Her third eye is strawberry jam
has a little iris in it
and the milk
has gone down
the wrong way.
I’ve just had breakfast
with the smallest person in the world.
(Reprinted from The Collected Poems, Black Moss Press, 2004,
and Four Incarnations, Coffee House Press, 1991)
One critic dismissed the HANNAH poem above as “sentimental.” Sentimentality is said to be the exaggeration of feeling, feeling for its own sake. But what if you really feel it and feel it in the way the images and tone, etc., suggest you feel it?
There’s another kind of exaggeration: opting for easy irony, an irony that will impress people though you may or may not really feel what you’re setting down on the page. You’ll get more attention in a writers’ workshop with irony than you will with, dare I say it? honesty, saying what you’re really feeling.
Above all else in a writers’ workshop you want to be “cool.” The inner circle of most workshops is made up of people you can count on to be “cool.” Cooler than you, cooler than me, cooler than thou.
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop sentimentality was to be avoided at all costs. We were taught to be _anything_ but sentimental. Irony was OK because if you were ironic you couldn’t be held accountable for anything you might have been feeling. That is, no one could accuse you of being sentimental and, if they were to accuse you of being sentimental, you could always say, “No, no, I was just being ironic. Surely you’re not taking me seriously!”
If there’s irony, you can more easily defend yourself. Further, the use of irony implies there’s another level, maybe several levels, of meaning. We all want to write poems with more than one level of meaning.