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Should We Ban Poets’ Biographies from Poetry Magazines?

A comment posted after one of our recent blog articles suggests that readers should lose “interest in writers' biographies” so they don’t know whether the poet has direct experience of the subject matter. I agree, but take it further: biographical notes should not be included in poetry magazines in the first place because they lead the reader’s views of the poem.

I suggest readers do not want layers of meaning added to a poem by perceived notions of who or what the poet is. A biography which gives more than name and past works is at fault because it inevitably influences the reading of a poem. A reader should not be prompted to a particular point of view about a poem outside of the poem itself. For example, if readers know that a writer spent formative years in foster care they will be prompted to think that a poem about dysfunctional families is written from the standpoint of a damaged child. It may be, but I argue that should come from the poem not from knowledge of the poet’s life.

You might argue that a poet’s biographical note is relevant for an understanding of the poem. That, for example, the works of the World War One poets would not resonate for us if we did not know they were written in the trenches. But an extraordinary poem about war should not be trapped within one time frame, and its understanding limited to its place at the specific moment when it was written. A biographical note asks the reader to do just that.

Or looked at from another angle, a poem is as much a window into the soul of the reader as it is into the soul of a writer, and the poet’s background should not get in the way when it is read. I don’t want a light-bulb moment of realisation when I think “ah, that must be the Spanish incident” because I know the poet worked as a doctor in that country. I want to leave the poem questioning what has happened at Finisterre, or with my own interpretation of it based on the poem. As a poet I do not want the reader to understand a poem as an extension of any biographical note. Poems deserve effort on the part of the reader, as well as the poet.

If I visit a theatre, I would think it inappropriate if I were given biographical details of the cast with the implication that I should superimpose knowledge about the actors onto the play. What I hope to do instead is immerse myself in the plot or layers of ideas and make my own decisions about what is happening and who the characters are, about whether the work is successful. So it should be with poems.

If you are a poet and we meet, share with me, if you wish to, knowledge about yourself and your background.

But when it comes to your poems, do not tell me who you are. Let me not know.

What Do You Think?

Do you want poets’ biographies included after their poems?

Is biographical knowledge important to understanding some poets' work? If so, which ones?

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What Makes You Buy A Poetry Collection?

Towards the end of the comments on our article on poetry reviews, a discussion arose on how people found poetry and decided to buy it, which seemed like an important topic in itself. As little as ten years ago, my poetry book buying habits were easy to pin down. I’d go to the new flagship Waterstones in Glasgow (it seemed a benign development at the time with the café, comfy chairs scattered around, and extensive stock) and peruse the poetry shelves. There were plenty of them. I hadn’t read much at the time and I remember finding an American edition of John Ashbery’sThe Tennis Court Oath, one of his most difficult collections, and feeling a mixture of shock, intrigue and impatience. The point is – Waterstones had a copy on the shelves. They stocked loads of poetry volumes. I leafed through books and found poetry, by trial and error, that appealed to me. A decade on, things have changed completely. I still stumble across some fantastic collections in the shrinking poetry sections of bookshops, but not often How do I find books these days? I decided to examine the last five poetry collections I’ve read (other than those I’ve been asked to review). How did I come across them?

1. Chronic – D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press, 2009)

This was recommended on a poetry board. It’s a book I would never have come across in pre-Internet days. In fact, it wouldn’t have been readily available because it hasn’t (yet) been published in the UK. I found some work online and read a review. It sounded really interesting, and so it proved.

2. Nights in the Iron Hotel – Michael Hofmann (Faber 1983)

I hadn’t read much Hofmann before last year. I was browsing in Borders bookshop and picked up his Selected Poems. I only had time to read two or three poems quickly, but was taken aback by how good they were. I mentioned it to a friend who found it in a bookshop and bought it. He then emailed me to tell me I had to buy it, so I did. I’ve now read all Hofmann’s individual collections. This one, the first, was hardest to find at a half-reasonable price, but I persevered and bought it second-hand online.

3. MUDe – John Redmond (Carcanet 2008)

I found this one through a Facebook status update. A poet whose book I had enjoyed mentioned how good MUDe was. Online, I read a little information about it. It certainly sounded different and I decided to take a chance.

4. Fruitcake – Selima Hill (Bloodaxe 2009)

I’d read ‘A Little Book of Meat’ on a personal recommendation, and then read a fair bit of her Collected Poems, ‘Gloria’. On an online poetry discussion forum, people were discussing what poetry books they were looking forward to for 2009. I tried to check what was forthcoming and found, at the Bloodaxe website, that a new Hill book was due. What stuck in my mind was that it was over 250 pages long – very long for a collection. Of course, most of the poems are very short.

5. Sills – Michael O’Brien (Salt 2009)

I found this selected poems at the Salt website, during the ‘Just One Book’ campaign. It is a bit like browsing a bookstore there. I had never heard of Michael O’Brien, but I could see the cover, blurbs, and a selection of poems. Blurbs do help if they’re the right kind – August Kleinzahler calling it a “large event: our first comprehensive look at a neglected American master” certainly got me interested. Yes, I am obviously a sucker, but the book is pretty good.

So what makes YOU buy a poetry collection?

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What Kind Of Poetry Reviews Do You Want?

American writer, Kent Johnson, sounds off on the thorny subject of poetry reviewing. He suggests that reviews and blurbs have ‘begun to blur in purpose and effect’:

Fawning, toadyish criticism, then, is likely to remain the default setting so long as "negative" reviewing constitutes a potential hazard to the position and advancement of the poet-reviewer. (Interestingly, by the way, it's in top-tier journals like Poetry where negative reviews are most likely to appear, since the capital accruing to the poet-reviewer compensates for the risk.) Given this, maybe it's time that magazines, of all aesthetic shapes and circulation sizes, resurrect the venerable practice of "unsigned" reviews. There’s no question readers, in the main, would be tickled and intrigued.

On the other hand, anonymous reviewing presents another problem. Reviewers might use the cloak of anonymity as a means to trash a poet who had previously commented negatively on their own books or, alternatively, to praise a book written by best friends or family members without the connection being obvious. Kent Johnson says that editors have a key role in ensuring this doesn’t happen.

Mayday contains 32 responses to the issues raised in Johnson’s article, nearly all of which are worth reading. Daisy Fried’s comments are particularly well thought out.

I was taken aback by this part of Stephen Burt’s response:

And here's one more reason so little poetry attracts negative reviews: it's not worth writing a negative review of a book that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do. Negative reviews in poetry these days only seem worth while when they attack (a) examples of bad trends or (b) people who are very famous and don't deserve it . In both of these cases, a bad poet (a poet I consider bad) is worth "taking down" (seems to me worth a negative review) because bad poetry, praised in high places, really distorts the sense of the art the younger generation gets; such praise, uncountered, makes it harder for new readers to like the good stuff. Under the right circumstances I would write a blistering attack on any of about eight very famous or widely respected poets, with my name attached (you get a cookie if you can guess which poets). I write negative reviews when editors ask me to review poetry I don't like and when it falls into one of the categories above. But I almost never solicit work for review that I know I won't like, and I certainly won't write really negative reviews of poets who aren't already well-known. It doesn't seem worth my time, or theirs.

What kind of reviews do readers want in a magazine like Magma? Have reviews in the UK become akin to blurbs? Are anonymous reviews a good or bad idea? Do you agree with Stephen Burt that it’s OK to write negatively of well known poets, but not of books ‘that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do?’

A few other recent contributions to the debate which may be of interest:

Nic Sebastian

Aditi Machado

Lytton Smith

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Watch Clare Pollard, Magma Editor, Interviewed on the BBC

In this week's excellent episode of 'A Poet's Guide to Britain' on the BBC, the poet Clare Pollard is interviewed by Owen Sheers about Sylvia Plath's landscape poetry. Clare is a member of the Magma team and is currently editing Magma 45, which will be launched in November 2009.

The episode will be available on iPlayer for the next month - watch it online here or you can catch it on on BBC4, Thursday 14th May at 22.00. If you're in a hurry, you may like to know that Clare first appears 4 minutes into the programme, but it's well worth taking the time to watch the whole programme.

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