Can We Use the Distance Between Sentiment and True Feeling? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 16, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I went to the Whitney after such a long time and in “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019” (https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=1) I re-discovered Mike Kelley’s “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” from 1987 https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=12.

I’m fond of this piece, and I like many other Mike Kelley works too. Sadly, he committed suicide in January of 2012. I read on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Kelley_(artist)) that mourners spontaneously recreated “More Love Hours” as a memorial.

More Love Hours, with its stitched-together stuffed animals, uses overtly “sentimental” materials. It’s transgressive (or was, or still is, or is even more?) in that it “ high arts” yarn and sewing and platitudes.  As a blanket-sized wall hanging, it references quilting & seems humble and sincere.  Its title which contains the phrase “Love Hours” (the time people spent creating giveaway toys) has a clumsy earnestness. It functions as a “message” whose literal meaning is easily parsed. 

I don’t know why it works for me: I was taught that sentiment is the enemy of true feeling. Sentiment “manipulates” and numbs, and is often used for political ends yet I react with feeling from More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid:  I empathize with the artist’s tenderness and the restorative labor in his collecting, composition, and construction of More Love Hours, a reflection of each person that produced each hand-made figure; I hear in the title, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, Kelley’s own acknowledgement that “curating” and “assembling” this famous piece, while labor-intensive, took a fraction of the cumulative effort in the construction of every crocheted, sewn, knitted, glued, cut-out, sequined etc figure in the amalgam.

More Love Hours is hanging in a carefully controlled mainstream culture industry environment, a very expensive piece of real estate, and engagement with it is highly proscribed. I can’t take it off the wall and roll around the floor with it. I can’t even really get close enough to smell it.

And yet, I still love it and want to cry thinking about it. I don’t know whether its remoteness (amplified by Kelley’s death)  conjures such closeness? 

Carl Phillips talks about the balance of pain and decorum in great poems. 

Can one use sentimentality as the decorous side of that equation? 

Do you write sentimental poems?

We have seen many successful workshop poems with sentimentality in the balance… and many unsuccessful ones (including mine!) As the Coffee Talk ladies had it, Discuss: “poetic” guardrails against counterfeit feeling don’t work anymore. Sentiment is no longer sentimental. Sentiment is useful in fact in creating the ironic distance required by decorum.  I love some poems like I love More Love Hours- how do those poems work, those tear jerkers?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture