat from emotional, ideological, political simplicity. That’s a better way to avoid sentimentality.”
Any aesthetic position can, therefore, fall into sentimentality as well as rise above it. But when we’re privileging “strong emotion” we’re saying that’s the proper, best way to use emotion. I want to be clear, here, I’m not arguing with Prufer (he’s actually a good friend of mine, I want to stress), but what he sees as a “retreat from strong emotion in order to avoid sentimentality” might well be seen by another reader as a “retreat from emotional, ideological, political simplicity.” Or, if not that, as a fairly random example, what is it that Joe Wenderoth is arguing for or against in his poem “Twentieth Century Pleasures”?
A woman has two children:
one is seven, a girl with Down syndrome,
and one is five, a deaf-mute boy.
Every day, the woman’s husband beats her
and calls her a lazy whore.
After a few years
the woman moves back into her mother’s house.
She locks the doors when her mother is at work,
but her husband, having promised to kill her,
gets in through a basement window.
When she hears and meets him in the basement,
pleading for her life,
he breaks her spine with a hammer.
As the two children watch from the steps,
he shoots her in the back of the head,
then turns the gun on himself.
The seven-year old, the girl with Down syndrome,
runs four blocks to the police station.
When the police arrive at the house,
the five-year old,
a deaf-mute boy,
is kneeling by his mother’s head,
pressing the pool of blood back toward her.
They pull him away and he doesn’t resist.
They think he has been playing there
in a pool of his mother’s blood.
That is truly what they think:
he was playing in a pool of his dead mother’s blood.
Later, with his bloody hands
he says things they cannot understand,
and they know then, at least,
that he was not playing.
Whatever it is, it’s highly problematic, isn’t it? So what is this poem doing? It’s the question I continue to go back to. Irony? This is a pretty extreme example of something like sentimentality turned on its ironic head. It’s outliers like this that make conversations that generalize what does or doesn’t work well in a poem problematic. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them, though. And this symposium is as good a place to start as any. But it’s certainly not the place to stop either.
In Joy Katz’s essay she writes about (as I alluded to earlier) some poets she’s liked from the past who her friends have called “chilly and remote,” most notably, John Ashbery. The gesture of her essay is one I like, for it lays open the relationship between the work and the way the work is read. If one thinks Ashbery is going to be “chilly and remote” then his work might well seem so, but what if, as Katz does, his poems seem to “hunger for the world,” and exhibit “tenderness”? So where are our terms now?
This is, in the end, the difficulty in what we’re trying to talk about: We all want pleasurable experiences from art, and we find pleasurable the art that pleases us. So far, so tautologically good. All’s well. But then when we find some work that doesn’t please us, we want to say why. So we do. But what happens when these things that don’t please us please others? Mary Oliver’s poetry has never moved me, for example. But, as well, what am I to say to the legions of Little Monsters out there hanging on every nuance of Lady Gaga? Yet we must make distinctions (knowing they’re largely personal and provisional). I think Lady Gaga’s work is about as bland as bland can get. Well? I could go on, but you get the point. One must make one’s distinctions knowing full well they are not everyone’s distinctions. One must hold one’s ground while being aware that the ground is always shifting.
“We don’t want to be naive, and we want to write in our time. So how can sentiment work now? The dis-ease many contemporary poets continue to feel about narrative, epiphany, and the one-to-one correspondence between cities, landscapes, and physics in the real world and cities, landscapes, and physics in poems—all the old trappings of poetry—accounts for a pretty ubiquitous distrust of sentiment. Sentiment is feeling, and we feel with our real bodies in real time. Sentiment is sincere. That’s one reason for the mass of poems on the ironic end of the irony-sincerity continuum, many of which feature surrealism. Surrealism distances the world. It is as compelling a strategy as any in poetry, but it’s easier, right now, to write poems with dance floors full of water torturers wearing lingerie than it is to find a non-icky way to feeling.”
