Does Context Help A Poem?

Just tonight my poetry class had a discussion about the importance of context in understanding a poem. There were two fairly clear viewpoints. One side said a poem does not require any context to give it some meaning or better interpretation. The other side said it is easier to get a meaning out of a poem when there is some context about the poem, such as biographical information or the inspiration for the poem.

Both sides raise good points, but does providing context help a poem? If a poet gives the reader or audience a guiding hand in what the poem is about, does that make it harder for the audience to view the work in an unbiased way?

Quite typically in a written work we aren’t given a context in the piece itself. Poems don’t often start with long introductions to the poems, nor do novels. I just read a book called “The Nine Guardians” by Rosario Castellanos. It is set in the late 1930s in Mexico. The political atmosphere and socio-economic oppression of the indigenous population were historical fact. I went into the book without any context, and when the book ended I had more questions than answers. Despite the lack of context, the book still made an impact.

On the other hand, I’ve been to a number of plays where they provide a bit of context about the setting and events surrounding the play in the program. The play “Yellowface” by David Henry Hwang confronted social stigmas and stereotypes faced by Asian Americans. Much of the play would have been hard to follow if there was no context provided.

Perhaps it varies depending on the medium. We don’t always expect to know the context for a painting, while we do for a play. Maybe poetry falls in the middle somewhere? Maybe all art falls in the middle and it’s up to the artist to know whether the context is needed for the art to be understood?

I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer, but personally I want a poem to capture me right away without any context. I want something–image, metaphors, rhythm, musicality, a strong voice–to hook me. I don’t mind knowing the context afterward, but I also want something that can stand on its own as an excellent, well-crafted piece of writing.

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