Tuesday, January 14, 2014
To Explain or Not to Explain
There are lots of different approaches to giving poetry
readings. There are Poets Who Mumble, and Poets Who Declaim Loudly. There are
Deadpan Poets and Emotional Poets, Audience Participation Poets and Theater in
the Round Poets and Poets Who Are Denying This Is Even a Poetry Reading Let’s
Have Beers Instead.
There are also Poets Who Explain (PWEs) and Poets Who Do Not
(PWDNs). In my experience, a PWE introduces not just his or her reading in
general (I’ll be reading poems from my unfinished manuscript, Ant Footprints
), but provides significant
background on each poem. PWDNs, by contrast, just launch into the reading -- each poem
comes as it may.
Now, this could get us into the question of “what poems are
right for readings?” and which ones aren’t (if a poem is too subtle,
complicated, or dense to really be appreciated on a single hearing, maybe it’s not
a good “reading” poem), but generally, I’ve found that the background that PWEs
provide isn’t explication of the poem – they’re not pointing out features of how
the poem works (i.e.
, “Check out these
anapests”). More often, they’re giving background on how the poem was produced
– how it was inspired (“It was on a picnic in Marblehead, MA that my mother
said to me, “WHEN ARE YOU EVER GETTING MARRIED?”), even if the poem turns out
not to mention or even really seem to deal with the events that inspired it.
It interests me that someone would furnish non-explicative background
at all. For poems that are more or less “gettable” without an explanation of their
inspiration, it’s not necessary, and for a poem that is complex or nuanced in of itself, knowing
the inspiration may not be all that relevant or helpful. I also wonder how much
audience expectation plays into this. Do certain audiences expect explanation,
thus pushing poets to give them, and does this create a kind of endless
feedback loop? I think if I were giving a reading at a public library or some
other place where I expected that the audience was not necessarily comprised of
rabid poetry fans, I’d be moved to provide more background than I would if I
were reading to other poets. I also know that there are poets who’ve played with
this very question/expectation, furnishing comic explanations that are longer
than the actual poem or, in one case I seem to remember, starting to explain a
poem . . . and it turned out the explanation WAS the poem.
I personally tend toward “less is more” when it comes to
explanation, but I also tend to work in series, where a brief introduction to
the “project” is all that really makes sense. But, if the poems are one-offs,
do you favor more explanation? Less? It depends on the poem? The audience? The
phase of the moon and its position with respect to the houses of Aquarius?
Would it be better to explain poems by saying “the leisurely trochees in line
7 are meant to balance against line 12’s frenzied dactyls?” than “So, I
come from a long line of cherry farmers?”