Today there may be no word of criticism more demeaning than to have one’s poem labeled as “sentimental.” At first thought I know exactly what kind of poem might garner such a criticism—I can hear its greeting card lines of clichéd hopes or imagine its possible melodrama weighing on the syntax like a stone tied to the foot. But really this idea of sentimental is something akin to pornography—something recognized by intuition or response rather than formal definition. In fact, via a quick trip to the pages of Merriam Webster, one finds sentimental defined in the very terms we might use to describe the lyric mode: “marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism,” or “resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought.” I would debate Webster on this cold juxtaposition of feeling and thought, since they do tend to work in tandem in poetry, not as foils but as helpmates—thought and feeling make sense of each other and together bring about understanding, or at least a stab in the direction of understanding, since truths in poetry (not unlike philosophy) are nearly always provisional. Nonetheless, we might ascertain from Webster that a sentimental poem feels or wears its emotions on its sleeve, which isn’t often considered a negative characteristic in poetry.
Turning from Webster to a more strictly literary context, I delved into my very worn copy M. H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms. Here, professor Abrams wisely tells us that sentimentalism is “now a pejorative term applied to what is perceived to be an excess of emotion to an occasion, and especially to an overindulgence in the ‘tender’ emotions of pathos and sympathy.” The emphasis on “now” is my own, since he is correct to draw attention to the fact that our tolerance for emotionalism varies with the fashion and the age. So is the danger that “contemporary” poems feel too much but don’t reason enough—don’t think through feeling or feel through thinking? Or is it specifically the emotions that the poem dwells in—that some emotions—the harsher or harder than “the tender” emotions are more acceptable in poetry than others? And what would this look like?
And now, dear patient reader, I’ve finally arrived at what has inspired this preamble—The Dragonfly by Amelia Rosselli and translated by Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodward.
This new translation gathers together many of Rosselli’s best works from 1953–1981. Before I encountered this book, I was completely unfamiliar with the work of this poet who was the contemporary of Eugenio Montale, though Rosselli’s work has been far less available. What struck me most immediately was the absolute intensity of the emotion of the poems. They are saturated with feeling, but I would not initially call them tender (though they reveal their sympathy, empathy, and pathos over time) ,and I, as a result, began to probe what my own comfort with this level of “sentiment” meant.
Rosselli’s life was not tender. Her parents fled fascist Italy to France, but Rosselli’s father was murdered by operatives for Mussolini when Rosselli was seven years old. By accounts, she was devastated by his death, and this combined with the melancholia of her exile contribute to the tone of the poems, and we can assume that it formed the emotional undercurrent that led to her suicide in 1996.
Consequently, the landscape and architecture of her poems taken as a whole is bleak; it is one that bears the weight of an all too violent history. And her poems grapple with this violence; sometimes she turns toward myth as a way of contextualizing it; but mostly the poems sink into it as they try to make sense of it from within.
have a gun nor can you put a hole in your head
as if that were possible in this
great age of ours, when violence
hurts because it is benevolent and therefore
mocks with permission to laugh
such are the ways of death sizing you up (from Impromtu)
To master the emotions and the aggression, to weigh it perhaps, Rosselli’s syntax can be rushing and repetitive or energetic, but caught in a loop.
And her love
ruminates and can’t leave the house. And her
light vibrates between the walls, with the light,
with the specters, with love that never leaves the
house. With only the specter of love, with love’s
reflection, with disenchantment,
enchantment, and frenzy. (from The Dragonfly (Panegyric to Liberty))
And there are moments of quiet sadness and desperation. There is no reasoning here—it truly is feeling.
In the intent of your line there was my sleepless line.
In the intent of my soul there was discouragement,
Fear and docility. I was selling myself for a pair of shoes. (from Martial Variations)
I think Rosselli is sentimental, but in the very best way—she does not stop herself or her poems from feeling, no matter how dark the world they encounter out there, no matter how tempting it is to look away.