27 oct. 2011

Don't Explain

Poets, don't explain your poetry in your poetry reading. Just read the damn poems. Nobody cares how or why you wrote them, or when or where. If the poem needs an explanation, you haven't written it well enough. If it needs an anecdote, then put the anecdote in the poem itself. If your explanation is better, more engaging, more interesting, than the poem, then your poem is no good anyway. Toss it.

Today in my reading my plan is to read some translations of Juan Gelman, selections from "The Beaches of Northern California" and "The Thelonious Monk Fake Book," and "After Michael Palmer." I might do "The Complete Sentence Game" too, which is a poem that is improvised and takes a different shape every time.

10 comentarios:

Jim Murdoch dijo...

I don’t care to go to poetry readings, full stop. But I have to disagree about no one wanting to know about the poem. I find most people are fascinated about that kind of stuff. Just look at what gets included in books about poets and authors. I think it depends on the reading. If the poet is well known, and his or her poetry is well known then the audience is hoping for a more personal insight into the poem. They want to see if they got it right when they read it.

I had a poem published on a blog recently and one person left the following comment: “I want to know more of what that poem means.” Now, personally, I thought the poem was transparently obvious but as it was a love poem dedicated to a woman called Jen I decided to leave a comment telling the woman a bit about my relationship with this woman and in that comment I included a second poem I had written her but I never explained anything. I just put the poem in context. It is not a bad poem but it was a poem written for an individual and so only she can make a certain sense out of it. In the comment I wrote:

I have compared a poem to an iceberg before – only the tip appears on the page, the rest is buried in the poet’s mind. In that respect, every poem you’ve ever read was incomplete. Here I’m with Samuel Johnson: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” The same rule applies, more so I would say, with poetry.

So I effectively turned this into a teaching opportunity and that’s one of the main reason I explain anything, not that the work needs explanation but inexperienced poets (and readers) need to know why it doesn’t need any explanation.

Jonathan dijo...

Thanks for your insightful comment. If someone aaked me what a poem I wrote means, I would tell her that that interpretation is the reader's job, not the writer's.

Of course, people do want those little explanatory comments, but that is because they don't take the poetry seriously enough. Your approach to that particular teaching moment was very astute: give them another poem.

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

I second Jim's key point. I never explain my poems when I give a reading, but the most common questions I get after a reading involve how, why, when, where—journalistic questions, in other words. Occasionally there's a "what did you mean by" question. Such questions can be silly. I remember a person after a reading by Galway Kinnell praising "The Bear," which he'd performed beautifully, but going on to say, "There's only one thing that bothers me: what did you mean when you said the steam coming up from the snow was 'lung-colored.' Did you mean pink?" (I don't remember Kinnell's response.) On the other hand, such questions have led to some interesting conversations about authorial intent, the nature of metaphor, etc. Anyway, I mildly object to the notion that the poet delivers an object which is beyond common questions. It seems arrogant, somehow, to dismiss a reader or listener with a haughty comment and a pat on the head. If some poem I've written inspires a dialog, I'm happy to engage in it.

Jonathan dijo...

Good points. I'm glad you don't explain when you read but are gracious with questions afterwards. That seems like a reasonable compromise.

scott g.f.bailey dijo...

I agree with what I think is Jonathan's point: that the presentation of art should be free of explanations (which, I think, are generally sort of elaborate apologies for the art). Certainly discussion of the art afterwards can range as widely as the participants have patience for.

Jonathan dijo...

I was thinking, particularly, of the explanations that "shadow" the poem, that talk about everything that the poem itself talks about, and are perhaps longer than the poem itself. The poet essentially presents two versions of the poem, or of the experience that gave rise to it. This undercuts the poem, especially if the explanation is actually superior, as it is with a lot of short story-telling lyrics. In my reading tonight I'm going to try to avoid all explanations and see what happens.

scott g.f.bailey dijo...

A well-formed work of art should be the most accurate map of itself, anyway.

Jordan dijo...

Someone who used to explain his poems at poetry readings was Robert Creeley.

Clarissa dijo...

"Poets, don't explain your poetry in your poetry reading. Just read the damn poems. Nobody cares how or why you wrote them, or when or where."

-Hear, hear! I'd go to more poetry readings if poets listened to this advice. The most recent reading I've been to was a disaster precisely because the young poet (who is actually quite good as a poet) kept sharing these very boring anecdotes from their life that only their spouse and sibling who were in the audience managed to understand and enjoy.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Singer-songwriters often explain their songs in similar ways, which utterly ruins them. "It's about ..." Well, duh!