PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Subha Mukherji Dying and Living with De la Mare Carl Phillips Fall Colors and other poems Alex Wylie The Bureaucratic Sublime: on the secret joys of contemporary poetry Marilyn Hacker Montpeyroux Sonnets David Herman Memories of Raymond Williams
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue

This article is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.

Poetry's Subject Douglas Oliver

In discussing 'poetry's subject', I'm going to limit my meanings for 'subject' to three ilistinct definitions: first, the subject who performs the poem, either as poet or reader, rather like the personal subject who performs an active verb; second, the poem's Subject-matter in a sense as active and broad as 'Invention' or 'discovery of the ideas and matter' in classical rhetoric; and third, 'subject' in a political sense - why do poets or readers in a given era become subjected to the sovereignty of limited definitions of good poetry. The old joke goes, I can make a pun on any subject.' There are two of my meanings. 'Make a pun on Queen Victoria.' 'She is not a subject.' That's my third meaning.

Normally a poem is performed when it is originally written, or when it is read silently or aloud, or chanted, or sung by the poet or by a reader. Only at those moments can it be truly a poem, an artwork alive in time; otherwise, it remains just a text, closed up within a book or opened to critical attention, an object whose relations with time a critic may describe but which remain potential, not actual. When I talk about poetry as a poet, as an artist and not as a critic, I always focus upon performance of poems: artistically, that's where the action is, where the possibilities begin.

When poets become cultural critics they often narrow down poetry's vast potential into some ...

Searching, please wait... animated waiting image