Sentimentality is entirely in the eye of the beholder. People who keep their emotions under cover, like stiff English butlers in old movies, think that almost any expression of feelings reeks of sentimentality. They wrinkle up their noses.

The word sentimentality, so difficult to define, is the death ray in the literary critic’s arsenal of weapons. . . . The only way to be completely safe from the charge [of sentimentality] is to write with so much restraint that emotion is virtually excluded. And that of course leads to poetry [or other writing] that has no feeling, which has no “human heat,” as my friend Jim Harrison says. The absence of emotion is not what we readers go to books of poetry [or fiction] for. We want some of that human heat.

. . . I once wrote to the late Richard Hugo, who from time to time had been accused of sentimentality. I told him of once having seen a silent film in which Charlie Chaplin played a night janitor in a department store. There was a mezzanine above the main floor, with no safety rail. The dark store lay far below. To impress the young woman who was watching him, Chaplin roller-skated right on the edge of this chasm, flying along on one foot or the other, back and forth, smiling and waving, altogether oblivious of the danger of plunging over the edge. The entire movie audience held its breath with every pass.

I told Hugo his best poems managed to skate along the edge of sentimentality without careening off the edge.

Ted Kooser
U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004–2006
author of many books of poetry
and The Poetry Home Repair Manual

The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Nebraska-based poet Ted Kooser is a detailed guide to writing at the level of poetry, with a focus on imagery, sounds, details, and  other aspects of writing well – useful advice for all writers.