Dispatches from the Writer-in-Residence Office No. 2: Kary Wayson on Aboutness

Posted Wed, 11/19/2014 - 2:22pm by  |  Category:

Dispatches is a new series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, will discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. As a bonus, the posts will end with a prompt that addresses the topic at hand.

Dispatches Series Graphic

About the House

by Kary Wayson


I’m facilitating a rather large poetry workshop right now, and on our first meeting I objected to a heavy accumulation of opinions regarding what the poem under discussion was about. After my maybe-but-not-really admonishment, people stopped musing on the what of meaning and turned more attentively toward the how.

In the next class meeting, however, a participant confessed to feeling bewildered by my opposition to discussing aboutness.

“It’s not useful information for the writer,” I said. “We need a discussion of what works and what doesn’t—when, where, and how.”

A week later, she told me it’d kept her up at night, which I so admire. She said something like, “I know what you’re saying, but as the readers, we can’t help but search for meaning in a poem. We’re all trying to find out what the poem is about.”

She’s right, of course. She’s absolutely correct! We are searching for meaning, especially in a sprawl of language, right? Words are what we use to mean.

But! Still! To my mind and method, meaning is often the least important facet of a poem-in-progress—or even a finished one. Of course, readers cannot help but make associations and connections when reading a poem—small sparks that will (and do) add up to a big idea. At which point the readers can say: what/about. But then what? Anyone could have just said “death” or “love” or “loss” and called it a poem. I’m sure anyone has. Anyone can live in a somehow town—so says Mister Cummings.

Take, for example, Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso.” The poem is ostensibly “about” a damaged sculpture (and maybe the meaning of life), but then, somehow, through the miraculous reversal of subject and object in the last lines, the poem becomes “about” you, the reader. And, really, what is it about you?

Another way to put it is how Alan Grossman (perhaps irritably) says, “A poem is about something the way a cat is about the house.” I know it’s the worst question I get about my own work, and one of the main reasons why, when talking to my perfectly nice airplane seatmate, I will lie about my work. My poems, if they’re about anything, are first and foremost about the language that makes them. The sounds of words suggest more and other words, and the poem is “about” the reader’s experience of apprehending them. This is how I make poems—I enter them through a fascination with the words themselves, particularly with the turns a phrase can take. Language itself is more inventive than my rather repetitive imagination and can take a poem further than my measly meanings go.

All of this, of course—the how and what of a poem—is open to discussion.

Make an appointment to discuss your poetry with Kary by emailing kary@hugohouse.org.


Comments (1)

  1. adaludenow Thu, 11/20/2014 - 1:34pm  |  

    I have been finishing off Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and found very similar sentiments. Can I even say “about?” In this language game it is perhaps appropriate. And then I saw this essay from Garret Caples http://t.co/AFq546asgr and now this dispatch about aboutness. I have to add, with some trembling, some dread, that the same issues apply in Prose as well. Perhaps aboutness versus use is not as noticeable as in poetry? Aboutness, for example is not a word, in this comment, it is an activity.