Dealing with Themes

Avoiding the Dilution of Art with Sentiment

These poets follow their own muses and compose topical poetry on various themes with great skill.  However, when given a subject or theme, some poets disregard what they themselves would normally require of their opinions on the matter prosaically, as though they were simply to offer an opinion on some topic of conversation.

Recently, for example, a poet, not an activist or political person, responding to the political theme of a proposed anthology, chose to write a poem on the Occupied Wall Street Protesters.  Annoyed and shocked by my criticism of the poem as it was presented, the poet wrote: “In this poem I am not concerned with form or poetic structure . . .” and “this poem is about my feeble outcry against injustices and the disparity in wealth in the United States . . . .”  The poet is essentially saying that the sentiments displayed are justifications enough to suspend the necessities of poetic art.

How can poets address the commonplace themes of our modern society without debasing their poetry?  There are many ways, of course, but here we have neither room enough, nor time.  Let us, however, admit some principles.

First, understand the dimensions and possibilities of the given theme, listing an array of subjects that appear to relate to it.

Example.  For a theme on social discord, we must recognize that domestic squabbling, political oppression, and teen gangs (to mention just a few) are subjects that can relate to it.

Next, select subjects you are comfortable with – subjects you feel informed about and competent to address and, most important, subjects you’d be interested in writing about.  Avoid subjects that you have no experience with or little interest in.

Example.  You may feel you’re informed about domestic squabbling, perhaps even competent to address it; if you haven’t any interest in writing on that subject, pass it up.  You may be interested in teen gangs, but have no experience and little knowledge about them.  You should probably not attempt that subject.

Once you’ve chosen your subjects, start by selecting and jotting down the first several things that come into your head about it no matter how apparent or superficial.  Do this with your entire list of subjects.

Example.   For the subject domestic squabbling, you might note:  (1) the family is the basic unit in society, (2) harmony in the family is important, and (3) all members of the family must work to bring the family together.

Important:  When you are ready to compose your poem, make certain that you do not include these off-the-top-of-your-head statements.  Remember, they were the first thoughts to come to your mind about the subject.  They will be obvious (never argue the obvious) or trite (avoid thinking that is ordinary or cliché).  You may safely presume that these ideas would also have occurred first to the other poets and readers.

Now, begin to examine in-depth the ramifications of your subject.  One way to do that is to imagine people you know (neighbors, parents, colleagues at work, friends) in situations appropriate to the subject.  What would be the result?

Example.  How would your real neighbors, Sally and Bob, respond?  If you recognize that the situation’s effect on Sally will differ from its effect on Bob, and perhaps both effects will differ from the situation’s effect upon you, your awareness of differences is an important step in your mental approach to your poem.

Next, extract the salient features of the situation and construct its narrative line.  Like a parable, a narrative makes a point.  Presented in chronological order, each step in the progression of events could become a paragraph of the poem.

Example.  Remove the real Sally and Bob from the narration, and replace them with fictional ones.  For instance, if you replace them with barnyard animals (as George Orwell did in his novel Animal Farm), the story should still make its point.  Your fictional characters, embodying different viewpoints, will enable your poem to contrast outcome.  Edwin Arlington Robinson was a master at this.  See his Eros Turannos for a succinctly composed, three-sided look at marriage’s dissolution.

We have examined just one of many approaches to dealing with commonplace themes.   The thing to remember, of course, is that the value of an approach to a theme can only be measured by the resulting poetry.  All step-by-step methods have distinctly mechanical or unnatural feel to them at first, but usage quickly smoothes out the kinks in any process.

Francoise Sagan wisely tells us that “Art must take reality by surprise.”  Don’t make the mistake that she is simply advocating novelty.  She’s telling us that we are somewhat jaded by reality, the routine stuff we encounter every day in the news, on our streets, at the work place, and – often sadly – in our home.  The artist must make reality vibrant somehow.  The poet’s vision should make us see the ordinary afresh, a tendered view of the world in a way that not only draws but detains our notice.  But if we couple Sagan’s axiom with the noble sentiment embodied in Robert Frost’s comment that poetry “is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget,” we’ll recognize that no poetic effort should restate the obvious, lack thought or substance, or succumb to the undistinguished conventions of ordinary prose.