Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

To introduce or not to introduce?


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.

Author: Kristin Berkey-Abbott

A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.

9 thoughts on “To introduce or not to introduce?

  1. Great post, Kristin – thanks! You are right – there is only so much bandwidth one has in a reading and one needs to be aware of how much is taken up with each element that goes into the reading.

    I’m going to be a Philistine here and say: – no introductions, please – ever!

    I realize I’m probably in the minority here – but honestly? I prefer to just hear the poems.


  2. I usually prefer to just hear the poems, but I am not adverse to a brief, clarifying intro that will give me a way into the piece. I have a poem about my son called “In the Blue” that needs the explanation of what it means for a snake to be “in the blue” to be fully appreciated by the audience. On the other hand, I have experienced poem intros so long that I am no longer interested in the poem itself by the time the reader begins. (One open mic that I go to has a few participants that yell, “Read the f***’in poem!” when an introduction goes too far.) It is indeed a delicate balance.

  3. I agree, introductions are virtually essential if you have any hope of connecting with memebers of the audience who aren’t already among the converted. I liked the story about your mother. Our community symphony orchestra out here in the sticks hires conductors based in part on how personable they are, how well they connect with an audience. Needless to say, the conductor is expected to address the audience two or three times a concert. Would that be appropriate in a more cosmopolitan place like New York City? I imagine not.

    So depending on the audience, I think one can gauge how much of the background story of a poem needs to be said, what sort of things to say to make people feel comfortable. But I think any obscure words should be defined in advance, regardless of the audience.

    • I agree, Dave, if your audience is primarily the “unconverted,” then giving them a way in can be crucial. But, at many readings and open mics, the audience is primarily other poets. In this context, listeners will be attuned enough to want to experience the work without too much introduction.

      I also agree that obscure words or references should be explained – when reading a poem, I don’t mind doing the work of looking up a reference, but that can be a problem when a poem is presented orally, especially if it is short.

  4. Great post! Yes, I do want my poems to speak for themselves, on the page or at the reading, but I’ve found that an audience that is primarily non-poets, or has a mix of poets and non-poets, really does appreciate mini-intros that set a context for listening and that separate one poem from the next, giving the audience a little breather and allowing a shift to a new topic.

    With great readers, it’s possible no intro is necessary, but not everybody is a great reader. You are, Nic, but, even so, I can go back and listen to your reading of a poet’s poem more than once, at Whale Sound, and I do, just as I re-read a poem on the page, to really get it, or just for the joy and fun (or chills). An audience at a reading has just one chance (or maybe two, if the poet repeats the poem) and usually benefits from being prepared, the way Kristin’s mother prepared her audience. I’ve been to some concerts for grownups, too, where the conductor or composer spoke to the audience in advance, encouraging them to listen for particular things. It created a wonderful rapt attention during the concert!

    And, to be a little cynical, sometimes an audience full of poets contains not “purists” but people just waiting for their turn at the mic!

    • Ha! That’s so true! That’s why I love venues that have the feature reader BEFORE the open mic – then the open mic folks can’t do the poetry version of dine-and-dash!

  5. i believe “less is more” when it comes to introductions. i can’t bear lengthy introductions to poems, and often (i fall in with nic here) i would just prefer to hear the poems b/c many times the introductions end up taking away from the experience of the poem. how do they manage to do that? sometimes, they are variations of apologies: “hi, here’s my little ol’ poem, it’s nothing much,” of excuses: “so i *just* wrote this on the bus on the way here,” or of spoilers: “here’s what the poem is about.”

    however, there are certain kinds of introduction and chit chat that i do like (so much of this seems to be personal taste). i love hearing little bits about poets’ processes and their writing lives (and, as needed, brief explanations of obscure words/contexts*). if done right, as minimal banter between the poems, this delights me as little else does. :)

    in reading our work out loud for a live audience, we not only want them to like the poems, we want them to like us. (or maybe this is just me: i want them to like me.) and so a certain degree of being personable is in order. i think this is what dave is saying about the conductor. (they want us to like the music AND the musicians/conductor b/c they need us to want to support them.)

    i don’t think i get introductions quite right in my own readings, yet. i NEVER do lengthy introductions. but i’m not sure i say the right things to give my poems the best stage. it’s an art, for sure. an art worthy of discussion in a public forum. someone should do a blog about that … hey! someone did! ;)


    *though i do have to argue that even on the page i think the poem should be written to “work” even if the reader doesn’t “get” the obscure reference.

  6. Isn’t the difference to be found between breaking the show-don’t-tell rule in advance of the poem itself and – as Kathleen says – providing a little context that might frame the poem and prepare the ground? Edification versus explanation, maybe.

    By and large, I’m of the ‘read the fucking poem’ persuasion, but Dave’s point about unconverted listeners has value. Poetry remains to a high degree the art that dare not speak its name. Everyone listens to music; we’ve all got pictures on the wall; we put flowers in or eat off ceramic objects; abstract sculptures occupy public sites; dance has its highest media profile in decades. But burst into a crowded room and shout, “Hands up everyone here who reads and/or writes poetry!” and you’ll be escorted from the premises. Unless we’re reading to the absolutely converted, we still have a good deal of seducing to do.

    Priority must go to the out-loud poem and the skill of the reader in casting it into the world. But where and when needed (and it’ll be most times), the briefest and simplest of contextualisation will ease its passage.

  7. Pingback: Serendipity–Report on a Reading | Voice Alpha

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