If you’ve read only one piece of Frost’s prose, it’s probably his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.” And if you remember only one thing about it, it’s probably that it’s studded with indelible metaphors (all right, similes): that poets don’t come by knowledge systematically, as scholars do, but rather pick up bits of it like the sticking of “burrs when they walk in the fields;” that a poem’s meaning should unfold as it’s being written the way “a piece of ice on a hot stove…ride[s] its own melting;” that even if you read such a poem a hundred times, it will retain its freshness of surprise forever, “as a metal keeps its fragrance” (this last sometimes seen with the catastrophic misprint of “petal” instead of “metal”). This essay is also where Frost famously says that the clarification at the end of such a poem will not be a great one “such as sects and cults are founded on,” but “a momentary stay against confusion.” (As well-stocked with gems as the piece is, it's not entirely free of the borderline asininity that can mar the prose—and sometimes the poetry—of Frost as self-anointed sage: the tone of someone settling the world from his bar—or milking—stool.)
I’ve been quoting from the main portion of Frost’s essay, one whose principal business is a paean to the poem as “a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” But this poriton is preceded by an opening foray that’s less often remembered: in part because it's less memorable, but also, perhaps, because its burden is sterner. It's mostly about the importance of subjects in poetry. Its key stretch begins with the serious crack that “the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other,” and that “the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, metre are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety.” This need leaves us “back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say.”
A view of subject matter as fundamental to poetry might be resisted, if not dismissed, by the growing number of poets whose discontinuities Stephen Burt was the first to term “elliptical.” The approach of these poets can seem innately inhospitable to subjects. And in fact you can read any number of their poems without finding one in which a subject provides Frost’s “help of context.”
I think this is unfortunate. I think there’s a lot—still—to be said for subjects in poetry, and I’m going to devote my week on this blog to trying to find some ways of saying it.