Asked something similar of his songs, a certain Nobel Laureate famously answered ‘about four minutes’. Tom Stoppard’s response (regarding his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) was ‘it’s about to make me very rich’. However, there is no obvious flip reply to this specific question, which always seems to be hanging in the room after a reading, and is very often the only thing anyone can think to say if you are foolish enough to confess to writing poetry.
The great relief of Modernism was that suddenly no one expected a coherent answer. If you could say what your poetry was about – whether it was war poetry, love poetry, nature poetry – it was unlikely to pass muster. On the other hand, if someone like Basil Bunting could exclaim of your work (as he did of Pound’s largely impenetrable Cantos): ‘There are the Alps,/ fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!’, then you were a true exponent of modern art. Bunting admitted in the same panegyric that The Cantos ‘don’t make sense’, and he certainly wasn’t going to discuss what Pound’s book was ‘about’. It was a case of ‘because it’s there’. Pound did like to take things to extremes, of course, and plenty of his disciples wrote on recognisable topics: even The Waste Land at its most basic describes… well, a waste land.
The temptation in compiling a collection (poets still think in terms of collections) is to spin it around a theme. This might well catch some zeitgeist, as routinely happens with anthologies. Nobody can blame an editor for putting out a book of ‘Poems for Jeremy Corbyn’, as Shoestring Press did last year in time for the Labour Party Conference – and political poems do have to be about something – but there are good reasons for an individual poet not to do so. For one thing, you are likely to be pigeon-holed. It was years before readers realised that Robert Frost was not a Georgian nature poet with a New England accent, that he was deeply complex and (as Lionel Trilling pointed out at the poet’s 85th birthday celebrations) ‘terrifying’. Heaney will always be thought of as a poet of the Troubles, although his concerns are far more universal. Robert Graves knew what he was doing when he suppressed his war poetry, and we have a much more rounded appreciation of his work than we do of, say, Siegfried Sassoon’s.
In the last few decades poets as diverse as Carolyn Forché, Tony Harrison, Denise Levertov, Robert Pinsky, Michael Symmons Roberts and Carol Rumens have drawn on big news stories. But do their more ‘public’ collections retain their resonance as well as their relevance? Will Iraq veteran Kevin Powers’s Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting be read a decade on from its 2014 publication? Does Claudia Rankine’s 2015 New York Times bestseller, Citizen, have staying power as well as the power to shock contemporary readers with anecdotes of racial prejudice? Some subject matter has a sell-by date, even when it is itself historical. Thomas Hardy’s Titanic poem (‘The Convergence of the Twain’) still speaks to us powerfully, but the same cannot be said of The Dynasts. Similarly, although Ruth Padel’s verse narrative about Darwin is very good, it is somehow less interesting now the bicentenary has passed.
Dates are a considerable temptation to poets who fear they have written their last poem (think of Yeats’s ‘I sought a theme, and sought for it in vain’); but lines on significant birthdays, deaths, disasters, weddings, national events can feel as though they should be in an appendix, with that faintly judgmental label ‘Occasional Poems’. Rare are those poems that transcend their occasion, as do Spenser’s ‘Epithalamium’ or Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. Does anyone even remember Simon Armitage’s millennium book? Many a Poet Laureate has staggered under the weight of anniversarial expectation, and the same is true of what wasn’t expected. Birthday Letters is not Ted Hughes at his best, though the subject matter made its publication a literary event, and it’s certainly easier to write a newspaper article about Plath and Hughes than Wodwo or Cave Birds.
But if literature is ‘news that STAYS news’, as Ezra Pound believed, then I would propose a handful of poets (often Irish) who have actually managed to prove the fact. Louis MacNeice is one. His masterpiece, Autumn Journal, is undoubtedly ‘about’ something, notably the days leading up to the Second World War, and it reads as freshly today as it did in 1939. Eavan Boland is another, for her portrayal of a woman’s place in twentieth-century Ireland (notably in The Journey). The list might include Dennis O’Driscoll, too, for his brilliant verse dissection of modern office life (see ‘The Bottom Line’); Alice Oswald (or indeed the Australian Judith Wright or the American David Wagoner) for their differing responses to endangered environments; Elaine Feinstein’s explorations of contemporary Jewishness or Moniza Alvi’s of being a Pakistani in Britain; Philip Gross on statelessness (as well as his books on two conditions preoccupying our society: anorexia and aphasia) – and perhaps R.S. Thomas’s celebrated verses on the difficulties of being a Christian.
One reason why we cling to the idea of poems having a topic is that they are not only taught in universities (where what really matters is whether verse can be dissected, and whether it has a socio-political hinterland) but in schools. Recent GCSE exam anthologies have been packed with ‘issues’. There is unlikely to be any John Ashbery or J. H. Prynne or Denise Riley in these set texts. Moreover, until recently they were part of a wider publicity machine, whereby the poets toured the country reading their work, explaining to hundreds of teenagers what it was or wasn’t ‘trying to say’. Anyone who has taught poems to children will know that while they wouldn’t question the stream-of-consciousness lyrics on their phones, most are inclined to reach irritably ‘after fact and reason’ (as Keats put it), and will feel happier if their poetry essay has a topic in the title. Childhood, relationships, death… Discuss.
But in the last few years, unnoticed by the school examiners, it has become increasingly fashionable to make poetry about the language itself. This is indeed what would be in the mind of most poets answering the question. Some (such as I) might go as far as to suggest that all poems are really about poetry. Don Paterson takes us away from the grinding noise of blurbs and blogs (though he as an editor knows full well about these things) and calls the poem ‘a little machine for remembering itself’. His most recent collection was called simply Forty Sonnets, a title, one suspects, that he would not have permitted any of the poets he publishes. You only read such a book if you think the sonnets are by (and hence about) someone you already know to be worthy of your time. Someone who is a bit like you, but rather more mysterious, who will be good company, saying the right things, nothing pretentious or elitist. Someone who calls a sonnet a sonnet.
As for me, I have generally published volumes that do what they say on the spine. The Tutankhamun Variations (1991) played games with the Howard Carter/Lord Carnarvon story, Iceland Spar (2008) was a bifocal glance at that country, To the War Poets (2013) consisted of verse letters for the WW1 centenary, and the very recent Heath(2016, a collaboration with Penelope Shuttle) is all set on Hounslow Heath — much in the news, as it turns out, because of the pending third runway. Perhaps there is time left to aspire to something as thematically unfettered as Eliot’s glorious Four Quartets or Geoffrey Hill’s inscrutable ‘Daybooks’, where the subject matter is the last thing on the poet’s mind, but for now I am in thrall to my themes. And in case you were thinking of asking, I have just finished a book-length poem about Sibelius, and am embarking on one about trees.