Yesterday I said that one of my school teachers seemed to believe that pleasure taken in the sound and general impression of poetry was more important than the ability to understand and explain the details of each word and image. Forty years later, I am very glad that was her attitude.
Another memory from that time at school was the context – or, more accurately, lack of context – for the poetry we were studying.
Our set book was called Poets of Our Time (first published in 1965), which included selections from a number of contemporary writers including John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Charles Causely, R S Thomas and James Kirkup. The two who left a lasting impression on me (other than Betjeman who would already have been a part of my ‘household furniture’, I think) were Hughes and Thomas, and I would still put them high on any list of ‘influences’.
We were never given any context for the poems, though: they all stood alone on the page without the trappings of complex biographies and timelines. We were young, and at ‘O’ level we were only making a very superficial study of a few sample works of each poet; it wasn’t until years later, then, that I learned anything about them as people.
There is a short note in the book before each poet’s work, but although the Thomas note is biographical, I’m sure we never even looked at it in class – and no adolescent school child can be expected to read more than the pages their teacher insists are necessary to pass the exams. There is nothing biographical in the notes before the Hughes poems: they mostly refer to the themes of his poetry. Which meant it was a bit of a shock years later when I heard about Sylvia Plath.
This all ties in with my feelings about the separation of poet and narrator. Had I known anything about the poets, I might have been tempted to assume meanings that were not intended, or judge the writing based on their bigraphical details.
I’ve no doubt that there is a point where knowledge and understanding of the context in which a poem was written may help you appreciate its potential more fully. And by that, I don’t just mean the writer’s personal story, but the whole socio-political context of the time and place it was written.
In general terms, though, I’m in favour of separating the poem from its writer and seeing whether it is capable of standing alone without that contextual support. The poetry of both Hughes and Thomas spoke to me without any need to know who had written it or what their motivation was. Which might be one of the things that makes it good (perhaps great) poetry.