Poetry is risky business. All the time, I hear poetry teachers urging their students to take risks, and usually, what they mean, is write about “risky” subject matter. But what makes subject matter risky—writing about the body? Sorry folks, people have been doing that for years. Writing about drug use? Sexual assault? Running away from home? For writers who have avoided confronting the ghosts and shames of their pasts, such “taboo” topics may feel uncharted, might make us uncomfortable even, but after decades of poems on such subjects, I’m not sure how inherently “risky” these topics are for readers. Furthermore, such insistence on risky subject matter can make young writers who haven’t had such experiences feel inadequate in the content of their work.
Of course, risky subject matter can provide us with energy—look at me, Mom, I’m writing about stuff you wouldn’t approve of. And fuck, I’m using language you wouldn’t approve of either. And surely we can imagine subject matter that we’ve observed rather than we’ve had happen to us. For many writers, just imagining another life can be a risk. Writing persona poems stretch our imagination and force us to think beyond our initial impressions of our subject matter. But there are other risks a writer can take, other ways to challenge one’s self, than what we write about.
The tightrope, without stating the obvious, is even risky for the circus performer, but much less so after years of training than for the novice. Subject matter only takes us so far—how many times can we revisit the same stories in the same way?
Risk then, for a poet, has to be considered in different ways. One way to be risky with our content is to reconsider the notions of subject matter itself, to allow yourself to be ambivalent about the topic, to second guess what you believe the poem is about. To have a “but” in the poem. To question one’s own beliefs is always potentially troublesome, but also liberating. How many times can we write about our broken hearts? Try writing a poem that begins I’m glad you left me…
Or think of Phyllis Moore’s “Why I Hate Martin Frobisher,” a catalog of anaphora driven lines:
Because he watches sports on TV
Because he works and I just read books
Because when I’m screaming like an oceanliner, he can answer the phone and say
“Sure, no problem”
Because my mother thinks he’s the spotty pup and I’m Cruella Deville.
Because he plays with his food, cut curliques in my 4-hour creme brulee
but then, when she breaks the pattern, the speaker admits her attempts at trying to convince herself and us of her hatred.
Because he’s got a heart the size of a chipped acorn, the brains of a squirrel, he’s a jerk,
a little girl’s blouse,
a felon but straight-seamed
a cream-faced, two-penny
scoundrel and a kitten-kicker,
a real badass
and I want him back, oh yeah.
It’s a perilous proposition, of tone, of the anaphoric form overpowering the subject, but, in this case, it’s one that pays off.
Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which inverts the celebration of the beautiful beloved and opens with these lines:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
Subverting expectations is a big risk, but it humanizes the beloved, the speaker, and the sonnet form.
Form, obviously, is where the most risks can be taken. Contemporary poetics allows for a variety of formal options—from fractal use of the page to prose poems to fixed forms. I have a student right now who regularly threatens to drop my class if I make her write in fixed forms: so more than ever I want to assign everyone a villanelle or terza rima. She’s afraid of failure in writing in form. Yet failure teaches us more than success.
But nothing prevents us from making up forms, too. Jim Simmerman’s assignment “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” in The Practice of Poetry seems, at first glance, extremely difficult. Students, when presented with it, often complain that it’s “impossible.” Invariably, students write their best poems by rising to the challenge of the form that forces them to put subject matter further down their list of concerns.
For writers, particularly in the early stage of their careers, trained to think about what their poems are about, putting form—putting prosody—before subject matter can feel like dangerous. We want to say something meaningful, and we want our experiences to be validated. But there’s another way of thinking, and that’s like the old woman in E.M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel, who says “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” Byt this logic, then, intelligence is created by the very act of writing.
We’re thinking all the time, most of it unconsciously. We don’t think to get our lungs to breathe; we don’t think to fall in love. Most of us have seen something (a dog running down the street) and made connections to other events, other experiences, other times (an ex who had a similar dog, or a fact about golden retrievers we saw on Animal Planet); suddenly, what had been unconsciously happening is brought to consciousness. Not thinking about subject matter, but thinking about form and prosody, might allow unconscious thoughts to bubble up. It’s a risk of trusting our poetics. And poetics, not subject matter, is truly what writing a poem is about. We must remember: if we’re choosing to write in verse, we have to consider what it is the line gives us. It gives us formal concerns. Taking risks with form can lead to the most rewarding poems.