Poetry is an activity which in terms of its subject-matter embeds what you might call difference. It is not simply that it is heterogeneous in some kind of static sense, which can be manipulated and controlled, but that dynamically speaking it is always breaking away from itself and finding itself in different territories. It is only in the sphere of form that the element of repetition emerges - beginning, of course, with a rhythmical structure. However, that is not what I want to talk about here, but rather its nomadic subject-matter – or what poetry is about.
People often talk as if they know what poetry is about – or should be about. And, of course, one of the most annoying questions a poet can be asked concerns what they write about. On hearing I wrote poetry, an aunt of mine once asked, “What do you write poetry about, Richard, flowers?” Such questions never cease to stump me. How do I know what I write poetry about when writing poetry itself is a work in progress which will not stand still long enough to be given a label? The only possible answer to such questions is that it is about what it is about at the time it is being written. Of course, that doesn’t satisfy some people, who don’t like the idea of things escaping their grasp. But that, I am afraid, is what the subject-matter of poetry too often does.
There are occasions when it is the form of poetry which breaks away from what is expected. Eliot and Pound were two such cases. But on the whole, form is more stable in poetry than subject-matter, which is always breaking away, even when forms are relatively static. The English Romantics were a case in point. None of the English Romantic poets from, say, Wordsworth to Keats really broke new ground formally speaking, but they undoubtedly did with their subject-matter. I am not fully sure why this is so. Perhaps the answer is a bit more complicated than pouring new wine into old bottles. The important point I want to make here is that it is the subject-matter of poetry which encapsulates the idea of difference, while form embodies much more the impulse towards repetition. And I’m not going to venture any further than that at this point.
So I really want to talk about the subject-matter of poetry and why this is – and of course, should continue to be – both open-ended and driven to occupy new territories – a bad metaphor I know from a PC perspective. This impulse might lead to a poetry which breaks formal moulds, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. I have noticed poets being attacked because they choose to right on subjects which are not in the accepted curriculum. There are only a limited number of things you can do in the realm of form, but at least in the realm of subject-matter you can take it as read that nothing is written and anything goes.
Often you meet people who say that poetry is about this, that and the other thing – whatever the other thing is. Recently, I heard someone say, poetry is about death. I will admit that death can be a very important theme in poetry, but is poetry just about death? What about love, sex, nature, politics, babies, dogs, rock-music, climbing mountains, war, revolution and so on? As I get older, I will admit, death has become more centre-stage for me than it was and that’s reflected in my poetry. And there are legitimate poetical and philosophical concerns surrounding the subject of death. But that’s just one possible theme for poetry to explore. The important thing is not what poetry is about, but what a poem is about and each poem is different and tackles the world – as the sum-total of possible subjects – always from different angles. Dealing with that, of course, is part of the challenge of criticism.
So poetry is more than about this, that and the other thing and anyone who wants to set limits on what it’s about is guilty of wanting to limit the possibilities of poetry itself. You can make a poem out of anything as long as it lends itself to your poem as a poem. Sometimes, of course, it won’t come off. You might have said something in a poem without it being a poem – i.e., without fulfilling the other requirements of poetry. There may be a lot of experimentation and hit and miss aspects to writing a poem. It is not a perfectionist’s art. Risks have to be taken by anyone who wants to develop and fulfil their potential as poets. And one should be perfectly prepared to fall flat on one’s face on occasion. The failure to achieve a true unity between form and content is clear grounds for criticism, but they are what you might call a posteriori grounds. There can be no a priori grounds for rejecting any potential subject-matter at all before the act of writing itself has established whether or not what you are writing actually works as a poem. Such grounds are completely invalid – although dictators, moralists, so-called arbiters of taste or fashion and control-freaks in general tend not to think so.
