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Ruefle, Redux (Part Three)

In her lecture “On Sentimentality” (collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey), Mary Ruefle provides the full text of Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque” and then offers Crane’s own explication of the poem’s final lines (“but we have seen / The moon in lonely alleys make / A grail of laughter of an empty ash can, / And through all sound of gaiety and quest / Have heard a kitten in the wilderness”). “Poetry, the human feeling, the ‘kitten,’” wrote Crane, “is so crowded out of the humdrum, rushing, mechanical scramble of today that the man who would preserve them must duck and camouflage for dear life to keep himself from annihilation.” Crane wrote those words nearly a century ago; they ring ever more true. I’m typing these sentences in a café in a strip mall two days before Christmas. I’m surrounded on all sides by the rushing mechanical scramble.

But I’ve promised (twice) to write about Ruefle and sentimentality. And rereading her lecture protects me, in some small way, from the bad food and plastic toys and stop-and-go traffic. Ruefle dares the poets among us to embrace sentimentality, but to pair it with something else: thinking. “If your teachers suggest that your poems are sentimental,” she writes, “that is only the half of it. Your poems probably need to be even more sentimental. Don’t be less of a flower, but could you be more of a stone at the same time?”

So it’s that simple! Be a flower and a stone! And it’s that difficult. To return to Crane’s figure: Don’t fear the kitten. (Ruefle describes a kitten as “something that has acquired a Ph.D. in cuteness.”) Several months ago, in the New York Times Book Review, Zoë Heller and Leslie Jamison reflected on a line from Roland Barthes: “It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.” Jamison ended her column with a superb flourish:

But many sentimental narratives have been deeply moving to many people, and it’s worth thinking about the things that make them compelling: their emotional intensity, their sense of stakes and values and feeling and friction, their investment in primal truths and predicaments—yes, common; yes, shared. Sentimentality is simply emotion shying away from its own full implications. Behind every sentimental narrative there’s the possibility of another one—more richly realized, more faithful to the fine grain and contradictions of human experience.

The ending of A Tale of Two Cities is surely sentimental, but I remember it word for word, and I haven’t picked up the novel in thirty-two years. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Sometimes the direct statement is what’s needed (especially when annihilation is nigh). Among the other possibly sentimental things I learned from Dickens: You can give your protagonist your own initials! Thus, Charles Darnay. And thus, in my high school stories, Caps Watson (who became, at the end of my first book of poems, Caleb Whitman, and who wrote to his grandfather Walt in the most direct terms possible: “I’ve never properly told you / what a great poet I think you are”).

I have a short (three-line) poem that ends with a question: “And would anyone mind if I stomped this kitten to death?” (I can’t quote the whole poem, because it’s the only thing I’ve written in ages that I kind of like—and I have this delusion that The New Yorker and The Atlantic will soon be bidding for the publishing rights.) Anyway, I was about to read the poem in Ann Arbor a couple of months ago, but I chickened out; there were too many gentle-faced people in the audience. A week later, I did read the poem in Detroit, but I prefaced it by saying, “This poem is really, umm, mean.”

So that’s me: Trying to say the direct thing, directly. And trying to stomp out the sentimental (for a laugh). And now I need to leave this café and meet up with my four-year-old daughter. If I’m lucky, she’ll want to watch “The Grinch.” (Her favorite song, of late: “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”) I’ll cry at the end. I always cry at the end.