Subjects in Poetry
by Daniel Brown
(LSU Press, 2021, 160 pages, $22.00 paperback
Around the time I was finishing Subjects in Poetry, a friend emailed me a Peanuts strip: “Studying poetry spoils the poem,” Schroeder sighs. “Why do we have to try to explain a poem? That’s like trying to explain a summer sky or a winter moon.”
“…or a pretty face,” Lucy grins.
Agreed. And yet poets and teachers of poetry are always trying to explain how a poem works. Every once in a while, one of them is unusually good at it. Such is the case for Daniel Brown, who, in Subjects in Poetry, offers ideas for writing and for reading poems with such quick-witted enthusiasm even Schroeder might approve.
Brown has published two books of poetry, Taking the Occasion (winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize) and What More? His poems tend to be tight, epigrammatic, and humorously skeptical. A bit high-brow in their wit, perhaps, but impressive in their brevity. This prose work retains similar qualities, but presents itself as part of a larger conversation about poetic fundamentals. It seems really to be the fruit of meditation on Frost’s criticism (which Brown deems “underappreciated”). He agrees with Frost about what poetry is and should do, but as he reaches the close of his book, Brown makes a rather unexpected claim that diverges from Frost’s view of the poetic process.
Subjects in Poetry delights largely because of its gusto and wit. But it’s also the scope of the project that makes it a useful book to have on hand. It’s a persuasive work that contends that writing about a variety of subjects—and thinking about those subjects beforehand—will benefit the poet. By extension, then, it’s a good-humored critique of “elliptical verse” (which mimics the unstructured movements of the mind) and a defense of Brown’s personal methods. But it’s also something of a handbook, categorizing verse by its form of rhetorical expression and offering, in narrative fashion, a possible approach to conceptualizing a poem. I found it uniquely interesting. I’ve read several works on poetry’s sound and figures, but never, I think, on subject.
The book begins with a definition and then unfolds itself with panache. A subject, Brown, says, is “something to say” (this phrase comes from Frost in “The Figure a Poem Makes”). Such rhetorical intentionality implies significant forethought on the part of the poet, but, Brown argues, poets shouldn’t be limited in what they consider an appropriate subject. A poem might “say” in one of three ways: by Expressing, by Evoking, or by Addressing. But within those categories, there exists infinite variety.
For sixty pages, then, Brown absorbs the reader in what he calls a “gallery of verse,” placing famous works into these categories and making insightful readings along the way. One could easily imagine teaching a course using these categories as a backbone. And Brown’s text is engaging. I hardly realized how long I’d been reading, seeing old friends like “Odi et Amo” and “Adlestrop” brought forth and warmly appreciated, with just enough of opinion for the reader to sometimes disagree (he likes Thomas’s “cloudlets,” for example, and he loves Randell Jarrell, but finds some of Walcott’s criticism iffy). I was assenting here, dissenting there, thinking of other poems I’d include… About page forty or fifty I got out a notebook to start making columns, only to discover on turning to page sixty that lo, Brown had anticipated my need and provided a handy chart! It had a been a pleasurable hour.
So immersive this experience may be for the reader that the second chapter’s transition can feel surprising, like stepping from one room to another with a different tone and feel. I had to recall that commentary was not, after all, the project of the book. Brown wants to move us through those particulars into some larger concepts: the qualities that the right subject can grant a poem. Along with his definition of subject as “something to say,” then, Brown draws from Frost the assertion that “the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other” and continuing that, in order to do so, “we need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety” (64).
As he presents the reader with each of the qualities intentional subject matter can give a poem, Brown’s observations are logical, conversational, and more wry than assertive. He might make a quip here and there (on Stephanie Burt’s associative mimesis: “A cousin of this view has been around forever, if you view 1921 as the dawn of time”). But in sharing his own opinion, he’s deferentially pluralistic. Speaking of David Kirby’s ellipticism, which wants to “portray the mind as it actually [that is, undirectly] works,” he writes: “While this is a perfectly valid, even laudable literary aim, another thing a poem can do is override the messiness of the mind’s ‘actual’ workings by providing a sense—also a feature of our mental life—of a certain order to things” (75).
This is typical of Brown’s tone throughout the latter half of the book: to say that presenting thoughts in an orderly fashion that translates meaning is another thing a poem can do. Not the best thing, or the truest thing, but simply another thing that, in light of the long schema of human history, might be worth a poet’s consideration.
