Moniza Alvi asks how far the quality of a poem is affected by its subject.

Moniza Alvi
Moniza Alvi

Does the subject matter of poetry matter? A complicated question, with both yes and no, in some guises, offering themselves as acceptable answers. For the subject mattering, Wilfred Owen would be an obvious example. His early poetry, with its strong Keatsian influence, showed his sensibility, feel for the music of language, his technical ability. It could be said that the Great War turned him into a great poet. It would be reductive, though, to say that the War gave him his subject, and truer to say that Owen’s art rose to the extremity of the occasion, the lived experience. A powerful subject can be a trap, leading us to think that material is so powerful or fascinating we don’t have to engage with it very deeply or apply much poetic craft, that the reader will be on our side and content with the superficial. Any political rant will do, or any outpouring of emotion. Strong subject matter can be seductive, beckoning us onto the rocks. Perhaps extreme experience requires extreme tactics or approaches.

But what is strong subject matter? Maybe one person’s powerful experience is another’s banality? Perhaps the poem itself becomes the strong experience? Hugo Williams’ poetry, for example, might be described as ‘everyday’, and maybe one wouldn’t associate him with particularly unusual content, yet his human quirkiness, surface limpidity, and his technical assurance, particularly his mastery of the quiet but devastating last line, raise his poems to a high art. In Billy’s Rain (1999), across the collection, he makes the time-honoured love poem his own with a steady, quietly heightened voice. This is desperation surfacing at the end of Timer:

The locks which would never open quickly enough
to let us in.
The green of the paintwork we slid down
as if we had nowhere else to go.

The poem itself is a ‘timer’! What’s important is the level of engagement, along with skill, and that quality that can seem magical, the flair, the poetic wit, or timing, that make for a memorable poem in
the manifold forms it can take.

There are poets who appear capable of standing aside from what might be easily identifiable as a
subject. John Burnside’s poems are philosophical, spiritual and increasingly ambitious in their breadth and depth of exploration. Yet his grave illuminations cannot be separated from the most mundane yet beautiful of daily gestures, such as “the games we played / as children in the green afternoon / tossing a ball back and forth on an open field” (Deer) or “coming inside from a meal / in the garden, the lights burning out / on the table” (Blackbird) – both poems from The Light Trap (2002). Burnside’s subject is the ordinary world made extraordinary. Martha Kapos also evokes a version of what it is to be alive. Breaking down everyday experience, her startling visual perceptiveness carries with it a subtle sense of wonder: “By the same token aman /standing in a room is no more / than a busy gathering of atoms” – The Logic of Atoms in Supreme Being (2008). Hers is a passionate poetry, daring in its abstraction. As with Burnside, the physical world is an important base. She has written in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin (Winter 2008): “I often find that whatever a poem may be ‘about’ – the language of the poem is always a language I have to borrow from the physical world.” Fiona Sampson has something in common with Virginia Woolf, as well as Kapos and Burnside, in conveying the tissue of ordinary experience, capturing the miracle of it second by second in an attentive stream of perception. What is her subject? A celebratory relationship to the world, perhaps, our inwardness and outwardness, that space: “between each hair / trembling on the leveret’s back, / each compacted bud, / and the hum of your consciousness” – Night Fugue in Common Prayer (2007). The poems are about more than they are ostensibly about, rather as To the Lighthouse is not really about a dinner party or a trip to a lighthouse. As with all poems, they are ‘about’ themselves, about many things, about language. Poems suggest and evoke – ‘about’ is not such a helpful word.

So then what of the avant-garde, or the Language poetry which one might describe as words set down as their own subject, as a kind of installation, perhaps, a visual or conceptual experiment? How can we relate to it, or judge it? It would be a great loss to ignore it. Denise Riley’s experimental work has been sufficiently individual, exciting and rewarding to serve as a model for many writers. Subject matter, disruption and re-invention of language work idiosyncratically as one. Her work is packed with both personal and political meaning and any line or phrase is very much her own: “The day is nervous buff ” (Rayon), “The partridge is possessed of the ground it runs on” (Marriage Song With A Remembered Line), and of the heart “but it does hurt / top mid-left / under my shirt / with its atrocious beat” (It Really Is The Heart). Her work is alive with the unexpected – here’s Not What You Think complete:

wonderful light
viridian summers
deft boys
no thanks

A collection with shocking subject matter, Pascale Petit’s The Zoo-Father, features childhood abuse and a mentally ill mother. Such trauma may draw readers, yet in many hands the subject could flounder. It’s this poet’s fascination with the natural world and her skill at myth-making which lend a life-enhancing richness to her poetry. Petit can be equally dazzling on less sensational topics, for instance in her most recent book, The Tree-Keeper’s Tale, a second husband is celebrated: “I dig and dig until your twelve frozen horses / spring up in their red felt masks and ibex horns. / You must have ridden each one to heaven” (The Second Husband). Khalil Gibran’s words come to mind: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” – The Prophet (1926).

