Saturday, March 17, 2012

What's wrong with writing sentimental poetry and fiction?

If you would prefer to read the text of this poem outside the video, click here.

nola literature examinerI do not have an easy answer to that question in the title of this post--"What's wrong with writing sentimental poetry and fiction?"--but I have a few thoughts about why writing critics reject poets who write what they call "Hallmark Card verse" or fiction authors who slather on the sentimentality that causes readers to reach for the tissues. The primary critique usually goes along the lines that writing overly-emotional verse and prose is easy, and within that objection is the unspoken bias that the creation of genuine art always entails struggle, a nose-to-the-grindstone crafting of one's work, that anything that produces tears--of joy or of pain--easily can't be any good.

However, I also think that in Euro-American culture since the so-called Age of Reason fell upon its consciousness, a long-standing belief's taken root that
intelligent humans are rational creatures, not beings driven or swayed too easily by emotion, and this bias against emotion--against obvious pathos--causes critics to deem emotional writing to be synonymous with the mundane and stupidity. I add that this bias also manifest as a bias against women's writing in many cases. Within the concept of the Enlightenment self--the unified and rational self--a preference for masculine attitudes and masculine behavior dominates. Consequently, anything associated too much with femininity, such as emotional and subjective responses, is deemed inferior. You may also consider how often people of color are associated with emotion: people of African descent are "soulful" and those of Latin descent are "hot-blooded" and "passionate."

I recall now how some critics of Elizabeth Alexander's poem "Praise Song for the Day," delivered at President Obama's inauguration, was blasted by some poetry critics because at the end it speaks of love. However, it could be argued that we don't talk about love enough, especially brotherly love and that the day Obama was inaugurated was a day characterizes by a sense of unity and love with hope for forgiveness, and so the mention of love was appropriate, but that's another post.

Anyway, I suspect my mulling over varying concepts of subjectivity--the unified self of Enlightenment versus the fragmented self of Post-modernism--and why shows of emotion in not only writing but also in life are often disdained was on my mind somewhat when I wrote the poem in the video above, "End Times." And I was also thinking as I wrote it about deflection in general and that sometimes people do not want anything that goes directly for the heartstrings because they don't want to feel anything that may cause them alarm or perhaps to take action for something in which they believe.

Sometimes people want to disconnect from their feelings so they can rationalize the paths and stances they repeatedly choose to take. Some of those paths and corresponding attitudes include ignoring that we're running out of oil, that we're in a global economy that makes American exceptionalism a thing of the past (if it ever really existed at all), that perpetuating political polarization has become the standard, and that proponents of a political ideology that applauds the elimination of public sector jobs and services has gained the upper-hand in this nation. Few people want to contemplate that we're headed toward an age of austerity and that we may have to completely overhaul our current economic system. I don't mention these issues in the poem, but they have been on my mind.

The poem also reflects my contemplation of how obscure language has become associated with brilliance and plain speech or "being real" has become associated with a lack of talent in some schools of thought. It seems sometimes that some people think that the more you use language to obscure meaning, the better, which begs the question what is it we're trying to obscure: is the goal to steer people away from contemplating that injustice, murder and mayhem is still with us and something we must resist? When I think of political language, I observe how often it's used today to keep Americans from seeing the truth that the party's over: we live on a finite planet with finite resources; material growth cannot be a constant. Perhaps spiritual growth can be so, however.

Guess I was in a philosophical mood and moody today. It's like that sometimes. Woke up this morning with blue moon in my eye, but I did not get myself a gun; I got myself a poem. :-)


msladydeborah said...

I think that the bias against emotional writing is due to the fact that human beings spend a lot of time protecting our emotional selves. I always feel that a writer has done a helluva piece if it brings tears to my eyes or they can make me feel that pull on my heart strings. That is always a clue that I am well connected to the piece of work in a way that allows that moment to emerge as an outward display of feelings.

I have always felt that there is a shadow that looms large over writers of color in this area. I believe that there is a European based idea of how we love and express love that is not necessarily accurate in our reality. The idea of our love being a combination of soulful, hot blooded and passionate does not resonate well within their imagery of us. But if you really think about it, we do have this type of experience in our intimate relationships. We also love in ways that that seem to elude their understanding. It seems that our ability to express sentiment in the midst of hardcore urban realities seems improbable to them. But we know that it does occur and probably more than we are even comfortable with acknowledging because it makes us appear to be weak willed. Our love always has to be the type that sustains someone else through their harsh moments of life. But if you think about it, we also love gentle and intimately just like our European counterparts.

I don't feel that sentimental writing is necessarily out of place. I think that there is a need for this type of emotional connection and release in our society. I think that if we do not make adequate space for this type of work, we are shortchanging our human experience.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Thank you, Deborah. Yes, and while there are dangers to being "overly" emotional about everything that happens in life, it's also true that a lot of people go to psychiatrists because they can't connect emotionally and it causes a lot of loss in their lives. As with most things balance is key, but when it comes to writing it seems that more often than not, especially among those who believe they have a claim to "superior artistry," the bias is toward showing and provoking less emotion. And yet, a classic characteristic of art is its ability to produce catharsis in those who experience it and not just a call for intellectual analysis.

Goodness! Even Mr. Spock learned he should feel emotion sometimes. :-)