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 schoolOf peace; and yet the foolContends 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
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.
8 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, 9 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. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 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. 9 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.