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Monday, 27 July 2015

Lesley Saunders on finishing a poem

One conundrum that I seem to face quite often in reaching the final version of a poem is finding a balance between two opposing principles: on the one hand to follow the very sound advice not to patronise one’s readers – for example, by using up precious space in a poem to provide information which a reader (especially a reader conversant with poetry) either already knows or can reasonably be expected to guess; and sometimes the information is trivial anyway, not integral to the real gist of the poem.

On the other hand, it’s important not unwittingly to baffle or distance readers whose cultural backgrounds may be very different from one’s own. Glancing references and allusions that seem self-evident to a writer could smack of esotericism or even elitism to some of her readers, and result in that layeredness of meaning in poetry – the past brought to bear on the present, the historical or mythical on the personal – being lost.

I feel particularly anxious about this because my love of ancient Greek and Roman literature means I’m still strongly drawn to those bottomlessly rich resources of myth and legend, and want to revivify and reinterpret their power and passion for myself. Once upon a time, it was probably the case that most readers of poetry in English knew who Hector, Tiresias, Hannibal, Agricola were and what they did (to take just a few of the heroes and villains I’ve recently written about). But I’ve realised, from friends’ reactions to drafts, that I can’t take that for granted – any more than I can be sure of recognising the mythical and historical figures inhabiting the work of, say, Shara McCallum, Daljit Nigra, Vahni Capildeo

Solutions I’ve adopted for individual poems include appending a brief epigraph as context (as in ‘Landfall’, ‘Olfactory’, ‘Army Musician’, ‘Particulare Care’), or, more rarely, adding an explanatory footnote;  in one or two of my poetry collections, I’ve included several pages of notes at the end, which readers can ignore or peruse as they choose. But yes, I know it’s all a bit Waste Land-ish, that notes look off-putting in themselves, too academic and recherché for the spontaneous, inspirational nature of poetry…

Perhaps some poets hope or expect readers will use internet search engines to track down references, though this presumes a considerable degree of readerly commitment, as well as the risk (discussed by Henry King in his New Poetries blogpost in 2011) of ‘letting information stand in for understanding’.

It’s easier at readings and performances, when I can slip in a crucial piece of background during my preamble, or else check with the audience whether more context would be helpful. 

I’d really welcome hearing what strategies other writers have developed in trying to resolve these dilemmas –


  1. Context is everything, as you are well aware. An explicit title may suit the single poem, to give the context, but it might be ditched later in the context of a collection. I take it for granted that most of my first-time readers are on an upward learning curve, even if it’s a modest one. They’d be disappointed, surely, if they didn’t have anything to look into afterwards. I certainly don’t think readers should be spoonfed. Let them look up a name or two from mythology/history. Or, even better, teach readers the name of an unfairly obscure character from mythology/history by making it easy to guess who this character must be.

  2. Thanks for the namecheck, Lesley! Re: mythical/historical figures in my work, anyone who's 'done' _The Waste Land_ will have the relevant South Asian background. The other references are likely to have surfaced via Nobel Laureates Walcott and Naipaul, so they should be in the popular collective unconscious and not too alienating. Any remaining oddities are mostly Old Norse and Old English but deliberately rather hidden.