Friday, June 27, 2008

Avoiding Sentimentality - Martin

This is the third installment in a series, based on the sessions I taught at Write! London, last March. We were discussing things to avoid in our writing — particularly when we’re writing poetry; in all good writing it is important to avoid sentimentality.

What is sentimentality? We are being sentimental when we paint pictures of people that only include their good attributes, especially when we exaggerate those qualities. Christians might give in to sentimentality when talking of Biblical characters, or more recent Christian leaders and organizations, or even when we’re talking about God. The Bible never does this. We see Jacob as a schemer, David as a murderer, and Peter as a loud-mouth. Think of Mother’s Day cards: they aren’t trying to tell the truth, but say what we think we are supposed to say. Sentimentality is dishonest. James Joyce once said, “Sentimentality is unearned emotion”. Any emotion coming through in our writing needs to come from the deep investment of our lives.

One of the most potentially sentimental of all subjects would be the memory of a pet dog. In his poem “Landscape With Dog”, Paul Mariani in the first half tells of years going by, his dog being faithful, yet how he did annoying things such as chewing on furniture. The second half talks about one day the dog was wanting his attention, but he was too busy — so his dog wandered off alone into the woods to die. He doesn’t tell us that Sparky was the greatest dog ever, or how much he regretted neglecting him that day. He gives us enough so we know he valued his dog, and we can feel his regret without being told.

Sentimentality is always a danger, that must be avoided, when we’re writing poetry about either God or love. The temptation is to say what we think we’re supposed to say. In Habakkuk, the prophet begins with his complaint: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” In the end it’s the prophet’s honesty that makes his book ring true. Specific details, presented with honesty, will make our writing ring true too.

(The earlier installments “Avoiding Clich├ęs” and “Avoiding Didacticism” first appeared here on March 20th and May 27th respectively.)

D.S. Martin is Music Critic for Christian Week; his poetry chapbook So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed is available at
His full-length poetry book, Poiema (Wipf & Stock), will be available in September.

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