Most poetry’s pretty fucked up. It tries hard to be hard. Not only hard to understand, but also hard to touch—hard to feel. Sentiment isn’t really welcome in poetry anymore, it’s been outlawed. Sentiment is bad for poetry. It eats up the poetry and excretes it as pure whiny mush.
As is usually the case, sentiment wasn’t outlawed for just any old no-good-reason—it was kicked out ‘cause it’d started to misbehave so badly as to not be considered tolerable anymore. It had had too much to drink and was creeping everybody out with its nonsensical, overemotional whimpering. It was all in your face with its “The depths of my pain/ the drip of my drugs / today’s the day / I die” and it’s roughed-up, false bravado, driving everybody nuts. So it got kicked out. Boot in the ass and out the door.
It all started with the pleasant idea of representation. Poetry was to become the voice of the underprivileged, the huddled masses, the proletariat—it was to become the voice of the voiceless. This is North America in the sixties and the seventies: beatniks, hippies, black nationalists, anarcho-communists, neo-Marxists, orgy-enthusiasts, feminists, shock-artists and the like. Anybody who wanted to be somebody was either underprivileged or revolutionary enough to make up for their lack of underprivilege. It was, in many ways, a beautiful time.
But poetry was never a tool meant for representation—never an archaic form of Powerpoint, never a public diary. It was never a tool, per se (although many poets, I’ll admit, are in fact tools). And as often seems to be the case, things escalated fast. By the late seventies it was hardly enough to feel yourself an outsider anymore, to speak on behalf of your forgotten people or to project social problems. It quickly turned from the social to the personal, as poets realised that for pure muscle the personal always beats the social, hands down. Telling an audience that your people had been raped had nothing on telling the audience that you yourself were the survivor of your own personal holocaust, and then proceeding on with the gritty details. The lump in the throat beat the fist in the air.
By the mid eighties, surprisingly enough, this turned into a competition. Literally. Poets got up on stages all over the world to espouse their clever, rhythmical rhymes for sexual abuse, rape and whatever else could keep the audience gasping. And the judges picked a winner. Usually the one who’d fit the most –ation rhymes into his or her poem. “Due to complications with my castration, and the depreciation of my flagellation, I fell victim to demonization without ejaculation.” The victor was the one who got the most applause. The one whose authenticity seemed most true. Whose pain ran deepest.
And so, embarrassed by all this sentimentality, most poetry worthy of the name turned its back, turned cold and turned hard. It intellectualized, codified and peculiarised—it kicked back with a vengeance. Sentiment, being an old tradition in poetry, gets all the proper lip-service, of course, but it’s not a card-carrying member anymore. On those rare occasions that it gets invited to poetry’s shindigs, it’s kept thoroughly in check, its punch is de-spiked and if it so much as hints at having had a rough time recently, poetry gets all like “so what, you gonna cry now?” and boots it without further ado.
Which is a shame, I guess. But until sentiment learns how to behave itself, that’s just how it’s gotta be.