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.


Hi Michael. Your question is certainly one that continues to trouble my whole approach to poetry. While I read to be delighted by poetry's re-creational indirections, and while I am fairly sure (as my own early didactic poetry made clear) that poetry is best when it sidles up to the world, instead of standing over it passing sentence, I cannot accept that poetry is a sort of 'hermeneutically sealed' aesthetic: that because it is a delighting in words it is somehow removed from politics, ethics, or religion, etc. I'm studying Seamus Heaney's responses to violence and suffering at the moment. I recently came across Thomas Kinsella's poem written in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, in which the poet encounters the dead, who rage, lament and testifying against what happened, and against the travesty of a tribunal that investigated the actions of the army that day. It is a thoroughly political poem, responding to the immediate community debate, and as such it rests in a long tradition. But somehow (and this is what I am trying to put my finger on) it is not as good a poem as Heaney's treatment of Bloody Sunday in 'Casualty'. Perhaps it is because Kinsella's poem subordinates the aesthetic of the poem - its structures of sound, its craft, the freshness of its metaphor - to the hard, immediate plain-speaking of deeply felt response and political conviction; perhaps in this case the poet 'picked' the subject (or was 'possessed' by the subject?), rather than the other way round, as you put it. In Heaney's poem, the focus is a one-time neighbour, killed in out drinking in the curfew after Bloody Sunday, and the focus is on him as a person - a human encounter with this man, set against a horrendous, briefly mentioned backdrop; and each word is chosen and deftly placed. I'm getting a bit carried away here - but it is as if the white space on the page, the 'silences' or indirections of the poem are necessary for response to suffering on the scale we encounter in Iraq, in Darfur. Like the way the gospels' description of Jesus' crucifixion is stunningly spare on detail: '...and they crucified him'. What is not said resonates within the few words chosen. I must say, I have yet to read a good response to 9/11, including Heaney's - any recommendations? I'd be interested. Oh - lastly, found a brilliant wee poem by the Ulster poet John Hewitt today entited "Frost" from 1936 or so. Has the image "bone of light" -really something.

Hi John, and thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, it's a question that still troubles me (which is why I posted it), because like you I have a conviction that poetry (as much as science or politics) takes place in a culture and therefore has an ethical and political dimension. But I also have a hunch (well, more than a hunch actually) that no amount of ethical or political righteousness can make a poem work if the meat of it (the sound, subject, the rub of ideas and images) doesn't captivate the poet. In other words, as we've both said, the subject finally chooses the poet. Seamus Heaney's 'Casualty' is a fantastic example of both these elements in play, as you suggest. Something to do with the understatement, and I like your Biblical analogy for that. As for good poetic responses to 9/11, I could say we won't know for a while which poems will last, because we are still too close to the events themselves, but do you know John Burnside's poem 'History' from his collection 'The Light Trap'? Again, like the Heaney poem, it seems to begin worlds away from the suffering it alludes to, but somehow (in this case through description of a walk on a beach with a child) it builds into a very powerful response.

Hi Michael - surely a poem can be about personal matters and world events at one and the same time? What most often interests me as a reader is when the poet gives me a sense of what it is/was like to be alive inn the context of some important event - in other words, not just looking at the event from the outside, as if observing it, but participating in it in some way, perhaps simply by being there or hearing about it, and the moment is brought alive because of that human connection. Now I will have to try and think of a good example and post again!! Mind you I don't think I've read a single poem about 9/11 which has genuinely touched me. It's amost as if the event is too huge and too recent to be assimmilated or put into that human context yet. What do you think ?

It's only troubling if poets seem to set themselves above or outside world events.

Hi Bradley - yes I agree that a poem can be about personal matters and world events at the same time, in fact some of the best poems do that. I'm thinking again of the John Burnside poem I mentioned in my previous post above, and others like Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford'. Do you know that poem? It's a much admired poem (rightly, in my view) rooted in a very simple idea, the opening of a shed door behind a crumbling building for the first time in decades, and the mushrooms found growing in the dark inside. In Mahon's hands, the mushrooms point to the abandoned, the overlooked, the marginalised and persecuted in our own and past ages. I know that sounds like a huge leap, but the poem achieves it. I'd say the same about Burnside's walk on the beach with his son and the events of 9/11. And I agree about the power of poems that take you inside an event, as a participant. Do you know Keith Douglas' poems from the Second World War? He does that. When you read a poem like 'How to Kill' you feel what it's like to hold another human being in your gun sights.

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Glossary term

Pathetic Fallacy

The attribution of human feelings (especially pathos) to nature and inanimate objects.

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