Finding the Subject
Sometimes a poem’s subject is obvious: it has a story to tell, an incident to relate, or an anecdote to share. It’s easy to see on the surface what the writer is speaking about. Still, even when the subject might be clear, there’s usually a deeper meaning at work.
“were i to wring a rag”
In Todd Boss’s poem “Were I to Wring a Rag,” the poet’s observations about an ordinary house chore reveal something extraordinary about his relationship with his mother.
- How does the poet feel about his mother’s intervention? Which words in the poem suggest his attitude—and why?
- Do his feelings change over the course of the poem? How can you tell?
- The poem opens with a dash and ends with an ellipsis. Why? What does the poem’s aside, and its trailing off, suggest?
Sometimes a poem’s subject isn’t immediately clear. Its language feels unfamiliar or strange. Its sentences are fragmented, and may not even read like sentences at all. It may be hard to understand what certain phrases mean, how they connect to each other, and how it all adds up. So how do you read a poem when its subject is obscured?
One approach is to consider yourself an excavator, peeling apart the layers of the poem, like an archaeologist uncovering layers of history in the dirt. One layer is language. Another is tone. Other layers might include sound or music, and form. By looking closely at these layers, you may begin to understand something integral about the poem, even if you can’t see its subject at first glance.
In her poem “Who kills my history,” Joan Houlihan invents her own language to express common human emotions in a very uncommon way.
- How would you describe the qualities of the language she’s using? Does it sound similar to, or different from, the language in other poems you’ve read?
- Are there phrases or images that imply what the poem is about? For instance, what might “knees drawn up / and my bowl and cloth rinsed through with her” or “body that pools / in the brine of her” refer to? Why might the poet speak in such personal and cryptic ways about this subject? Are there subjects that are too difficult to speak about directly, and why?
- What does Houlihan mean by “Ay am put out to weather”? Is it a positive or negative thing? How can you tell from the examples she provides?
Curious about other ways to read and appreciate poems?
Read the first chapter of Ed Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem.
the subject is . . . childhood
Several of the poems (and one of the essays) in this issue are about childhood. In Fanny Howe’s “Branches: A Notebook,” she theorizes that “the self opens up to its condition in stages and often because of an accompanying realization of adult hypocrisy.”
For Howe, that hypocrisy was revealed by her father’s struggles for justice. For other poets, that realization comes in different forms. In Alison Stine’s “School,” we experience the poet’s shame and sadness in her fragmented revelation of secrets. In Fred D’Aguiar’s “ROYGBIV,” we get a lyrical look at a child’s vivid memory.
- In both of these poems, how does the lens of adulthood shed light on each poet’s recollections of childhood?
- Do you agree with Howe? How do D’Aguiar’s and Stine’s poems echo—or contradict—Howe’s sentiments?
the texture of language
In his interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, Seamus Heaney suggests that one of the “appeal[s] of a poem” is the “texture of its language,” by which he might mean the feel of a word in the mouth when you say it, or how it sounds.
Roddy Lumsden’s rant poem “The Young” uses language to create a unique texture.
- Notice how the poet uses sibilance (the hissing sounds with the letter s) to make his anger apparent.
- When Lumsden writes, “Bewilderment and thrill are whip-quick / twins,” how do the repeated vowel sounds (also known as assonance) help convey his growing sense of ambivalence and regret?
- Which words, or groups of words, are most effective in getting Lumsden’s point across—and why?
In his interview, Heaney also speaks to his preference for “every now and again . . . sound[ing] the full chime” by using pararhymes (in which the consonants are the same, but the vowels are different), and half-rhymes (in which the final consonants of the words are the same), to help him discover what he’s after “just at the edge of [his] knowledge.”
Todd Boss’s poem “Don’t Be Flip” does just this, making its discoveries apparent through rhyme. As you read the poem out loud, listen for the subtleties of rhyme it reveals.
- Why does Boss hide the rhyme in the middle of his lines, rather than placing them at the ends, as Lumsden does?
- In what ways does the rhyme help to unify the poet’s argument here, and keep it fresh and unpredictable?
ruth lilly fellows
The poets in this special section are at the beginning of their careers. While their names may not be familiar, they speak to many of the same concerns as the more established poets whose work appears elsewhere in the magazine.
- Do you notice any similarities in style, tone, or subject matter among the Fellows’s poems, or between the Fellows’s and other poems in the issue?
- Which poems in this section stand out—and why? What do you most (or least) appreciate about these new voices?
- What influences can you detect in this new work? Are these poets using some of the same tools as other poets you’ve read? Or are they forging new ground?
- Do you evaluate these poems differently because they’re emerging writers? Why, or why not?