The Subject at Hand


One of the things that poets don’t talk about much even though IT’S THERE is subject matter. Although nobody seems to come out and say there are O.K. topics and there are topics that will not fly, I suspect that is the case.

In journalism subject matter is the be-all and end-all, the big kahuna. It’s only in the most “literary” [read: non-narrative?] of pursuits that one might shy away from what is, to most readers, a simple question. What is the subject?

Often subject matter is, itself, considered an inappropriate topic of conversation in poetry circles. And there is a reason for it. One of the standard obtuse questions that poets hear from non-writers is, “What do you write about?” I have often been tempted to answer that strangely enough, my primary topic is dog food. Never have I actually said that to anyone, but I have thought it at times and amused myself, for a few seconds at least.

A poet’s route to/through the subject is perhaps a zigzag course. We aspire to a kind of complexity that we don’t want to see eroded away by simplification. This poem is about ____, inevitably seems reductive.

On the other hand, in the safety of our peers, there are probably some amazing conversations on the subject of subject matter just waiting to be had.


  1. OK, I’ve done some thinking about this.
    Many, many years ago, when I first became interested in poetry, “subject” was a topic of discussion — men’s “subjects” and women’s “subjects” — men’s subjects being the elevated ones: war, politics, sex, women, sometimes even children (especially dead ones.) Women’s subjects were viewed as ‘domestic’ and not really suited for poetry, even when they wrote about soldiers, politicians, sex, men, and children.
    I think the ‘subject’ of a poem is often avoided in workshops for two reasons — this history of white patriarchical definitions of what is appropriate and what is not; and because of the common error of conflating the writer with the speaker/ subject of a poem.
    And I do think it’s time to discuss it again.

  2. I think the real subject of my poems is often grief, mental illness, abuse, and loneliness. But it is usually disguised as musings about petals, leaves, breathing, or beaches. So I guess I have two layers of subjects.

  3. I agree with SB about the hesitancy in workshops to discuss subject. We all have our prejudices about what is good or bad subject matter, or at least what we think is relevant to our lives. So many times I have read the synopsis of a novel and thought, “Oh, I’m not interested in reading that,” only to finally come back to it and wonder why in blazes I didn’t think I’d enjoy it. If someone wrote “this collection of poems is about___” on the back of a book, I am sure I would, to some degree at least, buy or not buy the collection based on that.
    I also find that I am not very interested in “authorial intention” in poetry. I am willing to come to terms with a poem on my own, and I am content to let others do the same with my work. This makes the whole idea of subject matter not only highly subjective, but very fluid. Even so, we should not ignore discussing it as if it doesn’t matter at all, because it does.

  4. I agree with the reductive effect of holding strictly to a predetermined subject, and typically follow a zigzag course, where inspiration drives imagination’s playful journey; pondering each blank space that follows each line.

  5. Most of the poems I write are true stories in one way or another and therefore somewhat narrative–if not conventionally so. I think I do in fact aspire to be able to say “this poem is about___” because I like simplicity. Then again, what I really like is simplicity on the entry-level and layers of complexity ever after for those who want to delve that far. But I like the idea that a poem is imediately accessible to the simplest reading. Like Robert Frost. I loved him as a kid because I liked the nature imagery. Then as I got older, I realized there was more to them, but I still like how accessible they are at the outset.

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