The poet’s “I”

So often, when reading a poem written using the first-person perspective, my initial reaction is to consider the poet as the narrator–even though I ought to know better!

When I revisit the poem, when I analyze or interpret it on a more abstract or intellectual level, my view may alter. Interpretation sometimes leads me to decide that the “I” in a first-person poem may be a persona, a stand-in for the poet, or a perspective not of the poet’s personal experience but imagined or constructed. The foregoing are reasons to read and interpret poems with care and not to conclude, automatically, that the poet is writing from or of her own experience.

This makes poets sound like rather slippery or manipulative characters, employing use of the personal pronoun to mislead readers into believing something that isn’t “strictly true” (whatever that means). If I am telling a story, surely it must be my story; and if it isn’t my story—shouldn’t I confess that to my open-minded, engaged, possibly gullible reader? If a poem falls into the category of lyrical, readers tend to believe that the writer and narrator are one and the same, despite a reminder in the glossary of terms that the narrator who “expresses personal feelings” may be “the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker.” In other words—not the poet’s own feelings, despite the apparent authenticity implied in the use of the first-person pronoun.

Readers may feel betrayed by the writer. Yes, that happens. It also happens that rather awful human beings have penned soaring, beautiful, compassionate poems, because people are complicated and flawed and society often harms us.

And perhaps writing, in some complicated way, can redeem us. I’m not entirely convinced of that; but I do know that I have written poems that basically construct an experience or type of feeling I can imagine but do not authentically know, and that the work of having written such poems has felt like an enrichment of my own experience.

I have been asking myself why and how it happens that poets sometimes—often, perhaps—end up composing texts from other points of view, masquerading as their own. There seem to be a couple of reasons, one of which is simply that we practice writing by using our own much-loved poems as models. The lyric poem has a long history, and even autodidactic students of poetry eventually find that the biographies of some of their favorite writers do not correlate perfectly with the works themselves.

The lyric narrative has been around for less time, gradually supplanting the epic by drawing upon the ballad. And it’s here that readers often get confused about who is the “I” that tells the story, especially when emotional expressions of one kind or another enter the narrative.

I have more to say about this aspect of the poetic stance, the poet’s voice, and the lyrical narrative as lived or imagined experience. And about how that sort of thing evolves during the writing and revision process—with an example or two. But that is for another post. Meanwhile, I am mulling.

Image: Monterey Bay Spice Company

Mulling Spices