Early on in my introductory poetry workshop, we discuss the difference between sentiment (emotion) and sentimentality (mawkishness, Hallmark cards, Lifetime holiday movies). First we talk about the ways in which sentimentality undercuts our ability to imbue our poems with real sentiment—it leads us toward cliché, it looks for the easy or more palatable way into an experience, it doesn’t require the level of intellectual and creative engagement we expect from good poems.
Then we start making fun of poets.
Okay, I say, imagine that you’re writing a parody of a poem and you want to make it wonderfully bad—full of clichés and cringe-worthy sentimentality. What are some key words you might use? “Heart,” someone always offers. We look for a little more specificity. “What should a heart not do in a poem?” I ask. “Skip a beat,” says one student. “Break,” says another. “End up in your throat,” offers someone else. Once we exhaust the heart possibilities, we move on, looking for the big offenders. What are some other words or tropes that might lead to sentimentality? I can usually get someone to come up with “soul,” which affords me an opportunity to write the word “soul” on the board, then draw a giant X through it—something I always like leaving on the board for the next class to see and fret over what sorts of things are being taught in creative writing classrooms. Usually someone mentions roses. Someone mentions the single tear. All of these go on the board (and I always offer the disclaimer that none of these rules is absolute—certainly, fantastic poems can be written using any number of potentially problematic words or images, provided the poet is savvy about how he or she uses them). Finally we move on to animals—butterflies as symbols of innocence, a bird as a vision of freedom. And, of course, there’s cuteness to be reckoned with—puppies, kittens, any three-legged quadruped. Sometimes I tell my students that they can only use a kitten in a poem if the kitten is dead.
I’ve found that letting students poke fun at hypothetical poems before writing their own helps them to a) stay attuned to the siren song of schlock so that they can better resist it and b) maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing so that when someone does write a poem featuring that single tear or an alarmingly mobile heart, we can talk about it without the writer feeling defensive. After all, the battle against sentimentality is one we’re all fighting.
Oh—and the dead kitten thing? A grad student took on that challenge, and wrote a beautiful, spare, weird poem that opened with a dead kitten in a shoebox. The poem surprised at every turn and was just accepted for publication. Of course a dead kitten could be even more sentimental than a live one, depending on how it’s rendered—the moral here, I think, is that if we as poets choose our words and our images with an eye toward circumventing the expected, we stand a much better chance of writing poems that are resonant, moving, and completely inappropriate for Hallmark.