Reach the Rafters: On Literary Sentiment

May 14, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 5 8 min read


coverAn essay made me cry on May 8, 2007. I sat in a public library in Bedminster, New Jersey, waiting to pick up my wife from work. I’d spent the past hour running full-court with some college players, but traded hoops for a long table at the library and the 2006 edition of The Pushcart Prize, opened to page 67. “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. My tears came during the final section of the essay, and were absolutely unexpected. I hid them from the man who worked on a laptop at my right, and the woman who tutored a young boy on my left. I shifted my unlaced hightops and tugged at the gym shorts that dipped below my knees. I was a 26-year-old man, and literature was not supposed to make me cry.

My grandfather’s crucifix hangs above the door in the room where I write. He built my parents a dry sink on a table-saw powered by a belt-driven motor that would jump like a startled heart. It now rests in our living room. My grandfather died when I was 18 months old, but I carry him with me. I am his skin, his blood, his son’s son. During the short time we shared life, he added a room to my parents’ home. I would stand amongst sawdust and fallen wood on the driveway, and watched him work. My mother had to carry me back into the house because I would stay with him forever. “He’s quite the boy,” he would say about me, and I now hear my father’s cadence in those words.

My grandfather built houses in Lake Mohawk, New Jersey, and when he came home he built his own house while his family lived in the few finished rooms. His real work was always done at night, when restaurants closed or businesses locked their doors, his hard hands in the half-dark, making a world for the people in the light. My father still uses my grandfather’s tools: cross-cut saw, rip saw, chisel, awl. The metal has never dulled.

I have only seen my father cry once. His palms were on the dining room table, and he was talking about cleaning out my grandfather’s apartment after he passed. My father, the physically strongest man I know, otherwise holds in his tears. He has never made any of his children cry.

Why do men hold back their tears? Why do writers hold back their feelings?

coverI have never been a cold person, but for most of my writing and reading life, I have avoided emotion on the page. One possible origin is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. In his “Common Errors” chapter, Gardner identifies sentimentality in fiction as not a fault of “technique,” but a fault of “soul.” He differentiates between sentiment in fiction, which is authentic, earned emotion or feeling, and sentimentality, which is emotion or feeling that “rings false, usually because [it is] achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration.” I misread Gardner a bit. I should have recognized that he is clear that “without sentiment, fiction is worthless.” I chose to focus on his critique of sentimentality, which felt more like a mortal than venial sin.

Gardner is more useful as a teacher of craft than a critic, but it is useful to recognize the context for this discussion. Gardner participated in a series of public debates with writer and philosopher William H. Gass during the late 1970s. The most thorough debate occurred on October 24, 1978 during the Fiction Festival at the University of Cincinnati. Thomas LeClair said the event’s organizers “wanted some sparks,” and John Barth and John Hawkes, another possible pair, were “mutually admiring.” Gass explained in a 2003 e-mail that he and Gardner engaged in similar “long lubricated arguments around kitchen tables” at Gardner’s Carbondale, Illinois farm, and elsewhere. They “enjoyed” their differences, with neither feeling “insecure or threatened.” Gardner was “confident about moral values,” while Gass “was sure of my esthetic ones. He wrote, he said, to uplift mankind. All I want to do is kick it in the ass.”

Gass mainly disagreed with Gardner’s idealistic conception of the “vivid” and “continuous” fictional dream, an idea better suited to a book of craft than scholarship. I suspect that was why Gass was willing to have those long, lubricated arguments; Gardner’s passion for fiction is clear, even infectious. But Gass could recognize that there was a time for theory, and a time for art.

Gardner did make salient points about sentimentality. He decrees, “In great fiction we are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer’s presentation of what happens.” As he so often does, Gardner follows with a concluding note of moderation: “On one hand, don’t overdo the denouement, so ferociously pushing meaning that the reader is distracted from the fictional dream, giving the narrative a too conscious, contrived, or ‘workshop’ effect; and don’t, on the other hand, write so subtly or timidly — from fear of sentimentality or obviousness — that no one, not even the angels aflutter in the rafters, can hear the resonance.”

Following Gardner’s lead, I have equated sentimentality with melancholic hyperbole more than its other permutations, including literary representations of sex. Here at The Millions, Julia Fierro investigated that perceived sin in “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer.” Fierro recalls how creative writing workshops “converted” her to believing that “subtlety trumped all, even emotion.” In both implicit and explicit ways, Fierro connects criticism of sentimentality to criticism of her work as a woman.

The connection between charges of sentimentality and criticisms of writing by women, particularly about childbirth and motherhood, are examined wonderfully in an essay by poet Sarah Vap. “Poetry, Belligerence, and Shame” appeared in a symposium (pdf) on poetry within an issue of Pleiades. The essays were curated by Joy Katz, who co-chaired a panel on sentiment during the 2010 AWP Conference. In her introduction, Katz quips that modernism “cooled the heart of poetry; confessionalism warmed it up; and post-structuralism threw a bucket of ice water on it.”

I like Vap’s conception of sentimental poetry as work that tries to “manipulate” the reader to “feel some particular way.” While she dislikes pure sentimentality, she does not think sentimental poems are “actually dangerous” in the way some are repulsed by poetic stretching for the heart. Rather, Vap thinks the reach toward sentiment creates the best type of poetry, and that risk should be rewarded rather than dulled into silence. She hates the “monitoring” and “naming” of sentimentality in poetry, and the “connection between this censorship and the belittling of certain life experiences and wisdoms, the diminishing of whole cultures or their ways of experiencing the world, the degrading or silencing or quieting or diminishing of whole subject matter or voices or ways in poetry by associating them with the term ‘sentimentality.’”

Vap is correct. Perhaps the great sin of sentimentality is the “dulling, this pulling of everything toward a center,” a center far from the heart. Vap uses the example of how Catholicism formed her literary imagination; “all my instinct for prayer or joy or connection was channeled through highly ritualistic Catholicism.” Yet, if she uses such language in poetry, she risks being labeled sentimental. And, as a woman, if she writes about pregnancy or her children, she risks the same fate. Sentimentality might be a literary sin, but it has also become a way to name and neuter subjects.

A few works have made me feel long after their final word: “Crossing” by Mark Slouka, “Black Elvis” by Geoffrey Becker, “The Disappeared” (pdf) by Blake Butler, the essays of Andre Dubus, and Dana Gioia’s devastating elegy for his son, “Planting a Sequoia.”

coverGioia’s poem is a perfect example of Vap’s lament that ritual is often unfairly labeled as sentimental. Gioia is a meticulous craftsman of lines, and here trades his typical wit for solemnity. The poem appears in The Gods of Winter, which is dedicated to the memory of his son, Michael Jasper Gioia. The second stanza begins with an explanation of the scene: “In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth.” Gioia, half-Sicilian, would trust that the ritual was truly “a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.” Yet his son passed at four months old, so “today we kneel in the cold planting” the sequoia as a funereal act. Gioia wraps a lock of his son’s hair and a piece of his birth cord in the roots of the tree. The tree is planted, and the poem ends:

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

The poem wounds me in the same way as “Joyas Voladoras.” I read Doyle’s essay to my students each year, and though I prepare myself for the recitation, I am scarred anew. Doyle begins his essay with a sentence that is part request, part offering: “Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.” Is that not one of the main goals of literature, to decenter us, to make us pause? We learn that a hummingbird heart is the size of a pencil eraser. Hummingbirds can dive at sixty miles an hour, they can fly backwards, and they can travel over five hundred miles without rest. Hummingbirds need motion, because “when they rest they come close to death.” If “they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be.”

I have read enough of Doyle to recognize his Joycean movements: he is by turns hilarious and encyclopedic, one of the most genuine writers on the page I have ever encountered. He evades sentimentality in this essay because he is in control of his emotions and his narrative. He hammers forward; he does not blink. The hearts of hummingbirds are “stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight.” The fast life brings them close to death. They “suffer heart attacks and aneurysm and ruptures more than any other living creature.” They exhaust their nearly two billion heartbeats in two years.

Doyle moves from hummingbirds to blue whales, who “generally travel in pairs,” because who or what can bear to be alone in this world? He goes on to mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, mollusks, and worms, because we all have hearts, and “We all churn inside.”

When I reach the final section of Doyle’s essay now, I am primed. The tears have been rehearsed. But I can still remember that one hot afternoon in 2007, when I was only married for a year and had no children. I wrote Doyle afterward, and he said he cried while finishing the essay, for his son Liam was born missing a chamber in his heart. Doyle often writes of Liam. He often writes about hearts and people born not whole but holy.

That afternoon I was fully torn by these sentences:

You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

There are times when it is athletic and beautiful and right to make marks on the page to show what language is capable of, to reveal the flexibility of thought. And there are other times when, our hearts “tight and hard and cold,” a poem, a line, a word can shatter us. Should shatter us.

Tired from teaching, frustrated from traffic, I stand in front of my daughter Amelia’s crib and close my palm around her shoulder while she tries to sleep. My wife is feet away from me, doing the same to Olivia, Amelia’s twin. Amelia shudders and breathes, and her small hand closes around my finger. I cry. I do so in the dark, and I do so even if I am unsatisfied with the rest of the day or not looking forward to the next morning. I cry because it is fine to open my heart. If sentimentality is a sin, it is only because feeling can be so beautiful. One moment of sentiment in literature is worth a thousand failures. We often cannot see the rafters in the dark, but what a shame it would be to never reach for them.

Image via Jez Elliot/Flickr

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at