Photograph of a bust of Janus

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

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,

The Self is Continuously Formed from the Outside In

I have for years now observed that the person I am is determined by the place in which I am. To a distressing level, frankly. Certain ways of being seem inaccessible in some places, utterly. For example in the American suburbs, which is one of the places I least like the person I am, I can’t even access the sense of melancholy of longing for the wilderness I might feel in the city. Nor the vasty empty fear of the actual wilderness. In one neighborhood of San Francisco (Noe Valley) I can hardly enter the mood of another (the Presidio).

We, Westerners, think, or mostly like to think, that the self comes from within and finds expression through interactions with the exterior world. A soul, embodied. A self interacting with society. But I think that it’s not like that. I think the self is formed from the outside in. The brain forms the mind. The body forms the brain. Physical interactions form the body. Society regulates physical interactions and sometimes the body directly, as in judicial corporal punishment, medical regulations, restrictions on drug use, or prescriptions of drugs and treatment for those deemed insane, which is not always those who themselves suffer from their symptoms, as with the punitive psychology of the 1950s deployed against hysterical women in the US or political subversives in the USSR.

Ascetic meditating with fidget spinners London 2017

Art on the wall of the Regent’s Canal in London depicts an ascetic meditating with fidget spinners.

I make this sound all neater and more systemic than it really is. Beyond the premise that brain forms mind, body forms brain, I am quite uncertain of the chains of causation. I know there is neuroscience around this stuff and perhaps some parts of what we call personality are genetically predetermined, and no amount of societal pressure can really undo or alter them. For example the neurodiversity of autism spectrum or ADHD feels more like how tall you can grow[1], rather than something like how muscular you are which you can alter with diet and exercise and even, if you chose, external hormones–the use of which is regulated by society so here is a layer of abstraction above, acting on a layer of abstraction below.

Things at the level of neurological inclinations are much grosser and more general than what we normally think of as IDENTITY. Even around the constraints of our physical (which includes neurological) limitations we form an identity. That identity emerges from interaction with the entire embodied (and higher abstraction beyond) environment, instead of arising spontaneously from an inherent seed of self (e.g. a soul) that predetermines it. Though now that I say it, what even is the difference. Any soul which could manifest so variably is so undetermined or vast in potential it’s almost indistinguishable from non-existence.

And here by long-winded process I appear to have come around to Buddhist principles. No-self and form is emptiness.

This identity, moreover, is not formed once through one’s upbringing and then fixed, but changes continuously through ongoing interactions.[2] I don’t wish to posit a complete determinism. For example, I can choose to change my body through bodybuilding, and experience the world differently, because of my physical interactions with it. Suddenly a hill I avoided on my path is easy to climb. I see a different set of people on the new path. I can choose to talk to them, enter into new friendships and social relations, and start living under different norms. I can move to (or even just visit) a different country and be steered by the pressures of different geography, weather, and architecture to interact with different people, make other friends, and live under yet different norms, and start to think of myself as a new person, perhaps even without noticing the change as it is happening. But these dramatic changes can also happen entirely by accident. I might fall ill or have an accident and not be able to leave my house for months and lose my regular connections with friends and environment, become obsessed with the birds I see outside the window, research birds on the internet, join a forum for bird watches, and seemingly suddenly and almost by accident, I have a new identity of bird-watcher.

[1] But on revision, I wonder if this is even a good example of a predetermined constraint, since human growth hormone can change how tall you’ll grow, and tallness is determined by many factors, which while mostly outside of direct control of the individual who is or is not tall, are hardly all genetically predetermined.

[2] My friend and colleague Sara Klein reviewed an earlier draft of this essay and asked
“[I]f we are formed through the external, how do you account for stark differences such as a racist and an anti-racist who grew up in the same place at the same time with very similar circumstances.” The last paragraph attempts to address her question, although I can’t account for it from the outset, I can over time.