When I'm feeling generous, I believe sentimentality is rooted to basic and forthright feeling. I know there is a broad category rooted to emotional laziness of the sort Oscar Wilde describes in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas: 'The fact is that you were and are a typical sentimentalist. For a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.'
In the house of sentimentality, there is a room where the shades of Happiness (euphoria, joy, contentment, for example) blur and a room where the myriad shades of Sadness (grief, depression, melancholy, etc.) blur. There is a room for Anger, maybe for Nostalgia. I'm not proposing the house and its rooms be demolished. I am in the corridor of uncertainty between those rooms. I admit a bit of envy for anyone sure enough of how he or she feels to enter the appropriate room and be comforted. I admit a bit of suspicion toward anyone who is sure of how he or she feels about anything.
The poem ["Heroic Simile"] concludes, simply, “There are limits to imagination.” “Heroic Simile” is, then, a poem of imaginative empathy intended to show that however much we may understand the world outside ourselves, we must always return, as Hass puts it, to “separate fidelities.” It’s not a consoling thought, perhaps, but it’s a true one.
Hass’s later work, though, has been reluctant to embrace this kind of truth. Sometimes empathy bleeds over into self-regard (“What is to be done with our species?”); other times it congeals into a buttery sentimentality (“I want to end this poem singing”). Both outcomes are, of course, the result of wanting boundaries to blur, rather than recognizing them as necessary restrictions. “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which directly follows “Heroic Simile” and is Hass’s most famous poem, begins in the same dry mode as its predecessor: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” But the poem ends in an altogether damper place.
Monson posits and furnishes a “post-postmodern world” that is “starting to secede away from memoir, from the illusion of representation. . . . Let’s make rules so we can follow them and then so we can break through them. By breaking through them we may start to feel alive again.” For Monson and for us, that’s the crux: he’s trying to make himself, make us, feel something, feel anything, do whatever he can to vanquish the numbness that is a result of enforcing “order, decorum,” ceremony, formula, expectation, genre-prison.