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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Can You Write "Off the Subject?"

Upon reading the chapter "Writing off the Subject" from Richard Hugo's book The Triggering Town, I found myself wondering if it is possible to write off of your subject at all. This excerpt explains how switching into new ideas within the same poem is a proven method of creation. He also shows how stretching the topic with explanation can damaging. Certainly, if you are proving a thesis or composing a biography, then straying from the original point of the paper is unprofessional. However, I am concerned with the idea of going off topic in poetry.

"The question is: how to get off the subject, the initiating subject that is." (Hugo)

If I am writing an original poem, from my ideas and inspirations, then how can it be off subject? I may name it "Autumn Rain", as in Hugo's example, but does that nail it down as my subject? Sometimes I wonder if poetry is not based on the idea of presenting an expression without simply telling all the answers. I agree with a good deal of the constructive advice from the chapter, but find the idea of writing off the subject (while still in the creation process) hard to swallow. I may title a poem "Banana", discuss the nature of a bruised fruit and move on to the color of my bruise. From there I could write about falling from windows, considering my expertise in that area. Still, there are many other ways to continue the poem. I would tie in fruit before the end, but roam freely through other ideas until the poem felt complete. All the while, the subject is fluid and therefore impossible to stray from. I will tie anything to a banana, so long as my imagination or memory serves me, and I feel inclined to write the poem.

Now, I have to add that Hugo's eventual point in the chapter is to create new subjects from the "initiating subject". This idea is easier to grasp, though my initial reaction the the idea was premature disagreement. After closely reading the examples he provides, I understand the process that he outlines for the student poet.

"The point is, the triggering subject should not carry with it moral or social obligations to feel or claim you feel certain ways. "

This may not be the only purpose point in the chapter, but I came away with this one especially marked on my mind. I agree that poems with needy titles or subjects are difficult and offer less creative licence. When your subject comes before your express ideas about it, then how can the poem reveal anything worth sharing? A poet's communication with the reader, whether informative, transcendent, persuasive... any form should have freedom. The idea of artistic licence being a concern within a poem is ridiculous, but made real if you cling to a demanding subject. Were I to write about a controversial topic and keep it "politically correct" for my readers, the poem would serve no purpose.

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