Whom Am I? (Part One of I, You, He: Who Are the People in These Poems?)

Photograph of a bust of Janus

Is the “I” of the poem the same as the “I” of the poet? Well, it’s complicated. Sometimes. And then again, sometimes not. And sometimes both. Let me explain.

In a fictional narrative written in prose, most readers quickly realize that “I” just means the author chose to write in the first person, and the narrator is just another character. In modern narratives, that’s also often a clue that we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything the narrator has to say. In non-fiction prose, like essays or memoirs, readers generally assume the “I” of the narrative voice is the same as the “I” of the author. The way we know if something is fiction or non-fiction is usually by its packaging. The jacket blurb says, for example “this memoir by X tells the gripping story of her youth in Y,” or “newest thriller by Z is sure to thrill readers of spy novels.” Or the book is shelved in Fiction at the library. I’m being a little obvious and a little obtuse here, because of course there are also a lot of clues inside a book about if it’s fiction or not, especially in contemporary works. (Historical or hagiographic works might frame themselves as non-fiction and yet describe events that to a modern reader seem very improbable and would normally be a hint that we’re reading fantasy)

The “I” in poetry is a little more difficult to suss out. First of all, the big meta hints about fiction and non-fiction are unavailable. All the poetry books are shelved together. Sylvia Plath’s confessional works and Beowulf sit in the same bookshelf in my local library. Sometimes, very rarely, a poetry book blurb will say that the poems are based on the writer’s own experience or on a specific historical incident. Most of the time though, poetry books themselves are very coy about their status as fiction or nonfiction.

If readers look at hints inside the text, poems are often unhelpful as well about the status of the “I”. Contemporary poetry tends to be quite naturalistic and describes events and images that seem like they could have happened. Sometimes a poem in the first person is very clearly from the point of view of a historical figure, or an animal, or some inanimate object, so it’s clear that it’s not the author. I am not an anvil, obviously. Oh but maybe the sad anvil represents me after all, like a stuffed animal speaking on behalf of a child? I’ll come back to this but first: confessional poetry.

Even people who don’t know much about poetry seem to know about confessional poetry, where poet draws upon very personal (often painful) experiences and writes in the first person. Confessional poetry has been such a force since the 1950s that it seems a lot of people have got the wrong idea that that’s all contemporary poetry is anymore. (But only people who don’t actually read a lot of contemporary poetry think this, because as soon as you open a literary journal or pick up an anthology, it becomes obvious a lot more is going on, and it’s been a lot of years since 1950.)

In confessional poetry, it would seem obvious that the “I” of the narrator is the writer. And well, sometimes, that’s true, but not always, and not exactly, and not entirely. For that matter, a poem could be written as though it is a confessional poem, but actually be fictional, and because of the lack of meta clues, the reader will never know.

Finally, you could ask the poet, assuming they’re still alive and you get a chance. But you probably shouldn’t ask. First of all, it’s considered dreadfully rude. Second of all, because you have just been rude, the poet might lie to you, leaving you knowing less than you did when you started.

So here we are, and I (that’s I, AK, the essayist, because this is a nonfiction essay) haven’t answered the questions I posed at the start and only talked about why they are difficult to answer. I propose we don’t bother to answer them at all, and instead do like poets do.

In workshops and at readings, poets get around the problem by saying things about “the narrator of the poem” or the “speaker of the poem”. We do it to a degree that might seem absurd at first. For example, the poet might give a little introduction about how she wrote this poem after the death of her child. She then reads the poem. And we, other poets, say to her: the imagery in your poem gave me chills, particularly when the speaker compared herself to a fault line along tectonic plates.

Thus, in workshop and in conversation, “you” is the person who wrote the poem, to whom we are now speaking, but “I” remains “the narrator” and “the speaker.”

Even in such a case where the poet says the poem is about a personal experience, we, poets, do this because it gives our fellow poet space to write about something personal without having to answer intrusive questions. We do it because it lets us all focus on the poem, instead of the poet. In workshop its lets us critique and improve a poem about something that is personally very important but might not be very good yet as an artwork, without undermining the personal importance of the thing behind the artwork. And we do it because the poem might have been written a while ago, or in a particular mood, and the narrator and the poet really aren’t the same person anymore. And we do it because although the poem might be based on real experiences that really happened to the poet, she might have chosen to fictionalize aspects of the narrator for dramatic impact and so “I” is a confusing mixture of her and not her.

I suggest therefore that you (that is you, the person reading this right now, not a fictional you, which I’ll get into in part two) treat every first person narrator in a poem as an ambiguously fictional narrator, sheerly out of politeness. Please.

Feature image by Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7404342