Monday, August 04, 2014

`Sentimental Writers Can Be Very Cruel'

I’ll leave out the poet’s name and the volume’s title, not from timidity or kindness but because I’d rather not publicize her work and risk inflicting it on others. A publicist sent me, unsolicited, her slender new collection of prose chopped into slender columns of unrhymed words that resemble a cartoon fish just eaten by a cartoon cat, all stripped of flesh. No sustenance here but much sincerity. I’ll resist precise quotation so intrepid readers won’t squander time looking for her. The book is trophied with three blurbs, two of them by names I recognize. The poet, too, I’ve heard of but until now had successfully avoided. Her language is anemic and seemingly arbitrary, and is instantly unmemorable. You read a couple of lines and retain nothing but a slight discomfort, like gas.

Even more irritating is that every poem seeks the reader’s admiration. Each sentiment is pre-fabricated, as though already approved by a focus group. The tone is sentimentality unsuccessfully masked by glib irony. We feel sorry for the trees that gave their lives for this book. In Stevie Smith: A Biography (1988), Frances Spalding quotes an otherwise unidentified review Smith published in the Observer in 1954: 

“Writers whose hearts are better than their heads often produce sentimental books whose ultimate effect, perhaps paradoxically, is one of heartlessness…Sentimental writers can be very cruel.” 

Ms. Anonymous is cruel because she honors neither truth (which is infinitely more peculiar than she wishes to acknowledge) nor her readers.  If you write exclusively to please your little coterie of readers – if you ever contemplate saying something you know in advance will make ’em happy -- you patronize and insult them. Trust them enough to let them sort it out. Smith begins “Do Take Muriel Out”: 

“Do take Muriel out
She is looking so glum
Do take Muriel out
All her friends have gone” 

So far, we have an implied narrative (why is Muriel glum?) written like a nursery rhyme. Of course, if we know Smith’s work, this is no surprise and we’re confident she has something else in mind: 

“And after too much pressure
Looking for them in the Palace
She goes home to too much leisure
And this is what her life is.” 

“All her friends are gone
And she is alone
And she looks for them where they have never been
And her peace is flown. 

“Her friends went into the forest
And across the river
And the desert took their footprints
And they went with a believer.” 

What’s this? Didn’t we have yet another aggrieved woman and her unfulfilled life on our hands? Hardly: 

“Ah they are gone they were so beautiful
And she can not come to them
And she kneels in her room at night
Crying, Amen. 

Do take Muriel out
Although your name is Death
She will not complain
When you dance her over the blasted heath.”
Smith is the poet Philip Larkin dubbed “the authority of sadness.”

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

I have no idea who you mean, but this came to mind: "A great many people now reading and writing would be better employed keeping rabbits." -Edith Sitwell