8. POEMS CAN BE ABOUT ANYTHING. IT ALL DEPENDS ON WHAT POETS DO WITH THEIR SUBJECT MATTER, NOT THE SUBJECT MATTER ITSELF.
“To the poet nothing is useless.”
We’ve all heard it: “there’s nothing new under the sun.” In other words, all the ideas of the past are just recycled in every new generation. Haven’t those millions of poets through the ages said everything that can be said about love, death, change, crisis, despair, joy, happiness, beauty in nature, and so on? And the answer is . . . of course not!
There’s always plenty more to say, and plenty of more ways of saying things. After all, all of us are unique and we perceive experience in our own unique ways. There are always new ways of saying what we want to say. Once more: poetry is in both in the what-is-said and in the way-we-say-it. Those two things are inseparable in a good poem.
All the poets I’ve ever known or heard of have had a very strong need to “say it my way.” If you are a person who likes words a lot, and who enjoys putting them together in ways that are new and fresh—well then, you are thinking like a poet. I remember Annie Dillard, a prose writer and poet, saying in one of her books that she liked the way the words “winter” and “knives” go together. That’s the kind of sensibility I’m talking about. “Winter knives.” Yes, you may agree, as I do: there is something right about that phrase.
But how about subject matter? Do you have a favorite subject? Some poets do and some don’t. For me, as I’ve said before, sports have always been a productive subject for poems. I’ve also written a lot of poems about animals over the years, following my long-time interest in biology and evolution. I’m a writer—maybe you are too—who is a fan of Nova, Discovery, and other TV programs about animals and nature.
Those who read a lot of poetry know that certain subjects are quite commonly addressed by poets. In fact, they can be cliché subjects, because they are so commonly seen. Look at the following poem, by the Chinese poet, Yuan Mei, who lived in the 18th century:
WHY HE DID NOT WRITE
A POEM ABOUT THE HISTORICAL
BURIAL-PLACE OF LO-YANG
With high mounds the hill is thickly spread;
I give them a glance and drive swiftly by.
A poem is here, but I cannot bring myself to make it.
Too many poets have tried their hand before.
(Note: in this poem, “drive swiftly by” no doubt refers to some sort of horse-drawn vehicle—it would be hard to come up with another verb in this context, I think—but the word “drive” seems a bit odd to me, since I’m picturing some kind of vehicle that a person “drives”)
To paraphrase the poem: I’ll pass up this grave of a famous man instead of stopping and making a poem. After all, so many poets before me have written about the grave and the man in the past, so I’m sure I couldn’t say anything new.
Ah, yes. But, what’s intriguing about this poem is that even though the poet says that the subject matter of a famous man’s grave site has been worked over so much that it’s pretty much been used up, the poet still makes a poem . . . about what? About the fact that he can’t make a poem! Pretty sneaky, if you ask me. But it works, which is all that matters. It’s a poem alright, and I think a good one. It’s the kind of poem you might read and then say to yourself: Why didn’t I think of that?
What do you like to write about? Do you have a favorite subject? Or are you fairly eclectic in your choice of subject matter?
Probably, you realize that, being human, you can’t help experiencing what all humans experience. The same thoughts, the same emotions, fears, doubts, joys, ups and downs—all the universals of human existence that go back tens of thousands of years. And yet, you also realize that what you have to say about anything, you can make your own in the way you say it. When you finish making a poem, you can say to yourself: Even though what I’ve written about is not all that unusual, this is mine. I saw something with my own eyes and then I made a poem about it, putting words together in a way that’s never been seen before. To be an artist—painter, sculptor, composer, poet—means to create something out of one’s own particular and unique life experiences, and then to share it with others.
Finally, here’s my suggestion: Don’t exclude any subject or idea or experience. Instead, INCLUDE. Be open to everything, especially to possibilities. “I dwell in Possibility,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
Walt Whitman said of the lowly mouse that it is “miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,” and that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.” And that “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.”
In a poem by Reed Whittemore, he spoke of “the elegance of a door knob.” Dylan Thomas spoke of a “heron-priested shore”—that is, how herons, when they walk alone a shoreline, resemble priests in their posture, quietness, elegance, and dignity. William Carlos Williams wrote a wonderful poem about “a poor old woman” eating a plum on a street corner in a big city, and of having, at one point in the poem, “one half” of the plum “sucked out in her hand.” The poet describes her standing there, eating that plum, which “tastes good to her.” In fact, the plum tastes so good that Williams repeats the phrase, “it tastes good to her” at the end of every stanza of the poem, savoring the phrase as the woman savors the plum.
How could laundry hanging on a line in a city be very interesting? And yet, Richard Wilbur’s well-known poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World,” which is based on hanging laundry, begins memorably and dramatically: “The eye opens to the cry of pulleys.”
How about the subject of an injured hawk, described by Robinson Jeffers in “Hurt Hawks,” which begins: “The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder.”
Don’t forget items in the newspaper that might give you a good idea or image for a poem. How about a divorced husband who—according to a news item—demolished his house? The poet John Ciardi read the article, and wrote a poem from the point of view of the angry husband. Here are the opening lines:
It is time to break a house.
What shall I say to you
but torn tin and the shriek
of nails pulled orange
from the ridge pole?
How about a poem about garage sales by Karl Shapiro with a phrase such as “nothing serious can go wrong here.” And in the same poem, note the phrase “approach and mosey” as the people walk toward the sale. You couldn’t write those phrases unless you’d been to garage sales and done some good observing.
You might not think that a poet could be interested in something as ordinary or mundane as cans of car engine oil on a shelf in a greasy gas station. But take a look at the ending of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Filling Station”:
. . . . Somebody
arranges the cans
so that they say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
And speaking of automobiles . . . James Dickey, in “Cherry Log Road,” wrote about a young man secretly meeting his girlfriend in a auto junk yard, which he calls “the parking lot of the dead,” and of one of the junked cars “releasing/the rust from its other color.”
The next time you pass junk yard for autos, or one in the country, take a look at those old, useless, thrown-away cars in “the parking lot of the dead.” Maybe they’ll remind you of a car you once owned, and maybe—just maybe—a girl friend or boy friend of your youth. And maybe when you get home, you’ll put a line or two—or better yet, something with an image in it—down on paper or up your computer screen, and see if a poem comes out of it.
Keep dwelling in possibility, as Emily put it.