Knowing Better: On Sentimentality and Criticism

After my Martin Luther King day missive over on popcorn, I received some nice comments about the timeliness of the post and reports that others had also loved Richard Blanco’s poem. But on Facebook, a poet friend of mine was bashing it. Specifically, he said:

I-N-S-U-F-F-E-R-A-B-L-E. Somebody please point me to a contemporary poem that a) is competent; b) tells competency to f*** itself and transcends to something sublime; c) has a real poetic “voice” behind it, even if that voice is not that of the poet’s; d) does not elude, evade, or avoid; e) tells the f***ing truth– about something, anything beyond the speaker’s narrow view of the universe, i.e. ‘my f***ing father died and here I am comparing his death, vis-a-vis my grief, to this violet (though ‘violet’ is ALWAYS better than ‘flower’)’; and g) makes readers–and not just fellow poets, especially Ivory-Tower poets–CARE. I f***ing dare you.

I should say right off that I adore this friend, and admire his strong positions, and plan to share this blog post with him, but nonetheless, there it was. On Facebook. Where others piled on and piled on and piled on.

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from

And it got me thinking.

I didn’t, actually, “love” Blanco’s poem, and I’ll admit that the only line that stays with me is the one I used as my blog title: thank the work of our hands. But I loved that the poem existed. I think beyond its efficacy as a piece of writing I felt the symbolism of its being a poem by a gay Cuban man in America on the inauguration day of an African-American President on what also happened to be Martin Luther King day–wow. King would have been proud. That the identity of the poet was politic is undeniable; and maybe, as a writer, I’m not supposed to accept politic. I’m supposed to demand excellence. But man, I know as well as the next poet how difficult it is to write “occasional” poetry; I wrote a wedding poem for my own wedding and can’t remember any of its lines, either. (I wrote one for a friend’s wedding, however, that was pretty great–only then he got divorced.) So I guess, on MLK Day, politic and symbolism and the fact that millions of Americans actually read a poem that day was plenty for me.

But nonetheless I’ve been thinking about this since: have I gone soft in my old age? I once, writing a book review for the Willamette Week, absolutely bashed a book. I think I said something to the effect of, “as a graduate of Iowa, Ms. X should frankly know better.” I felt powerful when I wrote it, like I knew something she didn’t, like I was a “real” critic. But now when I think of how I committed that snarky comment to paper I absolutely cringe. A large part of this is that someone once wrote a caustic review of a poem I’d written. And it made me feel terrible. And I realized that it is very easy to sit in a corner and sling arrows rather than support the work of other writers even if you don’t care for what they’re doing. The more I’m in this game the more generous I become, I guess because generosity is the only thing that’s liable to get any of us read, published, and admired.

But I also realize–and this is the part that scares me just a bit–that I have become more sentimental in the past few years. I find myself disregarding writing not because the writer should have known better but because I can’t find the heart in a piece. Some of the arguably most impressive books of the last decade–like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and even Infinite Jest (okay, that was 1996) were books that to me were technically impressive but not entirely likeable, because I didn’t connect with the characters enough to care. I seem lately to value above all else writing that shares the common human experiences of love, loss, and sadness. Not very intellectually interesting of me, I suppose.

So have I become a big sap? Was my friend right that Blanco’s poem was insufferable, unchallenging, limited, and lame? Have I become so sentimental that I can’t discern good writing from plonk? I hope not. But I don’t think I want to sling arrows.

Not just yet, anyway.