Wednesday, May 11, 2011

`Subject Matter is Accident'

“Theme is essence; subject matter is accident.”

So writes poet-publisher R.L. Barth in his “Preface” to The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000). He describes Lewis as “fundamentally a domestic poet,” and assures us this designation is neither dismissive nor patronizing. Her subject matter, he notes, “is frequently what we would consider domestic: gardens, housework, children, domesticated animals.” The same might be said of many poems written by Lewis’ husband, Yvor Winters. Barth adds, apropos of both poets:

“Any perceptive reader recognizes immediately that, whatever their domestic subject matter, the themes of many of the poems transcend the merely domestic: love, death, memory, acceptance.”

Barth’s point is that the essential gift of a good or great artist (the Dutch still-life painters come to mind) is to see fundamental themes in the humdrum (is whaling really so grand?). Barth reiterates: “We must not confuse the subject matter with the themes.” The commonplace remains so only to the commonplace mind.

I’ve been browsing in 100 Years of Farm Journal (Countryside Press, 1976), a volume culled from the archives of the largest national farm magazine, founded in 1877. The book reproduces full pages, including ads with their extravagant claims:

“I’ll Set You Up in the Oil Business!”

“Fleming’s Lump Jaw Cure!”

“End Diarrhea in Chicks!”

“Turnip Seeds!”

“I Learned this Priceless Harness Secret from a Pail Handle!”

The writing, both ads and articles, mingles practicality and American folksiness, and the book is compulsively readable. Here’s a sort of found-poem from the October 1961 issue, titled “Now is the time to”:

Fix gates.
Pay taxes.
Tell jokes.
Clean closets.
Dance the polka.
Go duck hunting.
Read Psalm 118:6.
Watch your weight.
Buy shotgun shells.
Burn the mortgage.
Enjoy autumn colors.
Fill up on apple pie.
Invest in a chain saw.
Plant more lily bulbs.
Repair storm windows.
Have your eyes examined.
Green-wrap some tomatoes.
Have a family portrait taken.
Have flapjacks for breakfast.
Admire Mom’s chrysanthemums.
Start planning a winter vacation.
Keep an eye on the cattle market.
Give Aunt Minnie slips from your best geraniums.
Take Shorty with you when you visit the stockyards.”

You can hear echoes of Poor Richard, Thoreau, Will Rogers and Robert Frost, and most of the suggestions still make good common sense. The lines, you’ll note, are arranged by length and, if concrete poetry is suggested, form – what? Half a bell? A rudder or attenuated grand piano? It might almost be a Kay Ryan poem, without the eccentric rhyme scheme and tightly unwound moral. She has a new poem, “Linens,” in the May issue of Poetry:

“There are charms
that forestall harm.
The house bristles
with opportunities
for stasis: refolding
the linens along
their creases, keeping
the spoons and chairs
in their right places.
Nobody needs to
witness one’s exquisite
care with the napkins
for the napkins
to have been the act
that made the fact

Linens, spoons, chairs, napkins: “Theme is essence; subject matter is accident.”

[Ryan has two other poems in the May issue of Poetry: “All You Did” and “The Obsoletion of a Language.” Here is Psalms 118:6 in the King James Bible: “The Lord is on my side, I will not feare: What can man doe vnto mee?”]

1 comment:

David W. Sanders said...

I was the publisher of both the Winters and Lewis collection that Bob Barth edited; I appreciate your bringing Bob's astute comment to light. I also want to commend you for making the connection between Janet Lewis and Kay Ryan, their deceptive simplicity and understatement. "Theme is essence" indeed.