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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?

This Post Has 33 Comments
  1. I do enjoy a bit of biographical information but I like it when poets really keep it brief and don’t go into all sorts of unnecessary stuff. I also agree with the new historical theory of criticism that some info can be needed. For example, knowing how Tennyson came to write ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, a bit about the battle, what was written in the newspaper that day that inspired it.

    With D H Lawrence’s ‘Look, We Have Come Through!’ collection I found it really helped when I read a recent biography as they hadn’t made sense to me before – I couldn’t understand why the poems keep mentioning his wife’s reluctance to leave her past behind. When I read them many years ago I hadn’t realised she didn’t intend to leave her husband and family and that Lawrence had contacted her husband to tell him about their affair while they were away on what she thought was a short and secret getaway together in Germany.

    This does improve the poems for me and makes me feel her terrible angst at being forced to lose her children (her husband refused to let her see them again). My reading of them is completely different and they now work for me. Does that make them worse poems as they need the biography? Or were they ruined for me when I was younger because I was influenced by so many biographies that had led me to believe it was such a great love and that she had wanted to leave her family?

    I hate being asked to supply a biography myself and I think it should be really concise. I find any explanation I give of my own poems makes me feel I should then give the other side and that could go on forever. If a poem needs extra explanation at a reading perhaps that needed to go in the poem.

  2. It’s madly puritan insisiting on no biographies. I agree with Adele about being brief, and it’s better to have the biographies listed somewhere at the back (which happens in most magazines anyway). The North for a while used to publish the poems with no names next to them, but they’ve stopped that, which I think is sensible as it’s like everyone at a reading having to wear a bag over their head. Some poets’ names will inevitably influence reading anyway – Frieda Hughes is never going to get an unprejudiced reading, is she? Any famous poet even without a difficult life is not going to be read by an innocent eye, and any unfamous poet gets read better for at least having some information somewhere to place where they’re coming from. It’s when that information takes priority that there’s a problem.

  3. Actually one of the reasons I enjoy live readings is that a poet’s preamble to a poem can often throw a different light on it. I love nothing more than hearing a
    poem I’ve experienced on the page introduced by the poet with a couple of well-chosen sentences, but I’m less interested in facts or the so-called ‘truth’ (poem is not memoir) than I am in process; a brief explanation of how the poem arrived at itself can be so illuminating to me as a reader or listener.

  4. Two things occur to me.

    Poet’s bios may be for the reader or for the poet. If a poet wants to “get on” and be known, then biographical info is part of that self-promotion. Okay, most poets don’t think in such terms, don’t care about success and so on, but they do want to be known, they want their work to be known as theirs – the work does not stand separately from the poet, else why don’t we all publish everything anonymously? Whilst the name is not the bio, nor is the bio the life. The bio is what the poet selects of what they’d like others to know in order to support either their poetic purposes or, more likely, their personal aspirations, in terns of self-esteem and building a reputation.

    For the reader, there’s always a tendency to extrapolate from a poem to a “larger” situation. That’s what much elegant poetry is about: “start from here and see where it takes you”. Because readers have a natural humanising tendency to seek narrative and personal context, one of the cues used in interpretating a poem may be (assumed) biographical context. There are various possible densities to this, from relating the literal biographical facts in a poem, through using the biography to set up some more poetically satisfying fiction, based on the experienced reality, through lifting biographical moments out of context into service within a different poetic context, to pure fiction apparently uninfluenced by biography (but, who’s to say). Gossip, of course, is one of the most common and, perhaps, natural of our everyday registers.

    The reader guesses how true to life or real is the experience reported, sometimes happy with a generalised reading, and sometimes finding extra resonance when they know, yes, that person was a soldier in Iraq. (Try reading Brian Turner’s “Here Bullet” without the biography).

    For me, this is no different from the range of attitudes readers have to poets’ notes: why do we ever need or value an explanation *of any kind*, if the poem is supposed to stand by itself? No introductory note is relevant, no background sketch desirable, no explanation of origin, no commentary on dialect vocab. It’s a matter of judgement, surely? The first time I read a ghazal by Mimi Khalvati, I had no knowledge of the relevant tradition, and only selective knowledge of her work. Her notes on the ghazal helped me see what she was doing with that tradition, not being already informed. Her biography is not necessary to appreciate her poems on relating to lost childhood, or on individual identity; but they illuminate those poems – not as explanation, but almost as additional stanzas, as further suggestions on how a poetic text might illuminate personal experience.

  5. I’ve enjoyed it in The North, in the past, when they haven’t even included the name next to the poem, so you’ve had to turn to the back to find out who wrote what. I definitely found myself reading the poems with far fewer preconceptions.

