Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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.

Sentiment –

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

Sentimentality -

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?

Prufer writes:

“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”?

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,
the poet,
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.

Katz writes:

“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:

Falling Life

You are in a very high tree.

If you jump
you will live a full life
while falling.

You will get married
to a hummingbird

and raise beautiful part-

You will die of cancer
in mid-air.

I will not lie.
It will be painful.

You are a brave little boy
or girl.

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.


At 2/15/2012 7:05 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Thanks, John. A lot to chew on. The Wenderoth is where I'll start.

The poem is titled after a Robert Hass essay collection, and presents a traumatic/tragic anecdote, I believe, to provoke a response in the reader. But that response isn't an emotional response, it's a fight-or-flight response; it triggers anxiety and empathic feelings of pain.

I suppose you could, as with the Schomburg and Zucker examples, say that anxiety and empathy are person-specific responses, but I don't buy that. They're general, and I'll point anyone who disputes that claim toward CSI recap sites and a used bookstore where you can find any Dostoevsky you want for cheap.

The violence and its ironic contrast with the title feel really cheap to me here. More importantly, though, I feel baited into an autonomic response -- I don't feel as though this poem gives me any choice other than to take it or leave it. As such I want to shun it. But I've read it before and I am fairly certain I will read it again.

Which is to say, I think this example at least is not fair territory for a discussion of emotion, unless Wenderoth's underlying belief is that all emotion is a kind of confrontation, or that at least with provocation we know we're alive.

Again, this is the general drift of the culture, and if they're coming at you with goads you don't need Johnny Cash covering Nick Cave to know the goads will move you right along.

But I don't think we're talking about emotion and poetry anymore, either.

At 2/15/2012 7:06 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


What I find fascinating is that the dictionary meaning of "sentimental" did change from a virtue to a perjorative in the early 20th century when the ornery Pound and his Modern Art friends were stirring up their revolution against 19th century sentiment in art. A great example I found of this is Pound, writing against sentiment, does not use the word "sentimental," but instead uses the term "sentimentalist" or "sentimentical" some other strange version of the word, to make his point. I think it was the 1920s. I'm sorry I can't remember the citation. I wrote about it on Scarriet and I'm too lazy to look it up.

So, yes, there is a social ocean we all swim in which determines how we should express ourselves. Given this fact, the poet will always be second-guessing himself about sentiment/emotion. But is this good? I would think the great poets don't give a damn---and just (for a lack of a better term) write the poem. Yet, as I write this, it rings hollow to me. You can't just 'write the poem.' You have to ask, as Poe, did: what *is* the poem? And Poe said the poem wasn't Truth and it wasn't Passion, it was Taste, which is in the middle. Obviously, with Taste, one cannot just 'write the poem' (as one can do with Truth or Passion). One has to squirm under the Social Ocean and glitter in just the right manner to get the attention of the other hyper-sensitive fishes.


At 2/15/2012 7:18 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Just to add -- the Wenderoth poem recalls for me the button pushing in C.K. Williams's first book or two, but not the button pushing on Liz Phair's first album.

Provocation works, no doubt about it. To what end, is the question.

At 2/15/2012 8:28 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

According to the OED the shift to pejorative started a bit before the 20th Century.

1837 Landor Imag. Conv., Steele & Addison Wks. 1853 II. 152/2 Dear Addison! drunk, deliberate, moral, sentimental, foaming over with truth and virtue.    1862 M. E. Braddon Lady Audley xviii, You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation‥to fear from me.    1865 Dickens Mut. Fr. i. iv, I am not setting up to be sentimental about George Sampson.

At 2/15/2012 8:46 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


Those examples are not definitive, since saying "sentimental nonsense" is not proof that "sentimental" was pejorative, but rather "nonsense" was, but I'm sure the shift was a long one. I do recall that in the early 20th century, "sentimental" still has vestiges of merit, but it might depend on who you talked to.

As for the Wenderoth, that's an extreme violation of Poe's test of Good Taste; the facts of that poem would have precisely the same emotional impact if they were seen in a newspaper article. That's not a poem; that's cheap sensationalism, and Wenderoth should be whipped for his offense.

At 2/15/2012 10:54 AM, Blogger David said...

I fail to see how Wenderoth's recitation of sad and gory facts qualifies as a poem at all. The little deaf-mute boy trying to push the pooling blood back into his dead mother's head -- this qualifies him as "the poet"? Huh? Is it the ironic(?) title that lends a dash of poetry to this crime blotter reportage? But what, pray tell, is the irony? I'd be seriously interested to hear from anyone whose soul is excited and elevated by Wenderoth's lines.

At 2/15/2012 11:27 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

"Those examples are not definitive, since saying "sentimental nonsense" is not proof that "sentimental" was pejorative, but rather "nonsense" was, but I'm sure the shift was a long one."

Point taken, although I trust that the OED editors didn't pull these examples completely out of context ... I'd give odds that these are early examples of hard-minded people pushing at older ideas of sentimentality. I agree that the shift was a long one, and probably ongoing. Outside of the literary world there are still plenty of people who proudly call themselves sentimental.

I do recall that in the early 20th century, "sentimental" still has vestiges of merit, but it might depend on who you talked to.

As for the Wenderoth, that's an extreme violation of Poe's test of Good Taste; the facts of that poem would have precisely the same emotional impact if they were seen in a newspaper article. That's not a poem; that's cheap sensationalism, and Wenderoth should be whipped for his offense."

At 2/15/2012 12:06 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

For a moment I read the title as "Talking into Mirrors About Windows Without Emotion."

I like the Wenderoth poem because it seems to highlight exactly what is happening in this comment stream.

If we read a violent news story, we don't criticize it for its distant quality. It probably doesn't affect us all that much, other than, "isn't this terrible?" The complaint, it seems, is that the poem's subject matter should affect us, but doesn't due to the journalistic approach. You want to accuse the poet of not taking this serious enough. Making light of the situation. Playing.

The ending contradicts this, but we, the readers (the police), can't understand what he's doing if he's not playing.

If I had to explain the irony of this, which I don't want to do because irony always sounds stupid when you explain it, I would explain it like this:

This poem is far more upsetting than the content of this poem. You are offended that someone would put this into the world and call it a poem.

I could be wrong, but that's what I see happening here.

At 2/15/2012 12:13 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Fuzz, I'm not sure I'm offended. I do feel provoked, which is not the same thing.

At 2/15/2012 12:19 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Okay, but that doesn't change my interpretation all that much. The poem provokes you more than the news story does.

At 2/15/2012 12:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I’m sorry now for tossing the Wenderoth in. Yes, he very much dislikes Hass, and he’s playing pretty fast and loose. I was thinking of it as simply the use of strong emotion or complex emotion isn’t really the question. Wenderoth does both. I was just seeing it as problematizing the conversation, something Wenderoth very much likes to do. With bells and whistles.

And then I woke this morning with a 104.3 degree temperature. I’m having conversations with the pillow. So maybe that plays into it as well.

My general reaction is that with some art I think it’s less that they can’t speak to one than it is one can’t hear them. That plays into the way we value art. The trick is to tell when something is failed art and when it is something that we can’t hear. The way I can't hear Kay Ryan, though people keep telling me she's saying something.

The difficulty I was having with these essays is not about their positive points. I think Katz especially lays out a very nice reading of John Ashbery and Mark Bibbins. The difficulty I was having is with the skepticism of surrealism and other types of more extravagantly associative works.

Kevin Prufer sent me an email this morning recapping his points, where he says he's now kind of retreated from “strong” emotion, for complexity:

“1) the standard definitions of sentimentality that I've heard come up short, for all kinds of reasons

2) what seems to unify examples of things most of us find sentimental (but, again, no agreement, obviously!) is that sentimental language is often simplistic. That its reductive simplicity of sentiment (and not its "excess of inappropriate emotion") is the real defining characteristic.

3) that simplicity can have real-world, dangerous (often political) repercussions (something those WWI poets understood pretty well, though I'm afraid we've sort of forgotten it today). We should be suspicious of sentimentality as a political/social force because it can lead to all kinds of ill.”

I like that very much and have no complaint against it.

At 2/15/2012 12:50 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

No, it just feels like a shitty move all around to me. And yet! I've read it a few times now and will probably end up reading it again.

I don't see the irony here -- it's just the same provocation/ titillation bind that Michael Haneke's films prompt, or apparently to a lesser extent, Todd Solondz's or Quentin Tarantino's or Catherine Breillat's. I find it shitty in the movies of those directors and I find it shitty in this poem.

Shitty is just a quality, of course, if you've had kids or taken care of a sick relative. This poem isn't my kid or my sick relative, though.

Disgust and the breaches of personal limits is a separate discussion from, or a special topic in, emotion / sentiment.

At 2/15/2012 12:53 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Get well soon, John.

At 2/15/2012 1:01 PM, Blogger David said...

by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
she walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
and she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
and is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.

