Monday, 5 September 2016

Some more waffly thoughts on subject matter in poems

When we are editing a poem one of the things we have to think about is the subject matter. Some subject matter is unique or unusual – which can be a good thing because it will immediately make the reader more interested – I am thinking here of poems like Jo Shapcott’s poems Piss Flower or Scorpion (which starts “I kill it because…”). Titles or opening lines like this will immediately grab the reader’s attention – but of course the rest of the poem then has to live up to this arresting start.

Subject matter can also be the bane of a poem. It might be too anecdotal (I have talked about this before here) and needs to have something that lifts it above and beyond the anecdote itself – some kind of insight (though not too obvious or cheesy), or something unexplained or unexpected might take place. Or it may be that your subject matter is something that has been written about many times before (how many poems have you read about cats, dogs, death, the moon, mothers, childbirth, etc.?). The question then is whether your poem is doing anything different to all the other poems on the subject – or is it just another poem saying how beautiful the moon is – if the latter then it is probably best to put that poem aside and move on. That isn’t to say that we should never write about these subjects (although there are people who would tell you otherwise). But you might find that you have to write quite a few poems about the moon or a dog or whatever before you hit an idea that will stand up to proper critical scrutiny. I decided that I wanted to reclaim the moon a year or two ago – after many poets and poetry teachers had told me it was a subject best avoided. I decided to tackle it during NaPoWriMo (National poetry writing month). I wrote about six different moon poems in all ranging from pretty trite to almost but not quite OK, and then when I had all but given up on the idea my moon poem came – I am not saying it’s a brilliant poem but it’s certainly not like any other moon poem I have read.

Of course the other thing to bear in mind when you are writing about something like the moon (as well as all the poems that have gone before) is the weight of common knowledge about your subject. The science, the mythology, the religious connotations – even if none of this stuff makes it into your poem, it is there at your shoulder and you should be aware of it, it should inform your writing, even if only on a subconscious level. But one needs to beware too, of this knowledge. As a teacher I see many poems that are over-burdened with facts: poems written by eager students who are keen to squeeze in every interesting thing they know about their subject matter. There is no need to squeeze everything you know into one poem, however interesting it is, save some facts for other poems you might write later, or if you feel you have to get all those juicy facts in then perhaps you should write an essay. Personally I don’t read poetry to learn about a subject – although sometimes I do learn something – I read a poem to be moved, to feel connected, to learn something about the world that I already knew but perhaps couldn’t articulate, to be excited by concepts or language or form, to connect with what makes us/me human, to feel like I have accidentally stumbled on home.

Further reading and links on the subject: