Thursday 17 September 2020


In Poetry Salzburg Review (No.35), James Russell entitles his reviews section "Aboutness", using the term (which is used in philosophy, apparently) to help classify some types of difficulty -

  • Late modernist - there's no "poet standing 'behind' the text talking about something" - e.g. Prynne's "The Oval Window"
  • "standard-issue difficulty" - "there certainly is a poet writing from a viewpoint behind the refractory surface, a poet who is deliberately withholding the poem's aboutness. (In the worst cases, the poem only attains poetic status because of this withholding)"
  • poetry with aboutness, which however uses a "particular form of diction and lexical range [] withholding closure" - Ashbery, Stevens
  • poetry where the seeming aboutness and the content don't obviously match. High-modernist? - e.g. Geoffrey Hill, Pound

Readers who think they can see what a poem's "about" (who can paraphrase) have a foundation to help appreciate the poem. It probably means that the poem has some cohesion, which also aids conventional understanding. It may only be a prop to be discarded after use, but there's no harm offering a helping hand to readers, is there?

If a collection has aboutness (e.g. a theme or two), the themes can provide the narrative for a review, which helps both poet and reviewer. It makes commercial sense for the back cover to say what the collection is "about" even if a minority of the poems match the description. If the poet's autobiography matches the theme, so much the better.

But "aboutness" isn't univerally popular. I've heard poets say of a poem of theirs that "If I knew what it's about I wouldn't have written it." I rather like trying to discover what a poem is "about", which is perhaps why I'm not so keen on single-theme autobiographical collections. I like trying to work out how a poem achieves its effect, which leads to psychology and market awareness more than soul-baring. Even if a poem doesn't work for me, I'm interested in how might it work for others.

At the end of his review, Russell wonders wonders whether poems can be about themselves. He mentions theories which claim that mental states have to be about something, if only in a "I think therefore I am" way. Poems can perhaps create a sensation of being poetry without paraphrase getting in the way.

I don't write many poems that are clearly about something. Perhaps I should write more of them. I can write them more quickly than my usual ones, and I'd like to increase my output.

1 comment:

  1. I think the best answer I ever gave when someone—and there have been many—asked me what a poem was about was this: “If I could’ve put it into words I would’ve used those words.” About: it’s one of those words we use and don’t really think… er, about. About, to my mind, is something that circles a point and never quite gets to it. Poems don’t really have plots but they should have points even if it’s just the point these words came together and felt like they belonged together. (I’m playing devil’s advocate here because, for me, there should be more than that.) Perhaps the point that satisfied me is a starting point, like a list of ingredients. I don’t tend to watch cookery shows any more but I always found it interesting when the contestants were given the same ingredients and x number of minutes to see what they can make of them. They all bring their expertise and experience and (hopefully) that certain je ne sais quoi. I don’t think poems can be solved, not even my own and you’d think I’d be their ideal reader. As for whether poems can be about themselves, I strongly believe they can. I think the nature of poetry is every bit as fascinating as any other topic and I keep returning to it. I’ve just finished reading Richard Brautigan’s collected poems and there were quite a few poems in it that talked about themselves. Made me feel quite a home.