    But there’s room for all approaches, surely? I wouldn’t want to see that all the time, just as I wouldn’t want long biographical notes all the time.

  6. Not all readers (I include myself in this) are able to grasp or invent the background to a poem on first reading. I do read the poem first, but usually find a SMALL biographical note at the end throws new light, which compels a second reading and greater understanding.

  7. I believe that little or brief biographical information may be enclosed to provide the reader with the setting, with what is needed only, for the Poem’s background, rather than the Poet’s.

  8. I believe only brief biographical information may be included for the poem’s setting. That is to provide the reader with what is neaded of back-ground about the Poem, rather than the Poet.

  9. I agree with this, I’ve frequently read (and NOT been engaged by) a piece of work by a ‘major poet’, and I feel these sort of biog’s are really about the marketing of the writer, i.e. read this not all the other stuff out there with your precious ‘poetry time’.
    Sometimes also there a sort of ‘intimidation’ often implicit in this also – “I am a published, prize winning writer, therefore if you do NOT understand engage my postmodern allusive masterpiece, you are stupid, etc”
    I am an well read poetry lover, I challenge my preconceptions and tastes regularly and am willing to put time and effort into my reading. I am not however swayed by ‘biog’s’ in fact if anything I view them negatively and am less likely to read on if I sense marketting B.S.
    Gordon McInnes

  10. ‘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.’

    Do magazine bios really offer this sort of information? Maybe it’s because I haven’t read that many print magazines, but I was under the impression that poet bios are generally short and focus on literary and academic achievements. I have noticed the rare mention of bipolar disorder or some such thing, but that’s about it. I suppose I don’t understand the context of this argument.

    From a practical point of view, I like bios/contributors’ notes in magazines because they’re a great way of finding blogs and other magazines. Suppose I like a poet’s contributions to the mag, the bio note may have a link to his/her blog or mention that they edit a magazine, and I often follow up on that sort of thing.

    In general I don’t find that they interfere with my reading of the poems in the issue. But a longer biography can’t be pushed away. I can’t imagine reading Birthday Letters without Plath in mind, for example.

  11. Puritanical? Yes, I think so. The idea that poems are best appreciated in isolation from the biographies of their authors seems to me to represent an attempt at literary talibanisation. If there is such a thing as an ‘innocent eye’, I would like the writer to show me one. It seems to me that, whether we are talking about poems or people, the more we know, the more we understand, and the less likely we are to misappreciate them out of ignorance. For this reason, then, I think it likely that, if the eye is indeed capable of innocence, it is only capable of it by degrees, as it becomes more knowledgeable.

    Seriously though, I think we ought to have learned enough about ourselves by now to realise that this kind of ‘either or’, ‘yes or no’, kind of question is pathological. There have been enough times in our intellectual history when the fashion has gone first this way, then that, eventually to end up somewhere else entirely and, to this wriiter’s jaundiced eye, the resurrection of an old chestnut like this just looks like a juvenile attempt at making a reputation.

    Finally, whether we are talking about art or music or literature, the work, its author and the context in which it was made are surely (and purely for the purposes of aesthetic understanding), ultimately inseparable. At this point in our history, would we really be able to acquire so rich an appreciation of the works of Beethoven and Verdi, for example, were we ignorant of the political contexts in which they created of their compositions, say, in Beethoven’s case the Eroica, and in Verdi’s case the operas Tosca and Aida?

  12. I don’t think you need a poet’s bio with the poem, it doesn’t bring anything to the enjoyment of a poem, but if you really like a poem it is good to be able to see if the poet has a book available or poems published elsewhere.

    I think bios of the “lives with 3 cats & wanted to be the bass player in T.Rex” variety are pretty pointless.

    So I don’t like it when magazines don’t carry any info, but think it best when all the biographical notes are tucked away at the back in a contributors notes section, so I can look them up if I am are interested.

  13. I believe brief biography can be included in the Poem for its setting. That is only to provide the reader with the Poem’s background, rather than the Poet’s.

  14. In reply to Janan comment, I feel that the poem should stand up for itself and not need to carry any other info with it about it background. Some people include footnotes to poems which always feel a bit over the top, I don’t think you need any thing more than an epigraph.

  15. I don’t agree with the concept of a ban; if I have a preference a short biographical note is no harm and can be interesting. Sometimes I choose to read the poem before reading the biography, if I worry it’ll alter my reading of it. Good poetry does not require biographical notes to be good quality, but we all have the power of choice, do we not?

