Self and reality. Symbol and language. Myth and image. Memory and consciousness.
Dream and unreality: locus communis.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On Sentimentality

Heading across the college campus in the dark of Monday morning, the security lights glazed over the parking lot and the sidewalks—and despite the early hour, the air clung close with heavy humidity, pressing in, demanding attention: a typical August morning. At one point, halfway to the classroom, as I passed through a small copse of trees, just above my head a full spider’s web clung between two branches, shining out in front of a street lamp, each strand of the net casting off light. Trapped within the threads hung a constellation of mayflies, luminous, pale green stars clustered in an awkward shape.

Placing the above information into a haiku verse presents a problem: there is no way to avoid the obvious metaphor, the over-sentimental symbolism embedded in the scene.

Haiku are intended to be brief scenes: flashes of personal insight that may at first confuse a reader if he/she skims the material too quickly.
Without pulling back details or deleting circumstances, the image of the web seems trite to me. The fact the timing established is early morning presents unnecessary “drama” to the poem. The fact that the mayflies are clustered as stars adds more forced “mystery” to the equation. However, the moment itself (without listening to the critical editor in my head) the moment itself should lie ripe for a haiku-epiphany: poet confronted with conflicting duality of nature; out of pain comes beauty, circumstances of life and death.

The incident reminds me of the short essay by Virginia Woolf, “The Death of the Moth” which portrays a scene of a common “hay-colored” insect “fluttering from side to side of his square of the windowpane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him… He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and waiting there a second, flew across to the other.” In these ten, heavily-detailed paragraphs, she depicts the process of death for a nondescript insect in unsentimental tones. Despite the theme of the essay which analyzes the life-force in every human, animal, or thing, Woolf successfully avoids any overt sentimental tones or cliché observations due to the fact she keeps the focus of her essay on the event of the moth struggling with death, without investing over-sentimental emotions.

Within the scene described in the opening paragraph, the image of the spider’s web could act as a deterrent to a successful reading of a modern haiku— as we know, the English version of the haiku limits the poet to three lines, seventeen syllables— in these shortened sequence of verse, a mildly sentimental scene suddenly over powers the tone, creating a heavily charged, overly emotional poem. Seventeen syllables control the amount of possible elements to position inside the terse lines.

The poet Susan Mitchell created a poem which loosely connects to this concept as well—simply titled “Rainbow.” Using the prism arch as a motif, she begins the work describing a scene which in the wrong hands would be over sentimental—a persona walking along the beach front with her mother and the experience of a rainbow over the waters. She writes:

Now, my mother
is the kind of person—well if she came on
a rainbow in a poem, she would say
sentimental, she would tell the poet
to take it out. She is a great lover of poetry
and has always disliked sentimentality
in art (ll 18-22).

Mitchell strategically chooses a sentimental scene, and then navigates her way around the moment by reflecting back on a realistic, matter-of-fact tone relating to the event. The image of the rainbow is important, yes. It is an epiphany moment, yes. However, she does not dwell on the emotions created from the image—she allows the reader to make his or her own assumptions. The poem is about building connections, bridging lives, not just about a rainbow.
So, back to my problem. After a few moments of further reflection, the following haiku produced itself:
Luminous green fires.
Constellation of mayflies
locked in a spider’s web.

I realize now, the difficulties originally that frustrated me spun out from the want to protect the full scene as much as possible, shove the full moment of humidity, darkness, morning, lights, web, mayflies—I wanted to shove all of these into three terse lines. Through deletion and letting go of key elements—what I felt was needed in the verse to protect it from over-sentimental notions actually proved to me they were causing the almost didactic tone to emerge in the text.

Haiku are intended to be brief scenes: flashes of personal insight that may at first confuse a reader if he/she skims the material too quickly. With further, in-depth, reflection, the reader empathizes with the haiku’s epiphany moment, and discovers how much sentiment the poet invested in the piece.

28 comments:

  1. First Haiku is very confusing. The purpose of these short seventeen words, it is to help the reader to visualize the setting by himself or herself.

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    1. —and as well for the reader to meditate on the emotion, the sentiment expressed by the poet. Oftentimes these verses can be perplexing on purpose. Which at times becomes a cliche moment on to itself.

