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?