Sincerity & Sentimentality

There is a discussion going on at Poetryetc regarding the role of sincerity in poetry, which some have equated with the use of the "lyric I."  God knows there are abuses of sincerity scattered over the poetic landscape like junked cars photographed exquisitely in black & white, but the rejection of sincerity is a stance, not a principle of composition. What's more, a little cross-cultural comparison reveals that it is a stance that represents only a narrow slice of what is out there. Milosz is sincere; most contemporary Vietnamese poetry (to take an example I am familiar with) is sincere, if by sincere you mean a direct statement of the poet's thoughts & feelings. Without sincerity, poetry becomes mere literary hijinks. Sincerity can easily slide over into sentimentality, which is always a fault in art. Once in Hanoi I was riding in a taxi with a friend when the driver turned up the volume on a song that had just come on the radio. My friend asked,"What do you think of the song? It's very popular right now." My Vietnamese was limited, but after listening for a moment, I replied, "It sounds very sentimental." "Yes," she said. "Sentimental. That's why we'll never be a powerful country." [Slightly edited for clarity.]

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

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