* * *

I fancy that the woman is Lady Muse, who, in happier, more fecund days, walked arm in arm with her lover, Sentiment.

At 2/15/2012 1:23 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


That's fine. I'm not going to try and make you like this poem or agree with my interpretation. I just wanted to say what I saw happening.

I will disagree with you about your last point, though. This poem is commenting on the very topic at hand, emotion / sentimentality. By suppressing it in light of these horrific events, he is getting us to talk about the cool, detached tone of the poem. It's mimicking the culture at large when it reports violence.

Is this a trick? Sure, but I think if he had written the poem differently, in a more impassioned response, we (or some other group people) would be criticizing it precisely for its sentimentality.

Personally, I'd rather this route, but we can chalk that up to differing approaches.

At 2/15/2012 1:43 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

"I was thinking of it as simply the use of strong emotion or complex emotion isn’t really the question. Wenderoth does both. I was just seeing it as problematizing the conversation, something Wenderoth very much likes to do. With bells and whistles."

To this end I think the Wenderoth example was a good one, especially in light of the comments here. I was willing to buy Prufer's idea that it's all about complexity, but you have me questioning it. I'm wondering if the real line defining the (negative) sentimental has more to do with whether or not the feeling is earned. Not in the old sense of whether or not the feelings are justified by the content of the poem, but whether or not the poem offers us a payoff that justifies the emotions that are elicited or provoked.

Believable complexity is required, but may not be enough by itself. If it's missing, we don't believe the poem and automatically feel cheated. But even if there's complexity, like what exists in the Wenderoth poem, we could still be asking, like some have asked here, "why did you put me through that? What do I get out of this besides a bad taste in my mouth?"

As you suggest, the answer regarding any particular poem stays subjective. Some said they feel cheated, while Fuzz argued that there's a payoff.

At 2/15/2012 2:21 PM, Blogger knott said...

by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
she walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
and she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
and is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.

* * *

I fancy that the woman is Lady Muse, who, in happier, more fecund days, walked arm in arm with her lover, Sentiment.


you left off the epigraph, which contextualizes the poem (historically and esthetically)

At 2/15/2012 3:39 PM, Blogger David said...

Good catch, knott.

"Dressed for show"

As the highborn and insubstantial sentiment of Romantic verse passes by, the modernist Poet, representative of the sturdy masses that will inherit society and art, keeps an ironically "respectful" distance.

At 2/15/2012 3:48 PM, Blogger TL said...

Before I read Fuzz’s comments, which I think are spot on in many ways, I wrote up my own reading of the poem. So, FWIW:

Not knowing the Hass essay collection Jordan refers to, it’s hard for me to understand why Wentworth uses that title, what its significance is (other than what is blatantly obvious).. In the poem—and I do think it is a poem, especially in a literary world that includes Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts—there’s a lot, most would say an overdose, of pathos. One child has Down Syndrome; the other is a deaf-mute. The husband doesn’t just pound his wife with a hammer; he also shots her in the back of the head. For the most part, the narrative is presented in a “just the facts” style. Could the story that is told happen? Yeah, it could happen. Did it happen, and would that make a difference? It might to some readers.

What does the poem make me feel? Does it make me feel anything besides manipulated, tired, numb even? Would it be a better poem if it made me feel angry, sad, outraged? It makes me think, to question my own reactions, not just to the poem but to news reports about domestic violence. I wonder too about the father/husband. He’s the bad actor in the poem, but why/how did he get that way? Does it matter? Not his family in the poem, but how about to the reader, to society?

What interest me about the poem are the parts I don’t understand: What does make the deaf-mute boy a poet? Why on earth did the officers on the scene think the child was playing in his mother’s blood, if in fact they did? For that matter, why are those parts I find most interesting? I suspect because those are the parts of the poem that are the least journalistic, and form a contrast to those parts, which isn’t the same thing as saying the journalistic parts aren’t effective, if not affective.

John wrote: “And this symposium is as good a place to start as any. But it’s certainly not the place to stop either.” He also mentions the “the generic ubiquity of pain.” For me, this poem is a place to start confronting the generic ubiquity of certain kinds of pain, but it’s not the place to stop either. If one goal of writing is, as Kafka suggested, to “be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” does the poem make a dent in the ice or does the implement-ation skitter away? YMMV.

At 2/15/2012 4:53 PM, Blogger knott said...

