I once received a packet of poems back with this sentence scrawled on the rejection slip: “Well, your poems certainly are accessible, aren’t they?” I could hear the sneer across the miles, even as I decided to take the rejection as a compliment. Most poets I know have wrestled with this question of accessibility, especially in their early years as they’re working to define their art. When it comes to a poetry reading, the question often revolves around how much introduction to give to each poem.
Occasionally, I read advice from people who say that poets should give no introduction at all. Poems should live or die on their own! I recoil a bit from this advice.
For one thing, I don’t want my poems to die. If a bit of introduction helps win new readers, why wouldn’t I want to do that?
It’s one thing to say that poems should live or die on the page. Readers can return to the page and spend time puzzling over what they don’t understand. The poetry reading is different. The audience sits there for a variety of reasons. When I think about a poetry reading, I assume only one or two audience members are poetry fans. I work hard to win the rest of the room. I won’t convert them if they spend the reading feeling confused and increasingly alienated.
Some of my poems require a bit of background knowledge. For example, my poem “My Habit, My Hairshirt” begins with these lines: “A modern day anchoress, I commit / myself to my car. In my moving cell, / I sing constantly and pray without ceasing.” If you’re reading at home, and you don’t know what an anchoress is, you can look it up. I don’t want audience members whipping out their digital devices to look up references. It’s simpler to tell them—and then I don’t risk losing them to the other distractions that the Internet provides.
As an audience member, I like knowing a bit about how the poem came to be. My introduction for “My Habit, My Hairshirt” tells the audience about how I got the idea for the poem after teaching the work of Julian of Norwich, the most famous anchoress, and then hopping in the car for my many hours of commuting home. That introduction also gives me a perfect way to define an anchoress.
Of course, the poem is only 15 lines long. If I’m not careful, the introduction could last longer than the poem. If that happens once, that’s fine. If it happens with every poem, it’s a problem.
For me, one of the best things about an introduction to a poem is its function as a transitional time. It’s a clear signal to the audience that we’re moving from one poem to the next poem. It gives the audience a resting point, while preparing them for the next poem. And it reminds me, the poet, to slow down. A natural tendency for many of us is to talk more quickly when we’re nervous. We zoom from poem to poem, leaving the audience whipsawed. An introduction to a poem can short circuit our nervousness.
Interestingly, poets aren’t the only ones who wrestle with this issue of introductions. My mother is a classically trained musician who occasionally gives concerts. One year I got to go to one of her organ recitals and was delighted before each piece, when she explained what was going to happen and told us what to listen for. It opened a window to a world I had only glimpsed before. When I told her how much her introductions really enriched my experience, she told me that purists would scoff at the idea of introductions, but she knew there would be a number of children in the audience, and she wanted the experience to be a good one for them.
We’re all wrestling with the issue of how much introduction to do, how to lead the audience to a deeper appreciation without giving away too much before they even get to the creative work. It’s a tough balance, but one worth striving to achieve.