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Me, Themselves and I


Rob Mackenzie has blogged about using personas and characters in his poetry. One of the points he discusses is the degree to which a reader is likely to equate the I of a poem written in the first person with the writer. Anyone who writes in a persona — anyone who writes, I suspect — knows that the poem can go places and say things its writer doesn’t necessarily think or agree with. One way round that is to use the second person, but I don’t really like that. I’ve tried to explore the reasons for that dislike here.

Is it, I wonder, more common for people to equate the first person with the writer when they’re reading poetry than when they’re reading fiction? I have to say I was once guilty of making that lazy assumption more often than not, but that time is long gone! Certainly, anyone properly familiar with the techniques and approaches of contemporary poetry is unlikely to assume automatically that, just because a poem is written in the first person, it directly reflects the experiences and/or opinions of its writer.

Of course, the reverse is also true: just because a poem obviously employs a persona doesn’t mean it is no reflection of the writer’s life. “The Apple’s Song” by Edwin Morgan strikes me as a good instance: it is very much like his love poetry in tone and language — so much so that I want to say, “his other love poetry” — but is written in the voice of an apple in a fruitbowl. I don’t know whether Morgan felt that affinity as he wrote the poem, whether it was intentional or one of those wonderful creative accidents, but the connection is undeniable. And there are several reasons why that love-lyric impulse might have been pushed through the monologue form, consciously or (more likely) unconsciously.

As readers, we have to make the judgment writer by writer and poem by poem. But we also have a responsibility to take into account the rest of the writer’s work, as far as we can know it. For writers, the problem is perhaps less to do with the use of the first person for a (semi-)fictional persona and more to do with the publishing of individual poems here and there in magazines and, perhaps, anthologies, divorced from the context of the rest of their work. That’s one reason why the poetry collection is such a good thing.

(Did I mention Rob’s collection is also coming out from Salt? 1 March: it’s this year’s day, people!)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. rosswilson permalink
    09/01/2009 23:14

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the second person though I’ve never given it much thought as to why. I think I agree with what you say about it wanting both intimacy and distance, like the best of both worlds. Ron Butlin uses the second person in his novel The Sound of my voice (which made me want to read it!) I’m not sure if he uses it in his poetry?

    I think the last point you make, about reading a poem out of context, is an important one. Maybe a bit like partially hearing someone’s opinion on something and drawing your conclusions on the little you actually heard.

    I’m not sure if people would confuse the I of the poet with the ideas in the poem anymore than they would with a novelist: the jury is still out in my head on that one! Novelists can use different voices through their characters. But, as I’m finding out, so can poets!

    I don’t think anyone would confuse Carol Anne Duffy with a psychopath because her poem Psychopath is in the first person (she makes him a man of course, but even so, I think folk would give her the benefit of the doubt!)

    RS Thomas’s Lore is interesting as it introduces us to Job Davies “eighty five winters old” and then proceeds in a kind of free indirect style “miserable? Kick my arse!” That’s almost certainly not the voice of the poet! (though the character does share the poets dislike of “the machine”)

    I’ve been reading a lot of Mackay Brown and like how he uses characters in his poetry. I also find it interesting how he revised much of his early work late in his life.

    “for fear of the elders,
    I sit on my bum.”

    He originally wrote in Beachcomber. I think he changed ‘bum’ to ‘rock.’

    Maybe there’s a lesson for poets in his “fear” of what people might think? Maybe we need to take risks in being misunderstood, like Morgan and his apple, or your apple, or my apple!

  2. Violetwrites permalink
    25/01/2009 16:48

    Interesting piece. Actually I have written in many voices including a man's voice. Whatever we relate to & understand we can write.
    Judgments are often difficult to swallow, especially from those who consider themselves experts. My poetry tends to raise a lot of flags plus many people say I don't write poetry.
    I just write about what I know & feel.

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