Traditional Publishing

Sentimentality in Poetry: Emotional Imbalance and How to Avoid it

By Maria Foster
Poet and Writer – Saturday April 18, 2020

Nothing is going to turn readers off your writing quicker than that sickly, disingenuous whiff of sentimentality that emanates from aggressively emotional wording. That cliched, pandering thing that so many writers fall into the trap of.

All of my mean adjectives aside, it’s usually not something that happens deliberately. It’s not like people are just padding out their writing with sentimentality, knowing that it sounds awful but doing it anyway just because they want to.

What’s going on is probably more of a misguided attempt at something that is actually sincere. When we’re writing something creative and artistic, it’s almost always going to be an expression of emotion.

We have something that we want to convey. Something that moves us, something that bothers us or something that blows our mind and we want to share that with people through the magic of language.

So what most people end up doing is just writing down their emotions. Ultimately, that’s the easiest way to do it. You have a thought, you want to express it, so just go ahead and express it. 

But what we get then is a very clear attempt to draw emotion from the reader. It happens across all forms of literature but it’s probably at its most apparent in poetry, where you are not bound by an obligation to have a plot and characters.

When you’ve got characters you can just have them act in a certain way that someone feeling the emotions you want the reader to feel will act and the reader’s capacity for empathy will lead them to the sentiment you’re going for.

Not to say that that’s easy, but in a way it’s easier. The sentiment is important, if a poem has no sentiment, if it evokes no emotion then it’s kind of worthless. It’s just a random assortment of words which ultimately achieves nothing. 

But sentiment and sentimentality are different things. There’s an emotional imbalance between the two that you need to find and the question that’s been plaguing amateur writers (and some professionals too) for years is how on earth do you do this?

Be careful with your wording. You have to use words obviously, otherwise it’s not a poem, but you have to think carefully about how you say what you want to say and avoid certain words and certain turns of phrase.

It’s good practice to limit the amount of adjectives you use and especially limit redundant adjectives. If you describe something as being ‘sad’, don’t also use the word ‘devastating’ to describe the same thing.

That’s redundant and obviously an unsubtle attempt to enhance the emotion you’re trying to convey. Also don’t describe things using the word ‘sad’. Or at least don’t do it much, it’s too on-the-nose.

Instead of all these distinct adjectives, think of an image which could entice a feeling. Paint the reader a picture that will form in their minds and make them feel. In the real world, we don’t get sad because someone tells us to be sad.

We get sad when we witness sadness itself. Make the reader witness your emotions. Invite them inside and show them around, hang your sadness on the walls and dangle in front of their eyes. 

You do this and your reader won’t get the impression that they’re being told how to feel, they will just feel because that’s what humans do. Use metaphors too but don’t overdo it. Come up with a few good ones.

If every line is a metaphor then you’re going to come across as a writer who has just learned what a metaphor is but doesn’t entirely understand the purpose of it yet. Space them out and make them count.

You should think about your poem as an experience. Don’t think about how it makes you feel, just write it and let yourself feel it. What is the experience? Is it something painful like death or a failed relationship?

Is it something terrifying and hopeless like war or serious illness? Maybe it’s something infuriating, like a political scandal or an atrocity committed by a person who’s in a position of power. 

Or maybe it’s less painful. Maybe it’s a walk in the woods on a summer day, or a wedding, or the birth of a child. Well actually that last one is pretty painful too but it’s not the same kind of pain, it’s a worthwhile pain.

Write about these things but don’t tell us how they made you feel. We’ll feel it with you if you have effectively illustrated the moment. A truly great poem is an experience, not a description. If you can learn that lesson then you’re well on your way.

One more piece of advice. Don’t ever use any word as many times in a single poem as I’ve used the word ‘feel’ in this article. That will be the last time though I promise. 

Hopefully I’ve pointed you in the right direction a little bit here, but above all else the best way to master this skill is the same way you master any skill. With tons and tons of practice. And you’ve also got to read a lot of other poems.

See how the masters are doing it. Poetry has been around for centuries and you can learn so much from the classic. But at the same time don’t limit yourself to that. Read contemporary poems too.

Seek out the stuff that’s getting recognized at the moment for its ingenuity and power. It’s a reminder of the fact that there are still new voices and new things to say. And also will help you get a sense of what sort of thing is catching people’s attention these days.

Writing poetry is fun and it’s a great way to express your thoughts and get them out of your head so they stop bothering you. And you can write some seriously great stuff if you shed your compulsion to be sentimental.

About the Author

A poet, a writer, and a full-time RVer. Loves fishing with her four-legged friend. She grew up in Alberta with her parents and decided to start RVing through Europe 2 years ago. Maria dreams of moving to India and wants to spend at least a few years there :)