10 Tips to Help Avoid Sentimentality in Poetry

“Sentimentality is the only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way.”

~ W. Somerset Maughamchauncey boy

In writing, sentimentality is self-indulgent. It is the expression of emotion for its own sake. Sentimental poems are “tear jerkers” that aim at stimulating reader’s emotions directly, rather than communicating the poet’s experience in an open and original manner. Because sentimentality tends to oversimplify it is unfaithful to the complexity of human experience, and therefore has no place in poetry.

Good poetry evokes emotion. It surprises readers and helps them to experience something in a powerful new way. As poets, when we crowd our work with our own feelings we leave little room for reader discovery.

Try the Following:

  1. Use strong nouns and energetic verbs. Specific and robust word choices will draw your reader into the poem.
  2. Eschew adverbs. Adverbs are modifiers that rob your verbs of their power. If you feel the need to add an adverb, try re-examining your verb choice.
  3. Limit adjectives. Adjectives modify nouns. Although adjectives definitely have their place in poetry, review your nouns for appropriate strength and specificity.
  4. Look for metaphoric opportunities. The old adage applies here—show don’t tell. Metaphors create images in the mind of your reader. When done well, they add power and life to your poetry.
  5. Use fresh and unexpected language. Don’t settle for repeating someone else’s words. You want to convey your own unique experience. Find an innovative way to let readers into your world.
  6. Vary your poem’s rhythm. It’s okay, even desirable, to throw your reader a curve ball occasionally. Varying your syntax and/or choosing unexpected line breaks are an excellent way to grab your reader’s attention.
  7. Avoid end rhymes and opt for internal rhyming mechanisms such as assonance, consonance, and alliteration.
  8. If the subject is near and dear to your heart, try writing from a different persona or in the third person.
  9. Make sure that your poem relates an experience, not your feelings about an experience.
  10. Read your poem aloud. Often the ear will pick up what your eye has missed.

We all have something special to communicate to the world. Ensuring that our writing doesn’t get muddied with sentimentality will allow our message to be heard.

Happy Writing!

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