"dressed for show" is too colloquial—

Amy Lowell translates the line as:

My soul is an Infanta in robes of state

—Jethro Bithell has:

My soul is an Infanta robed in state

—Elizabeth Rendall renders it as:

My soul is an Infanta, robed for state

—and William Frederick Giese's version:

My soul is an Infanta, purple-robed,
Lone as a phantom ship on phantom seas,
Glassing strange semblances of royal ease
In sculptured mirrors shining golden-globed. (1st stanza)


and surely Pound would have read Samain as a Symbolist, not a "Romantic" (or a Parnassian)—?


At 2/15/2012 7:18 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

TL writes, "For that matter, why are those parts I find most interesting? "

That's a question that my favorite art often raises. There's a sense of mystery surrounding my own reactions.

At 2/15/2012 9:18 PM, Blogger David said...

and surely Pound would have read Samain as a Symbolist, not a "Romantic" (or a Parnassian)—?

Surely, but the question is what might that woman walking by the railing symbolize?

At the very least, Pound's poem is a study in irony and emotional distance.

At 2/16/2012 4:49 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

That's fine, too, Fuzz -- neither will you persuade me that you're doing anything more than rationalize your submission to the shitty sadism in the poem.

At 2/16/2012 6:56 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Oh c'mon. Do you actually believe your verbal diarrhea re: "submission to the shitty sadism in the poem"?

Clearly, any time you like a poem someone else deemed shitty, you are letting it dominate you.

I never knew.

At 2/16/2012 7:09 AM, Blogger TL said...

One of the things I kept thinking about as I was reading Wentworth’s poem was a poetry reading and interview with Linda McCarriston I saw years ago on The Language of Life series. The poems McCarriston read addressed the domestic violence and child abuse she witnessed and experienced as a child, and in her conversation with Moyers, she discussed how and why she came to write those poems, as well as audience reactions to them. I made the connection between Wentworth and McCarriston, because although their approaches to the subject matter are very different, I found both of their poems troubling. Troubling to me on the level of subject matter, for sure, but also on the level of challenging my assumptions on what constitutes a good poem.

Googling around, I discovered McCarriston has a new interview out with TriQuarterly. In it she discusses her take on the MFA poetic, the sentimental vs. the ironic, McPoems, New Criticism, Robert Hass, Bill Knott and Foetry (a little something for everyone):

”We go round and round and round in the circle game.”

Are we getting too far afield from the topic? Shrouded mirrors, stained glass windows. Please prove your not a robot

At 2/16/2012 7:30 AM, Blogger TL said...

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.

It was only a few years ago while I was reading Middlebrook’s take on “Daddy” that I saw the humor (I got the joke!) in Plath’s poem and laughed out loud. The poem still operates for me like that image of the faces/vases, and I have to concentrate sometimes to get the hilarity. Middlebrook wrote, “it’s a ferocious work of art that—riffing on a single vowel sound and offending left and right—has a lot in common with rap music.” Okay, but why flarf? Is it the offending left and right?

And as Fuzz said earlier, hope you are feeling better, John.

At 2/16/2012 9:16 AM, Blogger Todd said...

Daddy may not have been flarf or even, in the conventional sense, time notwithstanding, but it is/was in a lot of ways, at least as I saw it, the Subterranean Homesick Blues of contemporary poetry.

As for the Wenderoth, there's much there to chew on, certainly, or at least knaw.


At 2/16/2012 9:21 AM, Blogger Todd said...

'... may not have been flarf or even [rap]...,'

is what I meant to say.

knaw: see gnaw.


At 2/16/2012 11:14 AM, Blogger David said...

As for the Wenderoth, there's much there to chew on, certainly, or at least [g]naw.


TL, the McCarriston interview is fascinating. I suppose that she has the power and prestige to utter some of those heresies against the dominant MFA-think.

There are no closed doors in McCarriston's workshops, and she believes that reading is as formative on one's writing as experience. Hmmm. So, this must mean that if one of her students has immersed himself in the Romantics and wants to learn how to write like Keats or Shelley, she will actively encourage it?

At 2/16/2012 1:27 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...



Take care of yourself, John!

At 2/16/2012 3:33 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I always thought "Daddy" and other late Plath poems sounded incantatory, like magic spells. Plath doesn't sound in the least like rap. Dylan does, however. Sometimes.

Speaking of Breillat, what's happened to French cinema? Whence the New French Extremity exemplified by Breillat, Ozon, Dumont, et al.? I could do with some Bressonian restraint. Bresson always looked away from any violence.

At 2/16/2012 9:04 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Just curious . . . do any of you think this poem is just sentimental or merely sentiment? I wrote it about the death of my only brother.

