Skip to content

Reading, Do You Find Yourself … ?


I’ve been thinking about the way that I and other writers use the pronoun you in poems and realising how strong an antipathy I have to its being used to stand in for the first person. I’m not talking about the colloquial use of you as a replacement for the often bothersomely formal impersonal pronoun one, but about poems that seem to address the reader/hearer when they’re actually telling us about what the writer/speaker is doing.

For an example, listen to the poem that set me off on this train of thought: Jacob Sam-La Rose‘s aubade “Waking, You Find Yourself …“. Certainly not a bad piece of writing, but it suffers from this problematic you.

And here’s the problem: This you pretends to generalise a particular experience; it tells the reader “you do/see/think this” when, in fact, they don’t and quite possibly wouldn’t or couldn’t for any number of reasons. It attempts to steer around the ambiguities and problems of the poetic I; it neither steams ahead with the first person nor engages with postmodern games and doubts about the self. It can’t decide whether it wants distance or intimacy and, instead, opts for something that purports to provide both.

Is this approach mainly an affectation of younger writers? I used to do it now and again, but I don’t think I’ve fallen into that trap for a good six or seven years at least. In the flush and overconfidence of youth, is it too easy to think that something we experience is universal? Or is it a lack of confidence that leads the younger writer to push for universality by slipping into the second person?

Whatever the answer to those questions, it seems to me that you would be best reserved for instances in which there is a clear addressee–a named dedicatee or one unnamed but obvious–or for use as an impersonal pronoun where standard grammar would require one. It is possible to use you to address oneself in a poem if that’s made clear in the title, for instance, as in my poem “Notes to Self”.

Poems like Sam-La Rose’s are probably best rendered using the first person or, if the poet wants more distance, the third. Of course, the third person in English (and many other languages) ties down the gender of the character in the poem, which might or might not be an issue. Then again, the you I’m arguing against also gives the question of gendered poetry a bodyswerve, and is that really acceptable?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Shields permalink
    04/09/2007 05:28

    Durs Grünbein used to do a lot of “Du” poems where he was in effect talking to himself. Translating them, I at first found myself more irritated by the English “you” than by the German “Du”, but later began to get used to it. In this case, though, it was a matter of a particular poet’s use of the second person; in general, I do find it irritating and have stopped using that “you” in my own poems. (So maybe it is a “young writer” thing.)

  2. Alex Pryce permalink
    04/09/2007 21:42

    Interesting post Andrew.

    I admit I’m often guilty to addressing a ‘you’ figure who seems to appear behind a smokescreen.

    I think one of the reasons for this is that by using ‘you’ the poem isn’t naming a gender, or person – and so that gives a kind of freedom to criticise/praise them in an unrequited way.

  3. Andrew Shields permalink
    05/09/2007 08:23

    It crossed my mind yesterday that the “you” in poetry might also come from pop music, where there are many songs that use a “you” to exhort the listener to identify with the singer.

    Of course, it is often just as overbearing in music as it is in poetry. And since so much pop music is written by young people, that might be connected to the “young writer” thing.

  4. Cailleach permalink
    06/09/2007 10:39

    Pertinent point that – I haven’t used the ‘you’ address in a long time.

  5. Alex permalink
    07/09/2007 19:38

    Michael Symmons Roberts'”The Structure of Genes” (!)

    “Shaving in the mirror, a man may see….” (!)

  6. Andrew Philip permalink
    21/09/2007 22:04

    Interesting comments, all.

    Alex, what about MSR’s “The Lung Wash”? Now, there is a use of “you” that doesn’t bother me. I think I’ll revisit and expand on this in another post.

  7. 16/04/2013 13:05

    I have used the ‘you’ too – I was aiming at a distancing that had not the cut-off of the third person, but still a linking intimacy. Our borders are not set no matter how language and logic would have us. The piece written as ‘you’ about feeding a bird, was trying for an identification with the bird and its experience, against all that philosophy and reasoning dictate: it was not I, or he, but a kind of we. And as I was the only human-language particpant… how do you do a we that also has the distance of the I? Tu, or Du would probably be acceptable – but in English?

    • Andrew Philip permalink*
      16/04/2013 22:49

      Tricky, isn’t it. “We” might suffice in some cases. It is sometimes used as a generic pronoun. In others, “you” may well be the best option. There is also, however, the imperative, which might work in some places.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: