Brow Beat

Can New Yorker Poets Write About Anything Besides Poetry?

About a year ago, a friend and I noticed a theme running through many New Yorker poems: With astounding frequency, they were about writing poetry. We would read them aloud up until some explicit mention of writing, words, grammar, typewriters, or anything else in the poet’s arsenal. It felt like we got to the end of maybe half of them.

Take, for example, the poem ” Only So Much ” by Rachel Hadas in the Jan. 4, 2010, issue. “I bend to the open notebook,” Hadas begins. (Here we would normally stop reading, according the game’s rules.) Later the narrator gets distracted by some ants, “I shut the notebook and open it from the back, to write.”

“Only So Much” got me wondering whether there was a more scientific way to gauge The New Yorker ‘s fondness for meta-poetry. I downloaded every poem on The New Yorker ‘s Web site—which came out to 316 specimens dating back to January 2008—and conducted a simple computerized search for the words poetry , poem , writing , reading , words , lines , or verse . I granted clemency in cases where words or lines were clearly used in a non-poetry-writing context.

By this measure, 84 poems—27 percent of the whole lot—mentioned poetry, including 32 that used the P word explicitly and 15 that mentioned writing in the title.

There’s nothing wrong with a little meta-poetry now and again. William Carlos Williams penned a bit of it and Keats fretted in verse about dying too young to complete his intended oeuvre. In the spirit of the old workshop injunction against “writing about writers writing,” however, 27 percent feels a tad steep. Let’s review some of The New Yorker bards’ favorite tropes.

A poem about writing a poem. This is the most obvious form.See Richard Kenney’s ” Coda “—”I tried lacing loss into these lines”—or David Mason’s ” Fathers and Sons “: “Some things, they say,/ one should not write about.”

A poem about someone else’s poetry. Keats could get away with rhapsodizing about a translation of Homer , but we’re not all John Keats. See ” Wheeling Motel ,” by Franz Wright: “Then the moon will rise/ like the word reconciliation,/ like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.” Other cameos include Wordsworth, Dante, and Natalie Portman .

A poem about reading a book. “I am reading/ Longinus while the Super Bowl is on,” boasts Robert Bly in ” Sunday Afternoon .” Not to be outdone, Jessica Greenbaum begins ” The Two Yvonnes ” with “for help he said I should read the new translation of a Gogol story …” (OK, so these aren’t precisely about poetry, but they’re still about literature.)

A poem about words. Not to be confused with the first category, often disembodied words are the poet’s muse. “Romantic? [the purple gorilla] says,/ reading the name out loud, slowly,/ so I am aware of each syllable, each vowel,” writes Matthew Dickman in ” Grief .”In “Phone Booth,” Brenda Hillman opens with the simple lament that “There should be more nouns.”

I would suggest that a scarcity of nouns is not the problem. Apparently, it’s a scarcity of new things to write poems about.