A particularly strong collection from Penelope Shuttle is Redgrove’s Wife (2006), containing poems that both mourn and celebrate her late husband, as well as her father. The poem-sequence Missing You contains such piercing lines as “I used to be a planet, / you discovered me / I used to be a river, / you travelled to my source”. Shuttle’s unique style is enhanced by the urgency of what she has to express. So could it be said that for some ‘important’ or tough subject matter is a help? Pressures brought to bear may strengthen a poem’s emotional charge, free writing from contrivance, or the limpness of what doesn’t really matter.

From the viewpoint, however, that anything can matter to a poet – the plums in the icebox, the rain on the window – it’s unfair to privilege one set of subject matter over another as a matter of course. For poets the treasure is within, as much as there is treasure out there. Directly political poems may be forceful, but as Heaney has commented, “If you’re going to write a poem of political protest… you have to be sure that it’s your anger, not somebody else’s anger.” (Between the Lines, 2000).

So what might enhance engagement on the part of a poet? It might well be play (serious play); after all poetry isn’t at its best when heavy-going. Jackie Wills’ poem in her book Commandments (2007) follows directly from the title which forms part of its opening sentence, Don’t commit adultery:

In a hotel room, rented flat, a friend’s place, beach,
car, caravan, your own bed, his or her bed,
the children’s beds, with dogs, that guy from the Red
house, your boss, on a motor-bike, in a coach…

It is playful despite, or because of, the seriousness of its subject. Its rising list of places or circumstances is at once exuberant, bitter, sad. Robert Crawford’s poem Chaps with its mocked male ethos and war references is energetically, playfully inventive as well as sorrowful, and is brilliant in performance:

With his Bible, his Burns, his brose and his baps
Colonel John Buchan is one of the chaps,
With his mother, his mowser, his mauser, his maps,
Winston S. Churchill is one of the chaps…

The taking on of roles can also be helpful, enlarging our voices. Sometimes engagement takes place when we are at our most indirect or oblique. Jo Shapcott is an example of a writer who marvellously transforms the everyday and makes the political her own. In a brilliant series of poems she speaks
volubly in the voice of a supposed ‘mad cow’, exploring disturbing or arresting aspects of the inner or outer world, making the familiar strange. In poetry, a fresh angle can be everything. Shapcott invests the political with her very personal style and does not appear to be dealing with issues head-on, but she has clarified her position: “Any poet has to think hard about her origins.” That is not just those whose backgrounds are obviously ‘exotic’ or ‘different’. And she comments, “Changes in the outer world have been just as important to what is left of the Englishwoman as changes in her inner world… the island story of England, little England is finished.” – Confounding Geography in Contemporary Women’s Poetry (2000). In her poem Phrase Book she sees the white Englishwoman in the context of the wider world: “What have I done? / I have done nothing. / Let me pass please. I am an English woman.”

For most of us, writing may involve finding our obsessions and looking outwards to the work of poets who stimulate us, helping us to realize writing possibilities and to release potential. We may borrow some of their energy, sparks can jump across.

There are poets whose lives seem exceptionally rich or eventful, if not necessarily enviable. We have the poetry of great exiled poets of the past. Currently in Britain we have significant poets who came to Britain as refugees such as Choman Hardi and Nazand Begikhani, both originally from Iraqi Kurdistan. They carry the weight and diversity of experiences which their poems help us to confront. They have borne witness. Hardi laments:

Roj was given back to his parents in pieces
although his sentence was to be hanged
A blue string reminds me of travelling on a spring day
watering the thirsty grass
and loving the sky
we spoke in clear blue at those times
a string was still a harmless thing.

Strings in Life For Us (2004)

And Begikhani states:

I am happy to be alive, my friend…
There is a thin line between life and death, my friend
There is a thin line between life and death

At a Happiness Symposium in Wales
in Bells of Speech (2006)

Poetry can connect us to each other in different ways, even if the experiences have not been our own, reminding us that we do, although at times it’s hard to believe, inhabit one world, as well as our individual terrains. The strongest poetry reflects what it’s like to be human, to be alive. It’s the force of the impulse from the place within that poetry comes from that matters and the writer’s engagement with the subject or raw material, that can promote the freshness and vitality, the alchemy of the poetry. Finally the poem must take flight like Pegasus out of the horse of its subject matter, becoming its own entity or subject – a small world entire.