Finally, in his third and final chapter, Brown turns to methodology and begins to make more personal claims. Here’s where he diverges from Frost. “It’s with a mix of feelings,” he writes, “shame, trepidation, and foolishness might be mentioned—that I confess to having planned not a few poems of my own” (128). He advocates taking a subject for a “conceptual test-drive,” per Yeats, and, with hilarious bravado, goes on to contradict Frost, A.R. Ammons, James Merrill, and countless other poets:
I’ll risk opprobrium, not to say hellfire, and admit that the endings of my poems are often thought of first, particularly formal poems, in which the constraints of meter and rhyme can make a good ending even harder to come by than usual. I find that I can improve my odds in this respect by writing a formal poem’s ending first and letting the form of this ending help determine the form of the poem as a whole…. What’s salient about an ending is its impact, not its history…. I’m all ears for the opinions of a poem of mine as to its path, its ending included, but not to the point where I’m willing to discount my own thoughts on the matter. (132)
And before the reader has time to stone him, Brown cleverly ends the book.
What to make of a poet like this, who argues for the mind’s mastery of its own thoughts? Who models poetry as effortful, considered, and as much about the concept as the sound?
I’ll make two observations. First, that the structure of Brown’s book is brilliant for getting the reader on his side. Brown has a poet’s sense of the interplay between deductive and inductive reasoning, and between intuition and rational thinking, and he holds both in balance through his genuine, appreciative, narrative voice. There is no question that he admires poems and is extensively well-read in the better criticism. In Subjects, Brown has crafted an experience for the reader that both teaches and delights. The movements of the prose paragraphs run like expectation-subverting movements of a poem. Just as the reader is getting settled in one way of thinking (categorizing by style of saying, for example), the text deftly pivots. As a longer poem might turn from its exposition into its musculature, Brown turns his text about poetry from overarching categories to the source of certain energies a poem can contain. He isn’t writing a poem, of course, but in exposing us to the movement of many kinds of poems, getting under their skin, he helps us, consciously and unconsciously, to absorb their power. The experience is exhilarating and compelling. In particular, I enjoyed Brown’s reading of Herbert’s poem “The Collar,” and his insights into the force of its extraordinary end. Many readers have noted the instantaneous turn in the final lines and the way in which their power is derived from the build-up of tensions in what proceeds them. But Brown made me want to say a spontaneous prayer of gratitude for its sudden, submissive magnificence.
All in all, there’s always the sense, reading Subjects, that one might end up somewhere unexpected. And when we find that the place to which we’re going is the planning of endings first—a locus of true vulnerability—there’s a kind of shock of pleasure and camaraderie. Brown, after all, is a good poet. But he’s just a person like us. He’s not one of those geniuses (or so he conveys). He thinks a lot about his poems, and sometimes writing them takes significant agency. He just wants to offer us a way in to the process of composition that might not have occurred to us.
The second observation is that, while this doesn’t set out to be a serious philosophical work, Subjects in Poetry is nonetheless a little weak philosophically. If there’s a fault to the text, I would say it’s that, in articulating his underlying premises about reality and human nature, Brown tends to rely on charm, wit, and the substitution of vague rhetorical gestures for a really robust artistic vision. Here’s a tentative foray into ontology, for example:
…There are times when I choose, from my list of potential subjects, the best one. Best can mean, in this as in most contexts, any number of things. I’m thinking here of best as in ‘of greatest moment.’ Poetry being a human enterprise, the best subject on my list would be the one likeliest to mean the most to the most people. To choose a subject on this basis is to find one’s choice expanding beyond purely aesthetic considerations into a consideration of life.
The opportunity to engage with life in choosing a poem’s subject is the main reason I sometimes feel fine—maybe even better than fine—about writing poetry instead of music. Choosing a subject in light of life calls upon every faculty we have: intellectual, moral, spiritual, and, yes, aesthetic, to the extent, not always paramount these days, that we want our subjects to underwrite poems whose virtues include beauty. This call for all we have, that we might offer all we can—to what summons would one rather respond? (94)
I appreciate the element of practical help in this. What should you write about? Well—write about something that will “mean the most to the most people.” But “mean” can be a difficult word to handle, and to my mind Brown beats around the bush, getting unusually abstract in his syntax. “To choose a subject on this basis is to find one’s choice expanding beyond purely aesthetic considerations into a consideration of life”? “We want our subjects to underwrite poems whose virtues include beauty”? It’s not a bad point, but it’s prevaricating, especially for someone with so much appeal to the average reader.