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  2. I think Haiku is a good concept to the readers. It allows the reader to imagine the setting of just a few words in their own way, making it more unique.

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    1. Yes, I agree. In English 1302 I aim next term to return to using the genre as a teaching tool as I have in the past.

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  3. Sentimentality in writing is a good concept. It helps readers connect to the emotions that the writer is trying to represent without using to many adjectives. Too much sentimentality is a bad thing but over all a good concept.

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    1. I suppose viewing it as a spectrum with varying levels of intensity helps explain it as well.

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  4. Sentimentality is a beneficial concept to writing because it helps the author establish the mood and tone of the setting quickly. Similarly haiku poems use minimal words while still embedding a feeling of nostalgia for the reader.

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    1. True. The important thing is to be careful of not over-stating the nostalgia. (That's my greatest fear.)

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  5. I believe neither sentimentality in writing is a good or bad concept, because there is some people who like sentimental things and some people who truly dislike them. However, based off of sentimentality should not determine whether the writing is good or bad. I honestly think that life would be pretty depressing without sentimentality, but being under the influence of too much sentimentality can cause one to become unreasonable.

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    1. The human mind seeks out emotional reaction all the time, you are correct. That is what causes empathy and builds strong relationships.

      Too much emotion creates a melodramatic soap opera situation.

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  6. Sentimentality can be good or bad. It all just depends. Too much sentimentality can make things feel fake, but too little causes anger due to flat out saying things instead of allowing the reader to think.

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    1. Yes! I hate obvious, overt, over-the-top poetry. In terms of essays, the problem exists as well.

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  7. I didn't quite understand what the first Haiku meant but I think that if you really want to get your point (the author) across then sentimentality is the definitely beneficial. I think that it is something that the reader determines if its a bad or good thing. Personally I really enjoy reading things that have a perspective on someone else.

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    1. The original haiku troubled me because of the whole "spiderweb-symbol-of-death" analogy that can easily be seen in the work.I want all of my work to stand out from the pack— to use a cliche. Good points.

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  8. Sentimentality, when used efficiently and genuinely, is good in writing. Sentimentality is especially good when writing personal narratives, or personal pieces that are supposed to relay emotions of the author.

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    2. Yes. In the example above, because I was writing a haiku, I fell into the fear I was generating a cliched statement. The genre is easily mocked because of the attitudes of sentiment used in the verse and the traditional reactions to events in nature. In English 1302 I used to spend a week exploring the whole Zen poetry movement within short verses from Japan.

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  10. I would say sentimentality can be both good and bad. Bad because the writer expects the reader to feel sorry for the character just because something happened to the character. It doesn't really help the reader define who the character really is. Sentimentality could also be good because no story could affect a reader without sentiment. Without sentiment, there would be no pathos.

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    1. Very valid observation. Character development in fiction needs an emphasis of heavy definition so the author proves his/her main point of the whole experience.

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  11. Being a fairly sentimental person, I do appreciate sentamentality in almost everything. Beauty, however, may be found in even the gray image of a moth fluttering, struggling to live. Death itself is not a beautiful image but nonetheless, it is a crucial part of life, which in itself is magnificent. ~RIX Woodworth

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    1. As a poet/writer I agree immediately with the use of sentiment-- and see it in everything. I think expressing an obvious emotion becomes an issue for me when the sentiment translates to cliche.

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  13. Sentimentality is a good concept to use in a paper because it can help the author understand the mood. The reader can connect with the author on a deeper level.

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    1. Right! Good point. Mood and personal writing are essential for justifying human existence. Persuasive writing needs heavy moods and sometimes heavy points.

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  14. A strong pathos can be a good idea in writing if the author wants the audience to connect to his/her feelings. Through a sentimental paper the authors can share his/her feelings to the reader. Pathos helps the reader to feel and understand the author's emotions.

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    1. Yes, when used properly it builds a bridge between text and reader. Sometimes over-sentiment becomes over-bearing.

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  15. After reading this I have had to go back and reread it. Usually I like sentimentality, it makes the writing a lot more personal, while adding a hint of nostalgia to it. But in this case it was all confusing. I won't say I dislike reading this just I had to go back to understand it all.

    Soumya Srivastava

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