Context

A problem I often run into when trying to write a poem is providing adequate context. There’s not much that irritates me more when reading a poem than feeling as if there’s some back story I need to know in order to get the poem at its most basic level. Sure, references that dress up a poem and add additional layers of meaning are ok, but sometimes I read poems that feel like inside jokes. How am I supposed to appreciate these things?

I attended a reading here in Knoxville at Carpe Librum booksellers yesterday that I enjoyed very much. The poet was Asheville Poetry Review editor Keith Flynn, with whom I was unfamiliar but who felt sort of like a distant n-times-removed cousin because of ties he has to some poets and critics with whom I have remote anonymous ties through people I know from my time at UNC. He’s a great reader with a sonorous voice. His pacing is good and his patter between poems entertaining, if verbose (not always a bad thing, though I guess it depends on your perspective). There were only five or six of us in the audience, including his publisher and one of the book store owners, and he read with the enthusiasm he’d have given an audience of hundreds when he could have figured we weren’t worth his bother for the number of books he’d sell. For something like an hour and a half, I sat and listened to him talking and reading (and singing), and it was mostly very enjoyable. I found myself thinking as he spoke and read that there’s a reason we have oral art (whether poems or music or tall tales) and that even poems not designed with their pronunciation particularly in mind probably benefit from a fine reading aloud.

I haven’t had a chance yet to go back and reread any of the poems he read to us, but I was thinking today about his often lengthy patter and how he gave a detailed back story including personal anecdotes for pretty much everything he read. It’s fun to get the back story, of course, because it makes you feel like you’ve got a sort of privileged access to the thought process behind the poem, but I wonder if the poems stand up on their own without the back story, and I’m eager to read them myself and see.

It’s not that I want every little thing spelled out to me, and in fact, I sometimes like things that don’t make sense. My favorite fiction is the sort that you have to piece together over multiple treacherous readings, and I enjoy a good poetic turn of phrase without regard to its meaning. Some poems I find pleasing even if I don’t understand them, but others — the ones that I’m getting at here — make me feel excluded. They demand context without providing it and are thoroughly unsatisfying.

I’ve been tempted of late to provide a lot of exposition in the things I write. Or it’s not that I’m tempted to do so (because I don’t want to, and you’re usually tempted by things you want), but I know that doing so will make what I’m writing very bad, and I don’t know how to get around it. Perhaps, given the many things I’ve read that seem to expect you to read without adequate context, it’s ok just to leave readers hanging. But I have a nagging sense that this isn’t really fair to readers, and I (as if I had readers) wonder if there might not really be a question of audience here. That is, perhaps some art is meant to be private, an expression of something that needs to get out of you but that may not be so meaningful to others and that thus should maybe remain private. Arguably, given that the art is flawed, this sort of thing can’t be really considered art. Or let’s not conflate art and artifice: perhaps because it’s flawed, it lacks artifice along one dimension, however artful it remains along others. In any case, they’re not a sort of art I generally appreciate, and I’m all the more frustrated with this type of poem of late because I’m struggling with the issue in my own work.

So, I put the question to my two loyal readers who might have any interest in this topic at all. If, in order to really get a poem, you have to know that the poet’s aunt was missing a ring finger (a dumb example I just made up), but that detail doesn’t appear in the poem itself, is the poem really fair to the reader?

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