  16. I hate providing biographical information to go with poems. I keep it as brief as possible and entirely connected with my writing life – eg how many books published, with whom, latest is X. Where I live, who with, etc, are nobody’s business but my own and I also loathe providing photos for back covers of books (I freely admit that this is partly because I’m a plain Jane; if i were beautiful I’d probably enjoy it but it would still be irrelevant).

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the way knowing a poet’s gender can skew the response. When I started publishing I used my initials and only stopped when a rather officious editor decided off his own bat that this looked “unfriendly” and published my name without asking. I liked being gender-free in writing and never got sexist comments or reactions when I was.

    Re footnotes though, I don’t agree that they should always be unnecessary. Or at least, though a poem should stand on its own, I have seen footnotes reveal interesting other aspects of it, as in a haibun the prose sheds light on the poetry. I read footnotes with interest; I seldom bother with biographical info.

  17. I don’t use a bio for a setting but to find out where to find more poems by them and how much experience they have. it’s always interesting to find out how they portray themselves. Maybe they’re been publishing 40 years but only note the upcoming work. Maybe they’ve been publishing for 3 years but have 4 books within a short span.

  18. What a miserable beast the biog’ is. I personally don’t give a wotsit, who did what,when,where. I want the beauty of the poem and the magic of the poets’ craft. If they lived in Bootle in an empty stout bottle with three gerbils,a scorpion and a Huskie, or studied goldfish chasing with Merlin,then I might be interested I suppose.

  19. Now being a gemini the jury is out. If this was about me I would want people to know a little about me… how I became what I am as poetry defines the person or the person defines poetry!
    I don;t like reams of academic qualifications i like the emotional side, plus it does color peoples judgement. I think if the poetry interest you you will seek out information!!

    There is still the elitist poets who think you have to have had an academic to write, when in theory yes it helps but long words and obtuse sentence do not maketh the poem it kills it and can often be a reason to turn the public off

  20. I nearly always read biog after I’ve read the poem. I’m not sure why exactly, nosiness mainly. Sometimes it’s interesting if I’ve liked the poem and the poet has as yet few publications. For more widely published poets, I think it’s essential to know where else you can read their poems, particularly if they have published collections or something in the pipeline.

    But as to whether a biog alters my reading of a poem, I’m not sure.

    A biog is very different to a poet’s introduction to a poem and I don’t think it adds much.

  21. I publish a poetry journal and put the bios in the back. I want the journal to read like a book, with no interruption between poems. The bios are brief and it works well so far.

  22. Sometimes biographies confuse. I met someone who knew that Sylvia Plath had attempted to take her own life before succeeding in doing so. His interpretation of “Tulips” was therefore very interesting because he was reading it as a the aftermath of attempted suicide, not post a routine operation to remove an appendix. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

    I made the original comment and I think tucking brief ‘poems in magazines’ and/or ‘books published by’ biographies are useful because they give readers chance to go and read more by a poet whose work they were impressed with. Not to mention giving poets the opportunity to do a little self-promotion as poetry hardly dominates broadsheet literary reviews and, generally, poetry is not news.

    If a poet has written about Iraq then it’s fair enough to mention they were actually stationed in Iraq but the poem should still work on its own merit without reliance on the fact the writer was actually there. I am definitely not in favour of biographies that encourage poets to give reams of background to authenticate their poems. As the above article says, authenticity should come from the poem, not the poet.

  23. I think this is a surprisingly important issue, as shown by the number and thoughtfulness of the comments you’ve received.

    I have a confession to make. When I’m asked for a biography, I mentally substitute ‘bibliography’ and give brief details of my latest collection, and my website, with a note that it will have new poems available.

    Of course all this can be Googled, but we don’t all have constant access to a computer, and some keen poetry readers I know don’t use computers at all.

    If I really like a poem in a magazine by an author previously unknown to me, I will jot down the name of any collection in their biography to add to my next batch of purchases. It’s the equivalent of the impulse buy in the bookshop – which I believe accounts for a high proportion of sales.

    Briefly, on footnotes, I entirely agree that they are very illuminating. I look for them more and more as a reader, and I regret not having used them enough when I first began publishing poetry.

  24. I agree so much with Alison. I suspect that yr average reader does like footnotes; it is critics/reviewers who always take the chance to sneer at them.