For her, what saves a surreal poem is where it can be said to break out of surrealism and “[signal] to us that the . . . reference is real, even if the poem is surreal.” It’s a distrust that surrealism can go it alone, to mean, to engage on its own turf; the real has to unmask itself if the poem is to succeed. It’s a winning strategy, and I like the way she talks about it, but it’s by no means the only way to go about it.
Here’s a poem by Zachary Schomburg:
You are in a very high tree.
If you jump
you will live a full life
You will get married
to a hummingbird
and raise beautiful part-
You will die of cancer
I will not lie.
It will be painful.
You are a brave little boy
I suppose one can say this poem works (if you think it works, which I do) because of the intrusion of the world, the real world revealing itself. But I think it works mostly through tone and the nuances of the stories of help we give each other over and over amid the generic ubiquity of pain.
How do any of us cope with alienation? With dislocation?
I think about this issue from a different direction. Not necessarily a better or worse direction, but the only one I have. As Jenny Browne writes in her essay, “[A] poem’s way of mattering should come at least in part from how it gets complexity of feeling right; it should not avoid emotionally loaded content entirely.” My reply is that it’s pretty difficult to avoid emotionally loaded content entirely. Even the language poets couldn’t’ do it, and I think they were trying to.
Irony is the dirty word here. And if I were to put together a symposium, I feel it might be fun to put one together around it. A Symposium on Irony. That would be nice. As Sally Ball writes:
“A reader drawn, as I am, to directness—to a relinquishment, however temporary, of self-protective irony—may wonder: is it mere openness that attracts? Do we crave restless or unfettered emotion because self-consciousness has often come to seem defensive (about the self) and judgmental (about oneself and others)? Self-conscious language can shift a poem from intellectual or emotional curiosity and candor to evasion and refusal. Instead of exploring sentiment, a poem is inclined to say: See how I register this situation and myself from multiple angles! or: You can’t keep up with me or make sense of the multiplicity of my attention, nah nah nah boo boo.
In such a climate, what incarnation(s) of sentiment would I want to praise? Those that allow for the expression or investigation of emotion—not necessarily without irony or self-consciousness, but without the presumption that strong feeling is necessarily false, silly, or mistaken. I so often feel poets avoid emotion.”
So my questions remain. Is irony, or what people are pointing at in contemporary poetry that they name irony, self-protective? Are intellectual and emotional curiosity and candor the opposite of, or the corrective to, evasion and refusal? How does “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” figure into this? Does it? How does Kate Greenstreet figure into this:
They’re so tired. Of everything.
That’s when he asks her when they’ve been happiest.
She’s wearing a red wool dress, like Clara.
And it’s so beautiful. Even with the ratty aqua blanket.
What is the happiest thing you remember about us?
Each part like the whole, but smaller.
He’s come home for the funeral.
They try to manage in the dark.
He’s the oldest, he’s carrying the diagram.
They call it “the mystery.”
This was a long time ago.
There weren’t really that many people on earth.
I heard your footsteps sinking in the gravel.
There was always hope.
Emotion, as I see it in art, is a social act. It’s a social act when it’s exhibited. In this way, by exhibition, it becomes socially understood (or not). And just as aesthetic positions evolve as familiarity with them grows, so to do the ways we exhibit emotion. Is “The Snow Man” emotional? Is Heather Christle? Tao Lin?
This is where I make the conceptual leap to Jennifer Moore’s piece in Jacket2 talking about “an acknowledgment of atrophied artistic possibility and a concern for what poets can (or can’t) do with this critical sense of impasse.”
Perhaps we are at something of an impasse when it comes to Emotion, Sincerity, Truth, Sentiment, and Beauty, as we no longer share much of a common identity on what, conceptually, is what. So, for one person, Tao Lin is the poster-child for nihilistic role-playing, while for another, Tao Lin points to a possibility of renewed investigation of the possible to say, to think, to behave. It’s no small coincidence that Sylvia Plath found the writing of “Daddy” to be hilarious. If it were written now, it would be called flarf.
So, in closing, these essays were very interesting to read together, as we try to read each other, as one version of what is gets replaced by another.