Something to Say about Poetry

By Daniel Brown

In his book Subjects in Poetry, Daniel Brown considers a critical yet underexamined topic—the subject matter of poems. Here he describes his thought process in pinning down some basic concepts he would develop throughout the book.

Photo by Júnior Ferreira

Every so often a writer gets lucky. I’m thinking of some good fortune I stumbled into when I was writing my new LSU Press book on the subjects of poems, entitled, well, Subjects in Poetry.

But first, some background: Subjects in Poetry has three chapters. The first ventures a definition of subject and applies it to a selection of poems. The second makes a case for the value of subjects. (You’d think such a case wouldn’t be needed, but in a time when subjects are looked down on as crude, cheesy, gauche—a time when, in a reflection of this view, many poems are in fact subjectless—I thought some words on subjects’ behalf might be in order.) The book’s third chapter is about working with subjects. It considers some approaches I’ve found especially helpful and haven’t seen discussed elsewhere: not a how-to (I’m not that megalomaniacal), but a how-I-do, offered on the chance that some others might find the discussion useful.

Perhaps surprisingly, the hardest of these chapters to write was the first, the one that tries to define subject. (How could I make a case for subjects, or discuss working with them, without first saying what subjects are?) My initial thought was to proceed inductively. I’d offer a representative sample of subjects and then generalize from this sample to a definition of subject. This plan, which seemed straightforward in principle, proved anything but in practice.

Consider its first step, the selection of a representative sample of poetic subjects. On what basis would such selecting be done? Poems, after all, can have as their subjects . . . anything. A practical approach to a sampling of this infinity seemed to require a categorization of some sort; a representative sample would include subjects from each category. The number of categories would have to be manageable: somewhere between too few (say, animal/vegetable/mineral) and too many (say, all the subject headings in the Dewey decimal system). And what, specifically, would these categories be? I couldn’t imagine a set of them that didn’t seem arbitrary and/or fatuous.

In my flailing attempts to solve this problem, I hit on the idea of trying not to solve it, but to work around it. I’d base my categorization of subjects not on what they are, but on how they’re communicated. It seemed to me that poetic subjects are communicated in one or more of three ways (or, to give this scheme an intellectual ring, three “modes”): by expressing, evoking, and addressing. Poems that communicate their subjects by expressing give vent to an emotion. Poems that communicate their subjects by evoking make a place, a person, an object—a something—present to the reader. Poems that communicate their subjects by addressing give the impression of being literally spoken to a listener. This mode has by far the largest representation in poetry, encompassing prayers, odes, declarations of love, verse letters, narratives (which are addressed to a circle of listeners sitting around a Platonic campfire), verse plays (whose characters address one another), soliloquies and meditations (which are addressed to oneself), dialogues. . . .

So, I’d “solved” the problem of subject categorization by shifting its terms (a polite way of saying, by punting on it). Oh well, at least my postulated “modes of communication” had the virtue, it seemed to me, of covering the waterfront where subjects are concerned. My sample would include subjects representing each mode. Having arrived at a workable basis of selection, I chose a sample of subjects from the canon and wrote up a discussion of each of them (with some attention, necessarily and I hoped excusably, to the poem that featured it).

Now for the second step in my plan for my book’s first chapter: to generalize from a sample of subjects to a definition of subject. But as with step one, a problem arose. An online dictionary defines subject as “a basic matter of thought, discussion, or investigation.” This definition is fine for most purposes, but one runs into trouble in applying it to poetry. It works perfectly well for a poem like, say, Tennyson’s little classic, “The Eagle”:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

This poem’s eponymous subject is surrounded by a set of observations that could be said to orbit it. But what about something like, say, Hamlet’s soliloquy? This passage moves from subject (suicide) to subject (death), describing not an orbit but a journey. In applying subject to both the attractor in an orbital poem and the path of a journeying one, might we be using the same word for insufficiently similar things?

As I was pondering this possibility, I thought of Robert Frost’s assertion, in his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” that the importance of subjects leaves us “back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say.” “Something to say”: might that serve as a definition of subject? Among other virtues it would apply to orbiting and journeying poems alike. I decided to go with it.

Here’s where the abovementioned stroke of luck came in. Having adopted “something to say” as my definition of subject, it occurred to me that the “modes of communication” I’d used as categories for my subject-sample could—perhaps should—be reconceived as “ways of saying.” If a subject is “something to say,” then that something can be said in one or more of several ways: by expressing or evoking or addressing. Remember those? My erstwhile “modes” were now promoted from a skirting of a problem (how to select a representative sample of subjects) to an aspect of a solution (an elaboration, in being viewed as “ways of saying,” of my definition of subject as “something to say”). My first chapter, and my book as a whole, was now on a markedly more solid conceptual footing. No wonder I found myself sleeping better.

Daniel Brown is the author of the collections Taking the Occasion, winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, and What More? His poems have received a Pushcart Prize and appeared in many publications, including Poetry magazine, Partisan Review, and the Poetry 180 anthology (edited by Billy Collins).

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Subjects in Poetry cover image

Daniel Brown’s Subjects in Poetry is the first book to examine the broad and imposing topic of poetic subject matter, probing both what poems are about and how that influences their content. It comprises one poet’s attempt to plumb the nature of his art, to ask how the selection of material remains a crucial yet unexplored area of poetic craft, and to suggest the vast range of possible subjects for poems.

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