Joyce Hart

Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in literature and creative writing. In this essay, she examines Ruefle’s poem to discover the underlying tone, dissecting the phrases to find the hidden emotions that are reflected in the images.

Ruefle’s poem “Sentimental Education” is filled with a variety of emotions, from empathy to despair. Unlike the suggestion in the title, these emotions are not overly romanticized as the word “sentimental” suggests but rather are often understated. The success of this poem, which at first appears to be a random collection of childlike observations, is that the feelings are expressed almost as if the narrator is not even aware that she is exposing them. By using concrete nouns, such as the first and last names for the subjects of the narrator’s observations, readers are led to believe that the poem makes literal sense and is only what it appears to be on the surface. However, by looking closer and examining what might be behind the narrator’s choice of words and selection of images, the reader gains insight into the emotional content of this poem.

[CALLOUT]
The young girl is completely overwhelmed by her teacher’s inability to see her worth and wants nothing more than to die.

The first thing that one might notice in reading this poem is that the narrator speaks in the present tense. This places the narrator in the midst of the observations being made and thus suggests that the narrator is a child describing her classmates. Although some of the vocabulary (such as “conceit” and “vibrissa”) are unusual for a child, there is an innocence present in the observations that suits the young student. Apparently, the emotions expressed or described are those of children. It is possible to imagine that the young narrator is capable of recording the events around her as she sees them without being able to completely comprehend their hidden emotions. Thus, the deep feelings expressed by the narrator come through as authentic.

The next thing the reader might notice is the distance that the narrator places between herself and the people who are the subjects of her observations. This distance is greatest at the beginning of the poem, where the subjects of the narrator’s focus seemed removed from the narrator. As the poem progresses, this distance slowly disintegrates, and the emotions are fully expressed. For example, in the first two lines (or couplet), the poem reads: “Ann Galbraith / loves Barry Soyers.” This is a simple statement. The narrator does not describe this love or offer any further insight into the two characters. In using both the first and the last names, the narrator suggests a schoolroom decorum where students are referred to by the full names. The children named are fellow classmates, and the narrator may be passing on rumors. But then in contrast to this observation is the one about Lucius Fenn, who “suffers.” Suffering and loving both involve feelings, but the narrator offers more information about Lucius Fenn’s suffering than she does about Ann and Barry’s love. Lucius Fenn suffers “whilst shaking hands.” Although this too is a statement of fact, the narrator has intrigued the reader’s imagination, leaving tantalizing gaps that the reader must fill in. First, there is the use of the word “whilst,” which is an unusual word for a child. The reader might wonder if this is the result of the narrator’s love of William Shakespeare (whom the narrator mentions later in the poem), an author in whose Elizabethan English this word is quite common. Another possibility is that the narrator is merely repeating the vocabulary of Lucius Fenn himself, who might have described his suffering this way. Is Lucius Fenn afraid to touch others? Is he shy? Withdrawn? Or is it the case that his own hands shake? Whatever the answer is, the narrator rouses empathy in the reader for Lucius, a response slightly stronger than that for the first two classmates mentioned in the poem. This rising emotional reaction continues to grow as the poem progresses.

The gap between the narrator and her classmates continues to narrow as the reader continues with the poem. “Bonny Polton” is also in love. But the object of her love is a dog, a “pug named Cowl.” The word “cowl” gives the impression that Bonny Polton is to be felt sorry for in some...

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Thomson Gale

Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Ruefle’s work.

Prolific poet and educator Mary Ruefle is a professor of English in the M.F.A. program at Vermont College. In addition to appearing in several anthologies, Ruefle’s works have won her numerous prizes and prestigious fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature.

In Cold Pluto, the ‘‘audacious’’Ruefle ‘‘writes lyrical poetry that stays afloat above the riptides of intense emotion by virtue of fierce concentration on strong images,’’ observed Peter Harris in the Virginia Quarterly Review. In the poem ‘‘Peeling the Orange,’’ for example, she turns the act into a symbolic experience in which the peel resembles ‘‘Pile of hides. Strips & scraps of flannel,’’ and in which the small spray of juice becomes a ‘‘burst of mist, an aerosol attempt/at speaking.’’ In ‘‘Merinque,’’ the poet asks a series of questions, those early in the sequence seemingly mundane, but each fixing a distinct, emotionally charged and physically focused moment or activity: ‘‘Did you rip up the photo?/Did you pick up the baby/And kiss its forehead?/Did you drive into a deer?’’ Each question is ‘‘poignant in its evanescence, but overwhelming unless we understand what principle links them,’’ Harris commented. ‘‘Have you been born?,’’ the poet asks, bringing into focus a theme of living a rich and fulfilled life, and experiencing all the small and simple acts and sensations it provides. In the final lines, the poem embraces the mundane aspects of mortality: ‘‘What book will you be reading when you die?/If it’s a good one, you won’t finish it./If it’s a bad one, what a shame.’’ This poem, like others of Ruefle’s works, ‘‘are...

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Wendy Perkins

Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and English literature and film. In this...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

Klay Dyer

Klay Dyer

Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film,...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)

Stephen C. Behrendt

Stephen C. Behrendt

In the following excerpt, Behrendt’s review of the collection praises the language and...

(The entire section is 568 words.)