What should poets write about?
Michael Symmons Roberts - 28 October 2007
I was looking at WH Auden's poetry with some undergraduates the
other day, and although they didn't know much of his work they all
knew the poem from 'Twelve Songs' (better known as 'Funeral
Blues' or 'Stop all the Clocks') from the film Four Weddings and a
Funeral. Of course, being in a film helps to raise a poem's profile,
but that alone doesn't explain it. The popular success of that poem
was down to a combination of its beautiful simplicity and its subject.
Most of us still seem to need poetry at weddings and funerals.
Extracts from novels or plays don't seem to reach the heights and
depths of love and loss.
Are there subjects you - as readers and writers - feel poetry should
or shouldn't take on? In Welsh-speaking Wales the tradition of the
poet reflecting the life of the community continues, with an
expectation of poems to mark births, marriages, deaths, and the
triumphs or tragedies of a particular town or village. Should these
obligations apply to poets writing in English? Are poets shirking their
responsibilities if they don't write about the Iraq War or global
warming? I've always felt that the subjects pick the poet, not vice
versa, and if you try to force it the poems will fail. On the other hand,
I do write commissioned poems, and many poets feel a sense of
responsibility to address major events or issues, and the events of
9/11 produced a huge number of very varied responses. In the
Poetry Archive here you'll find remarkable elegies and love poems
and war poems. Do you think poets should continue to address
these big themes, or are you happy to read the poetry of everyday
life, domestic interiors, etc? And do you have favourite elegies or
love poems? Let me know what you think. And as a postscript, have
a look at the Archive's new Glossary of poetic terms. It's newly
launched and looks to me very clear and comprehensive.