One of the first and simplest ways a reader gets his bearings when exploring the unfamiliar territory of a poet’s work is by learning to recognize the poet’s favorite subjects. Eventually, you move on to the subtler signatures of rhythm, imagery, and metaphor; but it’s only after you know, roughly speaking, what the poet writes about that you become confident enough to start examining how he writes about it. To say that Robert Frost is a poet of New England country life, or Elizabeth Bishop a poet of travel, is not to say very much about them, but it’s enough to start making their acquaintance—much as a person at a party might be introduced with “Mary is a lawyer” or “John is from Chicago.”

It follows that one of the most disconcerting things a poet can do is to appear to have no favorite subjects, no recurrent themes. Such a poet appears unplaceable; like someone who conceals his...


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