Up through my early twenties, my dream was to be a composer—a calling for which, talent to the side, I had all the equipment. In the years since, I’ve occasionally asked myself if I wouldn’t rather have composed, had I been able to, than written what purports to be poetry. An answer that comes to mind is, who wouldn’t? (Wagner looked forward every morning to sitting down at what he called “the incredible loom.”) But actually—and maybe I’m just consoling myself here—I’m fine with writing poetry rather than music. On a good day, in fact, I can feel downright fortunate that this is how things turned out. If there's a central reason why, it’s because writing poetry gives me the chance to choose a poem’s subject. (Frost once said that the whole trick to writing poetry is “knowing what to say”—rather as Bach once said that playing the clavier is simply a matter of “pushing down the right key at the right time.”)
One way of choosing a subject for a poem is to ask what’s worth saying, forget poetry, to others. For an answer to this, you’ve but to consult the annals of this afternoon. What did you say to others? No doubt much of it was fairly utilitarian, but somewhere in the mix was…an anecdote? A bright idea (or at least your idea of one)? A diatribe? A description? A joke? Whichever of these may have cropped up, it was in at least one respect like a joke: it was too good—too interesting, moving, surprising, exciting, helpful (or, yes, funny)—to keep to yourself. It asked—even begged—to be shared.
Anything that begs to be shared could be the subject of a poem. Not that it necessarily should be; deciding whether it should is a matter of assessing what’s important: not just in poetry but (and here’s where the poet may go beyond the composer) in life. Socrates, Google tells me, is the source of the old saw that an unexamined life is not worth living. If you were designing an exercise that promotes the examination of life, you couldn’t come up with a better one than choosing a subject for a poem. Making this choice calls upon a poet’s every evaluative faculty—intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, moral…is in fact a practicum in the examination of life. When I consider all that choosing a subject does for a poet, I can almost pity the poet who banishes subjects from his poems (not that such a poet needs anyone's pity, unless it’s for his difficulty in preventing the acclamation of the current herd from going to his head).
In celebrating what a subject can do for the poet, I don’t want to lose sight of what it can do for the poem (aspects of which I discussed in the first three installments of this series). No one remaining in the room may believe this, but I’m far from immune to the pleasures of the subjectless poem. Some of these pleasures are unique to such a poem (much as some pleasures are unique to atonal music or non-representational art). But there are also pleasures that are only possible in poems with a subject. I won't say these pleasures are the higher ones (not in this outing, anyway); just that if poetry, in the name of an under-interrogated idea of progress, were to be cowed into abandoning these pleasures, it would be poetry's loss.
Speaking of pleasures, my sincerest thanks to Stacey Harwood and The Best American Poetry for affording me the pleasure, and privilege, of appearing here this week.