Is Sweet Poetry Bad Poetry?

Recently a friend told a brief story which was meant to illustrate the point that we often interpret others through a screen of our own tendencies. My friend was driving someone and became irritated when a badly parked truck blocked his access. He expressed irritation with the driver of the truck, then heard his passenger explaining to his girlfriend, on the phone, that my friend was “really, really mad at this truck driver.” My friend explained that he was merely a bit annoyed  – but he’s sure that if his passenger had expressed himself in the same way, his passenger would probably have been quite angry.

While it’s not profound, it’s true, I think. Perhaps it’s especially true for less reflective types of people.

I’ve heard poetry criticized as “too sweet,” and it generally startles me. When I read a poetic effort that’s all syrup and no pancake, I like to criticize it for the no pancake part.

What is it about my contemporaries that makes them so suspicious of anything sweet? Why do they class as “sweet” so many sentiments that to me seem subtly variegated? I mean feelings or sentiments that I could describe as gentle, hopeful, generous, contemplative, wondering, thrilled, content, intimate, comfortable, faithful  – even mournful, wistful, and resigned – just a few that spring quickly to mind.

Here’s a poem I loved as a teenager – memorized it, recited it to myself over and over – that now falls a little flat for me.

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
   Rose plot,
   Fringed pool,
Ferned grot–
   The veriest school
   Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not–
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
   Nay, but I have a sign;
 ‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.
                              -Thomas Edward Brown
The reason I loved this poem as a teenager is simply that it aligned itself exactly with my own sentiments. A garden, the meeting place of nature and art, was also the meeting place of God and man. I felt that – I felt the sweetness, not as something cloying but as something which I had the full faculty to enjoy without being overpowered. Things that cloy are actually things that overpower our senses. Our senses are lacking – the sweetness has the right to be what it is.
Now, long separated from nature, bundled and bound in the weariness of suburban life, I begin to feel that it’s almost an effort to renew this sentiment. The poem needs to be paired with images of a garden, almost, before I remember what I once knew.
And I know from conversations with people who grew up in the city that they often have no faculty at all – never did – to perceive and enjoy the fresh, fair lessons of nature. Their hearts have never leapt at the inaudible sound of footfalls in a garden in the cool of the day.
To them, any word I speak about nature will inevitably be pretentious and cloying. They don’t grasp the significance of a natural setting – they want it to either become a formal symbol, or stay out of poems.
Is nature indeed such an unnatural thing?
Or are generations of people growing up nature-deprived, and do they subsequently walk about shouting “Liar!” at everyone who has an even remotely-developed sense of natural reality?
Does “too sweet” mean, “I’ve never experienced this and I’m incapable of experiencing it and therefore I think you’re just mimicking older poets who of course were pretentious because this can’t be?”
Well, obviously I think so –  at least, to some extent.
Fairly early in life I began to feel that I was gasping, living on something like two-thirds of the goodness, the sweetness, the liveliness that my nature demanded and craved, for which my nature was created. I think other people also live like this, and worse, and I think many of them are educated out of knowing it and that they learn to live on anger and contempt in compensation for the vigor which humanity demands of itself. Sometimes they find religious reasons to resign themselves to soulish starvation – “Jesus can be found in the city as well as in the country,” someone told me, completely missing the point. Others rail against religion as something that has failed them and talk nonsense about new realities – again with that assumption that the original was “all in our minds” anyway. And I freely admit that religion is in an awful state – that persistent inquiry and discernment is required to find the serene, stalwart truth among the shrieks of a million mimic errors.

Revelation 8 7 The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.

The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— 11 the name of the star is Wormwood.[a] A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.

12 The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.

13 As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”

Freed of the literalist interpretations of the fundamentalists, this passage of scriptural poetry expresses exactly what we experience.

But I don’t want to indulge in a simple for/against argument with those who cry “too sweet”  – for they do express something, however inexactly, that needs to be expressed.

I believe that reality is good and that goodness is real – that the nature of the one is the nature of the other and that evil is excluded from both nature and being – perhaps for ‘being’ I should say ‘substance’, I’m not sure. When I write poetry, when I call on the depths of my imagination, I am seeking, not unreality, but reality – substance, existence, goodness. I want a poem I can sink my teeth into.

And I do make note that the fuller and deeper one’s experience of reality, the more one finds sweetness going hand-in-hand with the more robust virtues – the tree-like growth of faith, the granite face of justice, the fiery pillars of glory.

If the too-sweet protesters mean that these more robust virtues are lacking, I will admit that much. If by “too sweet” they mean “not enough evil” I do not concede.

Revelation 5:6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Our spiritual elders warn us that false sweetness and false glories lie in wait on the spiritual side – beware of any resurrection not preceded by crucifixion.
But on this side of the veil, there are still violets, innocent things all sweetness.
And why shouldn’t violets have their own poetry? I can’t see any reason at all, except that people have learned to despise violets because they would rather do without that which their nature craves than repent of the great deception which is darkening and rotting our world.
*All scriptural quotations from the New International Version, copied and pasted from

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