    Bur “some keen poetry readers I know don’t use computers at all” really staggers me. I couldn’t be more gobsmacked if you’d said they had antennae and came from the planet Zog! Maybe that shows I spend too much time online…

  25. I love to read bios from contributors. Some days I read those back pages first. Of course the danger is that these bios, or my extrapolated versions of them, use up valuable head space that ought to be more concerned with the poetry:

    From Contributors

    P.D Crick was a member of the Dorking Renaissance
    of the late 1950s, admired by James Croft.
    From the early1960s he participated in a bi-weekly
    poetry group with Stone Scryton and Beldon Lang,
    during which time he wrote two-liner poems,
    both printed in their entirety last year
    in Jhair Tunkinstan’s anthology The Sweltered
    Renaissance. A slim volume of his collected words,
    The Economy of Mouth 1963-2005,
    edited by Gordon Blair, is forthcoming, and crucial.

    Dinsdale Potts has studied the art of writing
    (particularly modern verse) since the age of seven,
    now eighty-two he works freelance and believes,
    Poetry remains even after the wallet is lost.
    ‘Please be Kind’ is his first published poem.

    Jane Doe, published in many magazines, anthologies
    and journals including Angels Exhumed,
    Blighty Spirit, and The Interpreter’s Tomb,
    is currently revising her first collection,
    All I Remembered, Crossing the Styx.

    Gaylord Remsey describes himself as a connoisseur
    of words, specialising in those beginning with F.
    His modest autobiography Fumble Fly
    contains much of his early experimental work.

    Donny Little has written volumes
    too numerable to mention. He writes every night
    in his garden shed. During the day he works
    as a lift operator in a very tall building.

    Crick, Potts, Doe, Remsey, and Little
    are all members of The Vole Molly Poets:
    a society dedicated to exposing poetry
    in public places. Several have been arrested.

  26. I can’t believe this is even a conversation worth having. With new poets getting little to no recognition stripping their brief bios from literary magazines is ridiculous. Most of the mags I read have bios in the back and they are short and too the point. I don’t see the problem.

  27. I agree that author’s bios are a misleading distraction and would like to see all author’s photographs removed from their books as well. OK for youngish women who can layer themselves with cosmetics and make themselves passably photogenic, and therefore attractive. Put a pretty young woman on the cover and the women will identify with her and the male readers will want her. But put the visage of a whiskered and creviced old fool like me on the back cover and all it does is detract from the book. Who will identify with or desire a dribbling OAP?

  28. As the Magma production person, I edit the biographical notes we print with each poem. They go on the same page as the poem – we think most readers prefer not to have to turn to the back – so they have to be short and factual. Poets with publication histories give them and we usually focus on recent publications.

    But quite a lot of poets in Magma haven’t published yet and write about themselves. These can be the most illuminating especially when, as often with upcoming poets, they don’t say anything about themselves when sending in their poems. Our editor chooses the poem on its qualities and then is surprised and delighted to find that the poet is still at school, or has lived all their life in Singapore, or (as with the second poem in Magma 45, published mid-November) “X works in banking and this is her first published poem” – by no means the first time we’ve had this.

    These kinds of biog notes must help readers appeciate the poem which, in the end, is the only point of them. But whatever upcoming poets say about themselves,we always try to focus on the most illuminating point.

    The cleverest biog note we’ve received was from A Mudopneys. On being asked for a biog note, the reply was “A Mudopneys is a pseudonym”. It took us a bit of time to realise Mudopneys is an anagram of pseudonym. Mudopneys was the email address. Further emails acquired no further information. We didn’t publish the poem. One can be too clever.

  29. This is dumb. I agree that biography should not be imposed on a poem, that a reading that does so is a reading from the ‘outisde’ and basically speculative nonsense, but what difference do two or three lines about someone in the back of the magazine make? I think if you re-adjust your reading of a poem (which is a piece of art and not merely designed as some sort of public confession) on the basis of an author biog’ or else read the two in conjunction, then you’re probably an idiot.

    I find it vaguely patronising to have it suggested that as a reader I am unable to separate the poem and the poet and that somehow when presented with a biography I am unable to resist suddenly constructing contrary, reductive conclusions. As Auden wrote: ‘Knowledge of a reader’s life sheds no significant light on their work’ so it’s completely harmless to have biographies prceisely because they have nothing to do with the poems.

  30. As for Magma, I think that putting biography notes next to poems is the worst editorial decision available, as it actively encourages a biographical reading. I couldn’t agree less with the point made that:

    ‘These kinds of biog notes must help readers appeciate the poem which, in the end, is the only point of them.’

    The notes have categorically nothing to do with the poem. I think readers enjoy them because they ground the poem within the context of a specific kind of communication, they re-establish the idea that the poem is part of a tradition of out-reach, idea sharing and enquiry. Knowing that a person exists behind the poem makes us aware that we involved in a transaction, but that doesn’t mean the poem has anything to do with the life of the person who wrote it.

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