Note: Angela L. Lindseth’s lovely poem, “Good Girl,” follows my own reflection on honest emotion in poetry, prompted by the poem. Liz
Thou Shalt Not Write Sentimental Poems about Thy Dog
One of the very first thou-shalt-nots I learned as a creative writing student in college was that the literati–our tacit, if not presumptive–audience would not look favorably on sentimental poems about one’s dog. (An even worse literary faux-pas would be to end a story by revealing that the point-of-view character was really a dog.)
In Western Wind: an introduction to poetry, John Frederick Nims makes the following distinction between sentiment and sentimentality in literature:
Healthy emotion is object-directed; sentimentality is subject-directed. . . . The sentimentalist is less concerned with the object of his emotion than with the fact that he himself is feeling it. He is also saying, in effect: “Look how tender I am! How sensitive to beauty! How capable of deep emotions! How rich in sympathy!”
. . . .
Writers of sentimental poetry like to play on our stock responses–those built-in automatic reactions we have to many things we think dear and familiar: childhood; barefoot boys; home, sweet home; the old porch swing; the old oaken bucket; old rocking chairs; dust-covered toys; motherhood; the fidelity of dogs.1
Which brings us to poems about one’s dog. As Nims explains the distinction between honest sentiment and false sentimentality, it is easy to understand: sentiment is object-directed (the dog herself), while sentimentality is subject-directed (how the poet feels about his dog).
But is the distinction really that clear when it comes down to actual cases? After all, the example Nims uses to illustrate sentimentality is quite exaggerated: The distracted mother narrating the poem has sent her lisping, golden-haired cherub skipping down the street with a postage stamp on his forehead to mail himself to his dead father when he is trampled by a pair of runaway of horses to lie lifeless but still beauteous in the street. (I provide a link to a full-text version of the poem in question for your edification or idle curiosity: “Papa’s Letter,” by Anonymous.)
I think if I were to parse the individual lines of the poem I’m sharing with you this week, Angela L. Lindseth’s “Good Girl,” using Nims’s object-directed versus subject-directed definitions of emotion in poetry, it would straddle the line between sentiment and sentimentality.
Yet for me, “Good Girl” succeeds in conveying the gut-wrenching experience of having to euthanize your dog to end her suffering. The emotion is honest and real, and I count “Good Girl” as a Poem Too Good Not to Share.
1John Frederick Nims, Western Wind: an introduction to poetry (New York: Random House, 1974), 128-129.
Good Girl by Angela Lindseth
Thirty years ago Angela played with the idea of a book while looking out from an abandoned fire tower in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Since that time, she has stumbled her way through life. She obtained her Geological Engineering degree, but ditched that for an electrician’s license. She’s worked a variety of jobs but never found the one that fit.
The skeleton of that story never left her. Today, she has a finished novel and a published collection of flash fiction called Sanity’s Threshold. Finding her calling has opened her imagination and a multitude of words have poured onto the page.
Her flash fiction ranges from dark and twisted, to sad and sappy. For more of her work visit her website and Facebook author page.