In a humorous essay about poetry, William Matthews suggested there are only four subjects for poems:
1. I went out into the woods today, and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We’re not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent, and on what we know not what.
So I looked for a poem today about something outside these categories and here is one by Dorianne Laux:
Finding What’s Lost
In the middle of the poem my daughter reminds me
that I promised to drive her to the bus stop.
She waits a few beats then calls out the time.
Repeats that I’ve promised.
I keep the line in my head, repeat it under my breath
as I look for my keys, rummage through my purse,
my jacket pockets. When we’re in the car, I search
the floor for a Jack-in-the-Box bag, a ticket stub,
a bridge toll dollar, anything to write on.
I’m still repeating my line when she points
out the window and says “look, there’s the poppy
I told you about,” and as I turn the corner I see it,
grown through a crack between the sidewalk and the curb.
We talk about it while I scan driveways for kids
on skateboards and bikes, while the old man who runs
the Rexall locks up for the night and a mangy dog
lifts a frail leg and sprays the side of a tree.
Then we talk about her history essay and her boyfriend,
and she asks again about summer vacation, if we’re
going somewhere or just staying home. I say
I don’t know and ask what she’d rather do, but by now
we’re at the bus stop and she leans over
and, this is so unlike her, brushes her lips
quickly against my cheek. Then, without looking back,
she’s out the door, and the line, the poem,
is gone, lost somewhere near 8th and G, hovering
like an orange flower over the gravel street.
I guess it’s possible to make an argument for this poem’s fitting into category 4, but I would argue against. It’s more about writing and life, the opposition of one to the other, another common poetic topic.
Dorianne was a staff poet at Squaw Valley Community of Writers one year, and she committed the cardinal sin of not writing and submitting a new poem for one workshop–it happened to be the workshop I was in. This is the one requirement everyone follows–she could have written a bad haiku or four-line stanza, but she had nothing. I don’t think she’s ever been back. She gave a craft talk that year about having been for years very far from poetry, busy with life, earning a living, and then getting a teaching job, and reading George Herbert and suddenly feeling the world of poetry open back up to her. It was very moving, and certainly resonated with me.