Role of the poet: interpret the status quo or subvert it?

Or do something else entirely with it?

I don’t know why I can’t get this query out of my head at the moment.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

14 thoughts on “Role of the poet: interpret the status quo or subvert it?”

    1. Are you saying that the poet naturally subverts? I think the poet ‘naturally’ interprets, but am not sure the poet naturally subverts.

      Re: which status quo – Whatever status quo the poet is engaged with? Now I focus, I think I mean ‘big picture’ socio-political subversion. But is subverting the poetry status quo small picture subversion? Maybe not.

  1. It depends on the times and the situation, of course. These days, among the classes from which English poetry-readers are mostly drawn, the chief mechanism of oppression is the smoke-and-mirrors of entertainment and distraction: so in these particular times, in this particular class, I feel like slow, intense attention really is, in itself, subversive. Anything that encourages us to pause and take a deep breath and think. And poetry tends to be one of those things.

  2. Poets have it seems lived in this nether region since the beginning. To write of feelings and how to capture that. Present tense, past. Use a tree as metaphor. Be the canary in the coal mine. All valid. I feel each poet springs forth with their view and will pick up an audience that resonates with that. You cant force art, well you can and then you have polished a turd.

  3. Although it’s fun to ask questions like this I think at the end of the day they’re not very helpful. You write what comes naturally. Your readers will decide what you’re being. They complete the circuit. I wrote this short poem back in 1996:


    The thing about beliefs is
    they don’t need to be true.
    That’s not their job.

    They’re there because
    so many things aren’t true.
    Nature abhors a vacuum.

    My parents would have regarded that as terribly subversive, bordering on blasphemous – I was undermining everything they stood for; as far as they were concerned a man was defined by his beliefs. As far as I was concerned I was simply observing what I had seen and was reporting it.

    1. I don’t know, Jim. If questions like this strike the right emotional nerve and infuse you enough, they impact your writing (whether you intend that or not). And such questions also relate to the criteria we bring to evaluating other people’s work for ourselves. Nobody reads in a vacuum, we all bring prejudices and preferences to everything we read. It seems to me that questions like this help us identify and examine and – if necessary – redirect those prejudices and preferences.

  4. Subversion is what other people do with your words. And you can guarantee that they’ll misinterpret your poem in some way or another – each brings their own baggage to the read. Me? I just write stuff about stuff I find interesting.

  5. Nic, it has struck me over the years that poets are called to look at things differently then the conventional way. I see this as interpretive.But then when I sit down to write, if I’m going to write in such a way that will challenge the traditional view of whatever I was seeing, then I’m subverting the norm. You’ve never thought of an ice box on its side? Ta-da! I guess I see them as complementary roles.

  6. I think I agree, Michael. Yours and other comments have helped sharpen my thinking with regard to what I mean by ‘subversion’ and I think successful poets are ipso facto ‘subverters’, if only because they craft and offer lenses/prisms that offer differing perceptions of phenomena.

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