Who? What? Where? Why? When?

One of the mottos to remember when publicising events is Who? What? Where? Why? When? If like Lowell you believe that "Poetry is not the record of an event: it is an event" then read on.

Let's first worry about the content. Readers often want to know as soon as possible who is speaking the poem. If this information is withheld the assumption is that the persona is the poet. Knowing who's speaking the poem helps determine where and when it's set, which in turn helps to put the form and diction into context. Readers' impatience is such that this information may need to be imparted in the title ("Henry VIII on his deathbed") or very early in the poem. In "The Best American Poetry 2000", the first word of 20% of the poems refer to the persona, and 13% fixed the poem in time (relatively, at least). In the UK's "Forward book of Poetry 2001", the corresponding figures were 25% and 9%.

Less urgent, though (depending on the reader) still required early on is some idea of what the poem is about. I was once sitting beside quite a well-known UK poet as he was flicking through his folder of work before an informal reading. Each poem has a pencilled keyword by it - "Fatherhood", "Fens", "Office". If only life were always that easy.

Finally the why? This is the most wide-ranging query and can easily lead us out of the content into the context where we can ask ourselves the same set of questions. Who wrote the poem? Someone we know? Someone famous? Someone dead? What do they do? The biographies in "The Best American Poetry 2000" aren't complete, but at least 35% of the poets are literary professors, and another 31% are Poetry Teachers usually associated with universities. Though many of the UK poets are involved with running workshops in some capacity, very few are lecturers. Where do they live? Should we read US poetry differently to UK poetry? When did they write it? If it was written centuries ago we might interpret it accordingly. Why did they write it? Sometimes the punchline tells us. But one also needs to realise that poetry teachers need to be regularly published in the right places in order to maintain their credibility - their reason for writing may merely be to get published.

Updated May 2003
Tim Love

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