Should Poets Explain their Poetry?

Last Friday (5 February) I gave an online reading, using Microsoft Teams to work colleagues.

During my performance I read from my recently released collection Leaving and Other Poems. Having read my poem Blackbird, I explained the context in which it had been composed.

Having finished my brief explanation, a colleague commented that knowing something about the context of the poem, it’s meaning Etc was helpful. I responded that whilst I appreciated her thoughts and, I am, on occasions happy to provide context, I was wary of taking away from my readers own perspectives on my poetry by putting my interpretation on my work.

Part of the beauty of poetry is that the reader can interpret a poem in diverse (and often very different ways). I am often surprised at how my readers interpret my work and sometimes find their interpretations rather bizarre. However, in many other instances I comprehend why they interpret a particular poem as they do and this has sometimes caused me to see new meanings in my own work.

I am planning a reading from Leaving and Other Poems in a local library in the near future. Doubtless I will talk about what inspired me to write a given poem. However, if I am asked what a particular poem means I shall politely respond that I would be interested to hear the questioners own interpretation prior to (possibly) providing my own perspective.

As always I would be interested in your comments. How do my fellow poets feel about explaining their poetry? Also, if you are not a poet but enjoy reading poetry, do you find a poets explanations helpful or do they take away from your enjoyment of their work?

You can find Leaving and Other Poems in paperback and Kindle on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R3HR9KG/ (for the UK), and here, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09R3HR9KG/
(for the US and elsewhere).

36 thoughts on “Should Poets Explain their Poetry?

    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Thanks for commenting.
      I tend to agree with you. Plus once a poem is out there it takes on a life of its own and is open to a variety of interpretations.

      Best wishes. Kevin

      Reply
  1. Raven

    I think my answer depends on the reader/listener. I explain context if asked to by the person reading or listening. However, I also read poetry, and many of the poets I read are of the Dead Poet’s Society and are not here to explain their work so I think poetry should speak for itself and the reader take what they will from it.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for commenting. I guess that if someone pressed me to explain one of my poems that I would do so. However I would (as I say earlier) first ask how they view the poem in question.
      You are right that a poem should speak for itself. But in such cases (where the poet is no longer with us) different readers will interpret the same poem in diverse ways, some of which might have astounded the poet where he or she still alive to be astounded!
      Kevin

      Reply
      1. Raven

        I am sure they would be astouded.

        The thing is I have found when working through sme of my earler writing, I’m not sure I know where I was at or where the ideas came from

      1. Raven

        The last couple of decades have been life changing and things blur. And as I write out the low points sometimes, maybe they are best blurred if not forgotten.

  2. Liz Gauffreau

    I find that a poet’s explanation of the circumstances that promted the poem can enrich my experience of the poem. On the other hand, when a poet tells me how I should interpret the poem, I get annoyed.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for commenting, Liz.
      I find your distinction between explaining the context in which a poem was written as opposed to the poem’s meaning an interesting one. And I can understand why you become annoyed when you are told by the poet how to interpret their work.
      Kevin

      Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      I like your comment Ron and appreciate your sense of humour.
      To be serious for a moment, not all poems do need to mean something. For example Edward Lear’s nonsense verse always makes me smile but I don’t cudgel my brains as to whether his poems contain any deeper meaning. They where composed to provoke laughter and they do this very well.
      Kevin

      Reply
  3. equipsblog

    I have been delightfully pleased to find that some readers find meaning in my poetry that I never intended–makes me feel like I perhaps wrote a better poem than I thought. I do not mind sharing what prompted me to write the poem, but since this is not an English class, there is no single interpretation that is correct. My read and critique group has begun having the poets read their poems out loud and that has improved the experience for both the critiquers and the poet.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Thank you for commenting.
      I was interested to read that you don’t mind explaining your poetry. I guess that with me I don’t want to stop my readers from coming to their own conclusions by explaining each and every of my compositions to them. To me this takes away from the pleasure of reading poetry. But, out of politeness there is a case for giving some sort of explanation.
      Kevin

      Reply
  4. Leon Stevens

    Great question. There’s no definitive answer though. Some poems can be straightforward, others written to evoke a unique individual experience, while most are just the world interpreted through the poet’s eyes. If someone feels they need further clarification, I think the poet should offer any guidance to help the reader or listener understand the purpose of the creation.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for your comments, Leon. I agree with you that poets should be helpful. However, as I say in my post, I don’t want to prevent readers from coming up with their own interpretations of my poetry. I feel its important for readers to at least have the first stab at understanding a poem. After all that is what readers have to do with deceased poets (unless the poet in question has told us what he/she intended). Kevin

      Reply
  5. Victoria Zigler

    Discussing the inspiration behind a poem is one thing, but I agree with you that the reader/listener needs to be the one who interprets the meaning of the poem, especially since what it means to one person isn’t always what it will mean to another. However, it’s possible some people get these things confused, and are actually asking for your inspiration when they ask you to explain the meaning of the poem, or that’s how it sometimes seems to me.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      That is an interesting point, Tori. You may well be right that some people become confused as regards the meaning and the inspiration of a poem.
      Best wishes. Kevin

      Reply
  6. Jewish Young Professional "JYP"

    It’s an interesting question. I frame it differently. My take on how much context is too much is that the context, if available, should provide the poem with another layer of meaning and significance. However, the poem should be able to stand alone and be understood without knowing the context. Put another way, if the poem is completely incomprehensible without the explanatory context, it’s likely a sign that the poem really needs more revision.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for commenting. You make an interesting point.
      Knowing the context in which a poem is written can certainly assist in explaining it. However there may remain layers of meaning to be unpacked even where the context is known. Again, a poem may appear to be about the poet admiring flowers in a garden (and many readers may accept the context/explanation of the poem as being simply that), while others may argue that the poem is, in fact about the poet admiring beautiful women and the flowers are simply metaphors for ladies.
      Perhaps some poets also mislead their readers by setting false trails. Of course I would never do such a thing …

      Reply
      1. Jewish Young Professional "JYP"

        I think about this a lot when it comes to use of cultural elements/vocabulary in poetry intended for a wider audience. I’m Jewish, and sometimes I write poems with a Jewish reference or a Hebrew or Yiddish word. I don’t want my audience to be limited only to people who are Jewish, so I have to consider whether to give an express glossary-style explanation, or whether I can give enough context within the body of the poem so that the non-Jewish reader can follow.

    2. K Morris Poet Post author

      Apologies for the delay in replying to your comment of 9 February. I missed your response and have just spotted it today. In the case you mention I can see the obvious benefit of explaining to a non-Jewish reader the meaning of a word in Hebrew. I think a footnote explaining the meaning of a word would certainly be helpful in such situations. Best wishes. Kevin

      Reply

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