Sunday, January 31, 2016

Critical cliché: Familiarity and sentimentality

A certain lazy criticism of poetry that I try to quash in my workshops is that of familiarity.

Particularly with more advanced writers, this notion comes up in discussion frequently—what has been done. What feels worn out. What is tired. Mind you, typical undergrad writers, even advanced ones, have not yet read a dozen collections of poetry, but there is a sense that they know exactly what is to be found in the entire corpus of world poetry, and one more poem about a dead dog may cause the whole to collapse.

It should not be discounted, though, that all of us are members of a massively mediated culture, and we don’t have to live in it very long to have heard countless messages. As a result, some ideas do seem a little threadbare. When a workshopper says something is familiar, the original to them may be in a Kleenex commercial or a videogame backstory or a children’s book, just as easily as it might be a poem.

I am all for a constant push to make poetry fresh and new. Anything we pick up to read, we choose because we hope to be surprised. That’s true when we absentmindedly peer at the back of the cereal box with a mouth full of All Bran, and it’s true when we encounter a poem. If we know it, we don’t want to read it.

But I suspect that “It’s been done” is shorthand for “I’m bored”—a reaction that my parents always cautioned me against, boredom being a sign that the mind is not sufficiently fertile. On occasion, boredom speaks more to a deficiency in the auditor than in the speaker.

Poetry should not bore us, but when it does, I question the conviction some have that there are too many poems about X. A poem is a field of infinite possibility. Sometimes I’m fascinated by the way two words look and sound and mean together, and a poem is just a whole bunch words in combination. Where words are, there is potential for discovery.

Is there still something to be discovered within a love poem? An appreciation of nature? A lament for our dead—even our dead pets? Obviously, the answer is yes.

When the “tired” material explores emotional territory, another cliché often drops. Work like this is frequently dismissed as “sentimental.” There is no worse pronouncement on a workshop poem—and no deeper shame than when you’re the guy who recollected emotion in tranquility (just following Wordsworth’s directions, mind you) and wrote something to merit the term. It’s a badge of gross dishonor.

I will maintain to my last breath, though, that emotion is our turf. Sentiments are, too. Hell, we poets practically invented love—and I’m not entirely convinced this isn’t the literal truth. What first turned mating into love had to have been words.

In a workshop, participants must be challenged toward specificity. They need to explain where a poem goes wrong, with the understanding that the entire universe of ideas, and especially of feelings, belongs to us—maybe more than it belongs to anyone else. A whole-cloth dismissal of work because it is “familiar” should embarrass the critic more than the poet, because almost everything is familiar. Language itself is an instrument of familiarity and agreement; it says, “Let’s call that flop-eared, wag-tailed, drooling thing a dog,” and everyone who shares the language goes along with that every time.

The eternal challenge for poets is to use language to speak truth, even ancient truth, in a fresh way. All subjects are on the table.


  1. I think it's important to distinguish between freshness and novelty, a lesson I understood even before the credits began to roll when i first saw American Beauty in the theater. Suburban malaise was already a well-worn subject, but AB handled its silly little characters with such tenderness and genuine affection that the tired old subject danced and spun as if after a first kiss.

    1. Exceptionally well put, and a great example, Lance!