Here is he is on transcendence as one of the benefits of determining a poem’s subject before writing it:
I seem to recall someone—Emerson?—saying that writing a poem is a lever than can lift a person to a higher plane of life. And damned if I didn’t feel, upon completing this poem, that I’d in fact been so lifted. In the intervening years, I’ve refined this feeling. It now seems clear that the elevation in question had occurred before I’d even begun the poem, that writing the poem ‘merely’ made me aware of a change I’d already undergone in growing up a little. What also seems clear is that I came to this awareness not during my execution of the poem but during my pondering, prior to its execution, of its subject.
Here endeth this little parable—and true story—of what pondering a subject can do for a poet. The case in question was admittedly extreme: such pondering doesn’t always abet elevation. But it often abets understanding. I said in the last section that in choosing a subject a poet engages with life. I’ve tried to show in this section that in pondering a subject, a poet examines life. It was Socrates, Google tells me, who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Pondering a subject is a practicum in the examination of life. (98)
The parable is touchingly human and the final statement seems an exceedingly worthwhile thing to say. But the affectation of ignorance seems unnecessary, however humorously intended.
A poetics of directed thinking, in which the poet allows reason a significant role in the composition of a poem, implies a certain orientation toward reality. It implies, among other things, that the reality is reasonable. My guess is that Brown would agree with Hardy, Frost, Mary Jo Salter, C. Dale Young, and others, that verse can reflect apparent structures of the cosmos, but that those structures are likely to be something of an elaborate façade, meaning only what humans make of them in their beautiful, madcap hurtle toward death.
And yet I’m a bit let down that the “feeling of elevation,” along with a vague hand-wave toward Emerson (or someone) and a Google search on Socrates, is the best Brown can do. I wouldn’t mind if he were willing to be a bit more of a “stuffed shirt” and say that it’s possible the coherence of a poem might reflect, to some degree, the coherence of the cosmos. Or that a poet might experience “elevation” because, in employing language in an act of creation, he’s responding with the entirety of his being to a divine gift.
It would certainly save him from embarrassing (albeit honest) ethical positions like this one, emerging when he tries to address a poetics of “difference:”
The poetry protesting the Vietnam War is one of many manifestations of a moral impulse in verse. To name a few others, there’s ecopoetry, the ‘poetry of witness’—Carolyn Forché’s term for poems, like so many of her own, that testify directly to the most extreme horrors of human existence—and, just recently, an efflorescence of what might be called a ‘poetry of difference’: a poetry giving voice to those who are socially disadvantaged, often grievously, sometimes even fatally, by their gender, race, faith, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, or disability.
For some people, the cries of the downtrodden are always in earshot. For many of us, however, these cries are considerably less constant a presence. We go about our business largely oblivious to them—only, on occasion—to find them filling our heads. It’s as though we become at these times the vessels and vassals of compassion our better selves feel we should always be, even if we presently revert to our otherwise occupied/preoccupied selves. (107)
I wonder whether Brown would be able to withstand a critique based on privilege and gender or social class power dynamics. (What he calls “poetry of difference” seems more prevalent today than elliptical verse, if you ask me, and thus it’s worth asking if this discussion is sufficient as merely a subset of a subset in chapter two.) I think he could, but he’d have to be willing to make stronger ontological claims.
Enough poking at premises, though. What it sets out to do—illuminate an underappreciated aspect of writing poems and give a taste of the variety possible—Subjects in Poetry achieves with grace. The text has the “recognizably human quality” that Brown prizes, and I’ve already recommended it to folks who want to discuss poetry, but feel intimidated. Determining whether a poem expresses, evokes, or addresses is a good first step in appreciating it. And most poets (myself included) could stand to do a more thinking on subject before composing another poem.
In the end, one of the best things about Subjects in Poetry is that it takes on the luminous quality of an apology for a life’s work. While never abandoning its practical topic, it looks back over experience in the poetic plane and discerns development and growth. It deserves a well-regarded place in the body of shared wisdom about poems. It speaks to a lifetime of, happily for us, something to say.