Subject Matter and Themes in Poetry

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Subject Matter and Themes: Workshop and On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

When it comes to poetry, I sometimes get confused. This week I found myself scratching my head again as I read about subject matter and themes, and I thought: “Is there a difference?”

Ah, of course there is—though there was a time when I tangled the two. I apparently have a similar issue with similes/metaphors and with alliteration/consonance. In fact, I think I might suffer from a sort of poetic dyslexia because I get so many of the terms turned around.

To keep subject matter and theme straight, I continuously referred back to this week’s lecture which states: “The subject matter is what the poem is about. The theme is better represented as reoccurring ideas that surface and resurface in a poem. I could very well write a poem about auto repair while focusing on themes of aging and mortality, resilience, etc.”

I originally chose Workshop by Billy Collins for this exercise because I connected as a writer for obvious reasons with the subject matter (or was it the themes? Nah, it was definitely the subject matter). But my mind kept returning to On Turning Ten so I’ve decided to discuss both. Of course, if I get either one right, it’ll be a miracle.

First, I love the fact that these two poems show up back-to-back in the book because they feel connected, like two separate glances at one poet’s life. While it’s easy to assume but hard to say with certainty that Collins is being self-reflective with either or simply speaking about poets in general (or a bit of both perhaps), they have similar themes and subject matters. In fact, Workshop could very well be the future perspective of the young poet in On Turning Ten.

Workshop is such a neat poem. On the surface the subject matter feels light and seems to be simply about work shopping a poem but as we dig deeper we see that the poem being work shopped feels alive. Collins uses personification and imagery (like “the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face” and “maybe that’s just what it wants to do” and even “words are food thrown down on the ground for other words to eat”) to show us the poet’s intense connection to his own work as if it is representative of the writer himself— like he is the poem. The image of the hard working mouse reflects the pain and effort the poet put into his piece. Themes that scream out to me include creativity, pain (mostly regarding the critique process), self-reflection and even death. “There’s something about death going on here” feels highlighted in the poem, as though the poet had an epiphany that having his poem torn apart in workshop feels like death itself.

On Turning Ten is a sort of coming of age poem about a young boy who realizes he’s getting too old for childish things, like “imaginary friends.” He reflects on and says goodbye to his childhood as he looks toward the future. There is a profound sadness to the poem as though the young poet doesn’t actually want to say goodbye to his imagination but feels he must. “The whole idea of it” makes him feel like “he’s coming down with something” “a kind of measles of the spirit.” The image of this boy “walking through the universe in his sneakers” looking back at his “youth” or more accurately at his younger self, since he’s only turning ten, and how he played make believe is precious. He says: “It seems only yesterday I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I would shine.” Here the poem captures the essence of youthful abandon and fearlessness. But the poem ends with the subject realizing his own mortality: “But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees. I bleed.”

Death is a major recurring theme in this section of Collins’ book and, even the title, The Art of Drowning, alludes to it. Each poem addresses death from a unique angle. For example, Days dances with the idea that life is a gift and suggests we live each as though it’s our last. Dancing Toward Bethlehem discusses “final minutes” and we see “the orchestra sliding into the sea.”

In On Turning Ten Collins takes what by all accounts should be a positive milestone in a young person’s life but grooms it with negativity as if ten is the beginning of the end, while Workshop addresses the theme of death less literally. Through the image of the cemetery and the line about death in the middle of the poem, Collins practically shouts, “Hey, this poem is also about death!” Workshop isn’t about physical death or realizing one’s own mortality like On Turning Ten but rather it’s the emotional death we sometimes feel when we’re being criticized or misunderstood.

Death is also a common theme with the other poets we covered this week. For example, in I Go Back to May 1937 Sharon Olds uses straightforward language (“you are going to want to die”) and dark imagery (“plates of blood” and “wrought iron gate”) to speak of ghosts and memories of departed loved ones. In addition to death, this week’s other common themes include looking inward, time (it passing, standing still, slipping away), loss, endings, love, regret and creativity.

Writing and poetry itself were common subject matters in this week’s poems. While Workshop discusses a poem being work shopped and On Turning Ten speaks of a young poet growing up, in Canada, the subject of the poem speaks of various Canadian writers as he/she “writes this in a wooden canoe” and Osso Buco says a “full stomach” is “something you don’t hear about much in poetry” and Budapest speaks of the “pen moving along the page.”

It was nice to read so many poems using “writing” as subject to tackle so many different themes.

Works Cited:

Bishop, Wendy. Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem: A Guide to Writing Poetry. New York. Longman. 2000.

Collins, Billy. Sailing Along Around the Room. New York. Random House. 2001.

McClatchy, J. D. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. New York. Vintage. 2003.

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