Thin Ice

Such thin ice and fragile,
brittle on the pond. I’m afraid
to even speak lest I crack it,
afraid a single drifting leaf
or tumbling berry, one lost feather
of suggestion might fall to fracture
and in breaking reveal the colder
darkness underneath.

This ice, though thin, protects.
The cheerful white reflects a happy
blue of sky, keeps me from
black water and the beasts that
hide beneath, the fear and loss,
the confusion swimming just below
this frosted, easily broken pane.

Such thin ice and fragile,
crystallized by this barren cold
suspended between the opposing
empty poles of my sorrow
and its frozen anger.

Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 2/17/2012 6:37 AM, Blogger David said...


The first stanza is a good example of poetically mastered sentiment. The last two stanzas drift into sentimentality as certain word choices weaken the metaphor, IMO.

At 2/17/2012 7:27 AM, Blogger David said...

This Valentine's Day poem by Tony Hoagland is notable for its passing mention of a female animal whose “sentiment is sincere”:


I honestly don't know what to make of it.

At 2/17/2012 7:59 AM, Blogger Todd said...

David, I was aiming in my comment more for yucks than an eww. And therein is one of the problems with the Wenderoth poem, the thorny old issue of intentionality, or is it intension, I always get them mixed up. There's a very small space in the body of a single poem to narrow the crosshairs, and while his references are pretty admirable, they don't exactly register perfectly with everyone.

Apologies for the lack of clarity of my Dylan/Plath analogy -- the Daddy/SHB reference wasn't so much about style as it was about impact upon a genre.

I'd argue these were watershed moments for contemporary poetry and music, but not very convincingly, I'm afraid.

Back to sentimentality now. Best,


At 2/17/2012 11:57 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


This is not a "sentiment" issue, and often the charge of "sentimental" is a mistaken, default criticism, the residue of the New Critical/Modernist attack on the Romantic poets. (Recall T.S. Eliot ferociously attacked both Poe and Shelley, and the New Critics routinely sneered at them, as well.)

The issue with your poem is the prominent use of metaphor. A little metaphor goes a long way; over-use of metaphor kills poetry. Even a poet of Seamus Heaney's stature suffers from an over-use of metaphor.

For instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The Snowstorm" is inferior, for this very reason, to Poe's "To Helen."


At 2/18/2012 8:09 AM, Blogger David said...

Apropos recent discussions of "difficulty" and "sentiment", I was intrigued to read the following account of contemporary critical reception of Shelley's "Alastor":

The poem was attacked by contemporary critics for its "obscurity". In a review in The Monthly Review for April, 1816, the critic wrote: "We must candidly own that these poems are beyond our comprehension; and we did not obtain a clue to their sublime obscurity, till an address to Mr. Wordsworth explained in what school the author had formed his taste." In the Eclectic Review for October, 1816, Josiah Condor wrote:

"We fear that not even this commentary [Shelley's Preface], will enable ordinary readers to decipher the import of the greater part of Mr. Shelley's allegory. All is wild and specious, untangible and incoherent as a dream. We should be utterly at a loss to convey any distinct idea of the plan or purpose of the poem."

In The British Critic for May, 1816, the reviewer dismissed the work as "the madness of a poetic mind."

Mary Shelley, in her note on the work, wrote: "None of Shelley's poems is more characteristic than this." In the spring of 1815, Shelley had been erroneously diagnosed as suffering from consumption. Shelley suffered from spasms and there were abscesses in his lungs. He made a full recovery but the shock of imminent death is reflected in the work. Mary Shelley noted that the work "was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death."


The words of Mary Shelley bear repeating and underscoring:

"[Alastor] was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied IN THE PUREST FORM HE COULD CONCEIVE ..."

At 2/18/2012 8:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yes. And over time such things become readable and classic (and “true”). And then new things come along to become “what the hell is this?”

It’s pretty funny all-in-all. I mean, in the void way.

At 2/18/2012 4:16 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

For me a big "problem" with the JW piece is its seeming to not need language/form. Would this poem mean significantly different in a prose-paragraph? I suppose even transparant form is form, but yah I'm struck by how seemingly little is done with the energies inherent in language. I don't, tho, mean to imply that a poem must have formal flare above all else: superb poems like "Crusoe in England" are not extremely explosively formally, but that piece, I think, is astonishing.

Hmm, maybe the JW piece is interesting for its flatness, a flatness seemingly at odds with its brutalism?

adam strauss


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