I've just had a discussion with Angela Carr in a mentoring session about grounding the reader in poems. She suggested and has anecdotal evidence of other poems/editors saying the same that the first stanza should ground the reader in the poem. By grounding I mean a good understanding of the who, what, where, when sort of details that the poem is hung on.
This idea caught my attention as one repeated comment I've had from other poets reading my work, until recently, was that I shouldn't introduce my poems so much in the first lines or stanza. That I should go for impact to grab the reader's attention and then ground them once they have an interest in the poem. They always seem to want to move the information further down or remove it totally because it was too 'telling'.
The same is said about novel openings, that the first lines and sections should grab your attention and then you can build up information from there. But with fiction you have much more space to develop these things.
I'm torn on this subject and don't have a clear answer for what is best to do. I did agree with my previous critics that many of my earlier poems did start off with a stanza that set up the location and feel of them poem and it left them feeling a bit staid and I have liked the pieces I've written recently that have more of a hook to pull the reader in.
I'm worried a little that each of my Finnish poems would have to have the word Finland shoe-horned into the first stanza in order to ground the reader. I do rely sometimes on the idea that my Finnish collection is mostly set in Finland with me and my family as the 'protagonists' and similarly for my Scottish collection and that will be obvious when they are actually published collections, but in the individual poems this will not always be clear at the beginning if published in a magazine without background detail.
So I can see what she means. You don't want the reader to walk away with too many questions after your first stanza but I also don't want to have everything explained, sometimes it's nice for the reader to take the words and fit themselves into them, using their own experiences.
How much background info does the reader need? If I reference a myth connected to a creature, do I need to explain it to them or can I just use the imagery from it and hope if they're interested they'll look it up themselves, as long as my connections to the images and the myth work within the poem on their own.
Yeats never mentioned Zeus in 'Leda and the Swan' and I remember a teacher having to explain the myth to the class, though I knew it. Does the power of the poem still hold if you don't know the story? I don't want to spoon-feed my reader info, but in some poems there are certain bits of info that would help the reader to understand better, so I do have to includ that. Do I have to explain every Finnish word or cultural reference, include a glossery in my book or can I leave some to context?
I need to go back and look at poets and poems I like to see how much info do they actually give when opening the poem and whether the details I want the reader to know to understand the poem come through clearly.
It was a thought-provoking conversation and it once again highlights the benefits of having other readers critque your work, especially those with experience in the genre.