One of the earliest rejection letters I ever got for a poem said that part of the reason my work had been turned down was that it was slightly “too sentimental”. So I read through the piece again to see if I could find what sentimentality the editor was referring to, and I couldn’t find it. I assumed that it was because of my lack of experience and took his word for it–the work was too gushy, even if I didn’t really understand why.
After reviewing the poems several months later, I can see now what he meant about the work (and I’ve since taken it into revision), but the description ‘sentimental’ still sort of confuses me. I know that to be considered a sentimental writer in this day and age is mainly to become a pariah, but I don’t know that having a poem turn into a sentimental page of mush is the worst thing that a writer can do. This article, written a few years ago by Dean Blehert, seems to give my line of thought some credence. His main idea is that writers who are sentimental may not develop perfect pieces of writing every time around, but at least they’re taking risks. It’s easy to write sterile, detached pieces of poetry that your writer’s circle friends will approve of. But portraying a vulnerable, emotional experience is a journey in and of itself and if done properly, says a lot more about the writer than the detached stuff.
Of course, all writing needs work, and you should never force anyone to read a six-page, murderous diatribe about your ex if you haven’t done the legwork and revised it. Looking at my poem rejected on the basis of sentimentality showed me a lot of areas that are still game for improvement. But if all your poems start out that way, who cares? I say go with it.
What’s your experience with sentimental writing?