What makes you pick up a book or magazine and read?
- A few moments of escapism?
- A break from daily routine?
- To see something from another’s perspective?
- For stimulation? To read something thought-provoking?
- To be challenged by ideas that may be the opposite of yours?
- To learn something new?
- The comfort of immersing yourself in a favourite poem?
- For inspiration?
- From recommendation – either from a friend or a review?
- How many of the above reasons look at the poem being read? How many look at the poet who wrote the poem?
If a poem is on a particular topic, you might want to know that the poet has the expertise or experience to write on that topic. But how much do you need to know about the poet to read the poem? Does it matter if you know nothing about the poet at all?
If you read a published poem about a bereavement, is it necessary for the poet to have been bereaved? Does it make any difference when you are reading a poem to know it was heartfelt and drawn from actual experience? If you know the poet has been bereaved, does that allow for a lower poetic standard because of the emotional investment in the poem?
I hope not. Recently I received an email from someone saying I should not have commented on a poem about a bereavement. The poem had been published in a newspaper. The author of the email was unable to separate comments on the poem from comments on the poet (I didn’t comment on the poet). In the email author’s eyes, they were the same thing: negative comment on the poem was also negative comment on the poet. In the email author’s eyes I should not comment on a poem’s standard because the of poet’s emotional investment but just accept it as it was.
Previously I had been sent an anthology for review. The anthology was of pieces written by people in a mental health setting. I absolutely support the use of writing in such settings. In times of emotional upheaval or in the aftermath of trauma, poetry can be useful. The discipline of writing down thoughts and feelings and then organising it into a formal structure can be hugely beneficial and a useful way of communicating with care-givers. However, publishing those pieces and putting them in a public domain needs to be handled with care. Creating an anthology of work in such workshops as a demonstration of what could be achieved or as something for participants to take way is good. However, this anthology had been sent to a poetry magazine for review. Some of the pieces included could not be judged as poetry. This put me, the reviewer, in a difficult position of having to say “this doesn’t work as a poem but was clearly immensely valuable for the author to write. That is doesn’t work as a poem is not a reflection on the writer or of the experience the writer was going through at the time of writing it.”
Why do you read poetry: for the poem or poet? Can the two be separated?