So, as you see, there is no proper or appropriate subject-matter for poetry. From that point of view, anything goes and all is permitted. However, there is one condition. This subject-matter must lend itself to the act of writing a poem and form itself into the poem being written. If it doesn’t succeed in accomplishing this, then we have no other choice but to regard it as a failure. There is also another condition, which may be tied to the last. It cannot rest content in the realm of the immanent and should accept the challenge of transcendence – by which I mean the challenge of the transformation of the immanent into the transcendent in terms of both language and ideas. By “immanent” I mean something like “the nearest way”, to paraphrase Lady Macbeth. In other words, finding the right vehicle of expression for the ideas that are struggling to surface – especially in the realm of imagery. However, it is a good to bear in mind here what Paul Valery said on that subject, namely that the image itself was of no importance. “What matters is the energy of image formation… the sensation of a leap, a short-cut, a surprise, of control over a universe of difference.” This universe of difference concerns the different levels which the poem functions on as a poem. And that brings us back to our very first sentence about the subject-matter of poetry and difference.
The terms difference and repetition have been borrowed from Gilles Deleuze book, Difference And Repetition. Deleuze himself spoke in that book of Difference In-Itself and Repetition For-Itself, much in the manner of Sartre’s Being In-Itself and Being For-Itself. Let me try and explain what meaning I take from these words, without guaranteeing that they are what Deleuze himself might have meant. Fido is a dog; as such he fits into the category of dogs and is covered by the concept dog, which, as Spinoza rightly said, cannot bark. But Fido isn’t just any old dog; Fido is Fido. So his concrete reality consists in his uniqueness and not just in his being a dog. You can’t, as Badieu thinks you can, simply count him as one – of a series or a set, as in Set-Theory. That is to lift him outside the realm of his actual existence as Fido and give him a canine essence, fitting him into a category which we for our convenience have designated for him and his kind. His very being is constituted in difference. His essence, on the hand, is a pure abstraction - e.g. as, maybe, the fourth dog in a series, counted as one in the set of all dogs – as opposed to cats or tomatoes. Sure he is more different from cats and tomatoes than from other dogs, but he is still different from other dogs, and this is not because he is more or less like other dogs (He might be a complete clone, for all we know), but because he is not another dog and doesn’t occupy another dog’s time or space in this universe of ours. This is what I take Deleuze to mean when he speaks of Difference-In-Itself. Difference is absolutely fundamental. Repetition For-Itself alludes to the fact that different things may also be generic, or form into a species, repeating themselves on the level of their similarity or equivalence, neither of which constitute true identity in the sense that two and two constitute true identity because they refer to nothing outside themselves. The term Repetition For-Itself indicates to me nothing more than how things may organise themselves vis-à-vis one another to perpetuate their own being within a universe of multiplicity – or difference. This is also applicable to poetry. It is in its form or self-formation that repetition enters and such things as similarity and equivalence emerge. Repetition is fundamental to an entity’s Being-In-The-World, but not to its Being-In-Itself – to use Sartrean terminology again. These terms are highly abstract. In reality things are much more hopelessly mixed-up and impossible to separate.
Deleuze is also interesting for what he has to say about poetry. “In very general terms…, there are two ways to appeal to ‘necessary destructions’: that of the poet who speaks in the name of a creative power capable of overturning all orders and representations in order to affirm Difference in the state of permanent revolution… and that of the politician who is, above all, concerned to deny that which differs so as to conserve or prolong the established historical order.” What Deleuze says about Difference here is not unlike what I have been saying about the subject-matter of poetry. When I look around me at what I can only call the officially sanctioned poetry of our times, I do not see anything which affirms “Difference in the state of permanent revolution” which overturns “all orders and representations” – a la Rimbaud for example. I see rather poets scared of their own shadows, whose preoccupations and values are middle-class to the core, poets who have turned away from the idea of difference to become like each other. All that has to be blown apart - not in the name of any political ideology or agenda, but in the name of difference. Affirming difference is the only thing that will prevent poetry completely stagnating in future.