The Hermit Poet

July 25, 2005

Sentimentality and a Room of Angry Poets

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:07 am

I like gravel

On Friday, Terrance Hayes offered a lecture that led to the most confrontation — a discussion of sentimentality in poetry with examples of poems that may or may not be succeeding in walking the line but not falling into it. When he moved between a piece by Tony Hoagland and another piece by Li-Young Lee — the room quickly divided into two camps, one side arguing that Hoagland’s work was bloodless and overly clever, the other arguing that Li-Young Lee was being manipulative and overly dramatic. What occurred to me (and which I shared as I saw the accusations flying back and forth), was that there is clearly a Western (American) aesthetic which moves toward closure, an arrival at a destination, some sort of clarity. And, there is also an Eastern (Asian) aesthetic which moves toward ambiguity, openness, and multiplicity. When we apply the expectations of one aesthetic on work produced by the other, we will naturally find ourselves dissatisfied with the poem. It is not that the poem isn’t good, it is that we want something different than what that poem is capable of delivering.

Now, this doesn’t change the fact that the Li-Young Lee particular poem we looked at (“Visions and Interpretations” from Rose) was not as strong or memorable as others within the collection. It does suffer from a certain easiness in places — but it’s an easiness I’m inclined to forgive in the context of the book. I also find that Hoagland at times can become too clever for his own good and a poem will suffer for it, strike the reader as being a bit postured and self-conscious, and not really sensitive to the person or issue at hand.

Terrance was extremely diplomatic and was able to steer the conversation back around to more constructive aspects of the question of how much is too much. And, he made an interesting observation as someone who knows and is friends with both Li-Young Lee and Tony Hoagland — he pointed out that they each are much more alike than they are inclined to admit. In person, Li-Young Lee can be very funny but seems to be afraid to show that humor in his work. Likewise Tony Hoagland has a spiritual side and has seriously studied Buddhism in the past, but seems afraid to deal with those more spiritual elements in his work. Terrance suggested it would profitable to bring the two together sometime and force into dialogue — they would find they have much more in common than they think.

In his workshops, Terrance introduced us to the idea that all poems are in dialogue with other poems (consciously or unconsciously). He would give us handouts at the beginning of class which had two poems side by side which seemed to work similiarly in structure or technique. Very different poems and very different poets, but often a suprising conversation would arise out of the act of laying them side by side.

Even in the final reading on Saturday at the Poetry and Jazz Festival that wraps up the retreat, I found myself newly aware of how Cecilia Woloch’s poem “Brothers” relates back to Yusef Koumanyaka’s poem “The Deck” — or how Robert Wrigley’s poem “The Lives of the Animals” connects to Brendan Constantine’s poem written at Idyllwild about giving money to animals.

One Response to “Sentimentality and a Room of Angry Poets”

  1. Alberto Romero Bermo Says:

    Interesting post. The line between sentiment and sentimentality is a fine one. I think it takes bravery and great skill to tackle true feeling in poetry. Sentiment cannot be alien to poetry and I think most contemporary poets avoid it for the reasons that a poem such Lee’s exemplifies. I’m not so sure that it becomes an issue of inventiveness or freshness or some secret that pushes a reader to expect something more. What pushes the poet in that direction anyway? Why such scenes as climbing “arm and arm” with the imagined dead don’t work for me, or worse “Between two griefs, a tree. / Between my hands, white chrysanthemums, yellow / chrysanthemums” become cliché in my mind is difficult to articulate. I’ve no reason to doubt the sincerity of Lee’s feelings, they obviously exist in the poem, the question is why or how does he crosses the sentiment / sentimentality line. (I think he does.) But it is also true that this sort of elegiac work is most difficult, though difficulty cannot excuse a failed attempt at something greater. (By this I also mean that Lee’s poem is good, as expected, and that may be the very problem with it.)

    Aside from inherent taste I cannot, respectfully, agree with your explanation based on Western vs. Eastern aesthetics. I think you over-reach a bit in that analysis in light of Lee’s example. I don’t see what an Eastern aesthetic reading can do to save it from the perils of sentimentality.

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