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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 ...

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