I don't have the exact quote, but somewhere Alfred Hitchcock said something to the effect that
critics who complained about the trivial or tawdry low-brow content of his films were like a museum-goer wondering whether Cezanne's apples were sweet or sour.
They miss the point, he insisted. It's not content that's important, it's style.
Any old apple or wheelbarrow or pistol poking out of a pocket will do for a subject.
Content is irrelevant, or should be, according to this theory:
the viewer or reader must focus first and foremost on the artist's stylistic choices and methods.
Indeed, the audience is commanded to believe that
WHAT the artist says or shows is secondary to HOW he or she does it.
As John Ciardi summarises the theory in his 1958 book 'How Does a Poem Mean,'
"Anything significantly looked at is significant."
In fact, in this dispensation, in this scale of esthetics, the more insignificant the ostensible subject is, the better.
Objectivist poetry (and much of Imagist) is based on this tenet.
Reznikoff: 'About an excavation a flock of bright red lanterns has settled.' (This example comes from the canonical Norton Modern Anthol.)
What makes this a poem? (And not merely a poem: no, it's now a Work of Literature, due to its enshrinement in the Norton)—
Maybe the linebreaks, for a start. I've deliberately left them out, in honor of all the 'prose poems' being written currently—
And then of course the metaphor: the lanterns are no longer lanterns per se, they're seen as a "flock" of "settl[ing]" birds.
Does this metaphorical overlay make it poetry? (I assume the comparison is deliberately clicheish—I mean, birds?)
The subject/object being depicted is ordinary, everyday, banal, something you've seen many times, especially in urban areas:
a hole, a trench has been dug, an "excavation", presumably for the usual purposes: to lay or repair waterpipes, electrical grids, etc. Installing cables. And then when the workers quit for the day, they leave lanterns, flashing lights, signs and sawhorses around the open pit, as warnings to protect pedestrians/motorists from straying into it—
About an excavation
a flock of bright red lanterns
"Anything significantly looked at is significant," lectures John Ciardi, who insists that "How" a poem means is more important that "What" it means—
but is it? I wonder. I think this may be an idea (an ideal, really) whose time has passed.
This belief—that the content of a poem is irrelevant,
that poets are free to seize upon any trivial object, any thingy-thing-thing in the environment around them,
and then, through the power of their craft and the manipulations of their genius,
can transform that common thing, that wheelbarrow or street-flasher or this:
"Between walls (the back wings of the hospital) where nothing will grow lie cinders in which shine the broken pieces of a green bottle."
What makes this poetry? I've left out the linebreaks.
If you saw this described in a scene in a novel—
you know, something like: "During lunchbreak Dr. Wayben stepped out for a cigarette in the area back of the surgical and ER wings and noticed down among the cinder gravel back there where grass never grew, some pieces of a broken green bottle; he wondered for a moment if it was a medicine or a wine bottle: either one, its shards gleamed up eagerly and desperately as his dying patient Julia Roach's eyes, smashed apart down there in the bleak shadows cast by the clinic blocks that towered behind him as he stood puffing. . . ." etc. etc.—
If you read it in a novel—and such intentionalized observations and characterizational metaphors abound in most fiction—it would just be another paragraph in the narrative . . .
But isolate that sight, that glimpse of glass in the dark gravel, chop that observation up into abrupt lines and stanzas, and presto it's poetry?
In this "Objectivist" mode the worse your subject matter is, the more trivial tawdry and ordinary it is, the better it is—
It's the arrogance of this theory which I find most offensive.
The Objectivist poet is in effect saying to their audience:
"Yes yes, I know you want poems about Important Significant Events Subjects,
but if I were to give in and give you such poems, you would focus your interest more upon those ISES
and less upon me!—
Distracted by that salient content, you might ignore and or insuffiently appreciate me, my artistry—
Look: here, I take this old wheelbarrow, this common roadside lantern, these unnoticed pieces of broken glass in the gravel,
or any trivial everyday phenomenon, any household object,
and lo, behold, even these mere nothing-things, these disposable sights and signs,
even the humblest is elevated by my craft my skill my genius
into the realm of art!
I take this mud and godlike transform it into gold.
And moreover, worse fate of all, if I gave you the poems you want, you might worship them instead of me."
—The Objectivist/NewThingypoo poet takes their credo from number one on the big 10 list: thou shalt have no other gods before me.