Notes on the First Person

By April Bernard on 8.21.09

Those of us who live within the poetry of past centuries, as well of course as within the poetry of today, are bemused by the current confusion surrounding the first person “I” in poems. From Sappho’s lyrics to the sonnets of Shakespeare, to the odes of Keats and the quatrains of Hardy, the looseness and the elusiveness of the first person has been a hallmark of the lyric from its Western beginnings. When Shakespeare writes, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, of few, do hang,” he is writing of himself and not writing of himself.

For one thing, he wasn’t, even by Elizabethan standards, old when he wrote those lines. Insofar as they were “from” Shakespeare “to” his beloved, he was playing a game of pretending to be old for the sake of the poem, for the sake of their love-game, and no doubt for the sake of posterity, for whom he was “really” writing the poem about aging. In other words, Shakespeare writes his sonnet with the full freedom of fiction—drawing on the personal but not bound to it. When, a couple of centuries later, Wordworth writes an “autobiography in verse” in his Prelude, he does so in the full knowledge that he can have it both ways; that he can use his own life as an exemplary (or less-than-exemplary) tale, in the manner of Rousseau, but also be utterly free to invent and embellish.

Photo by DerekNeuland on Flickr

It was not until the “confessional” poetry of the nineteen fifties and sixties—a term of derogation not embraced by its writers, by the way—that American and some English poets tried to break through the fictive veil of poetry, as best they could, to tell the “truth,” of their experiences. Usually this meant saying the kinds of things that people might tell their best friend or priest but usually not the wide world—love troubles, drug and drink troubles, suicide troubles, family secrets. Never mind that, of course, one could never be sure that what one was being told was the “truth”—and a host of biographical studies of Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Wright, et alia have been devoted to, among other things, filling in the “facts” around the confessional poems. What was important was the poet wanted his or her readers to take this as fact, and to respond accordingly.

Crucially, this was not the case with all poetry of this period. When one reads Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, and a host of other important poets of the second half of the 20th century, one is reading work that, though obviously in various ways affected by the confessional mode, retained that long-abiding balance, that distance of the speaker from the person of the Poet, him- or herself.

The startling rise of the poetry reading as a common public form around this time no doubt contributed to the dismaying sense that all poetry must be, now and hereafter, confessional. We read accounts of Anne Sexton, fronting a band that was billed as “Her Kind” and performing her poems like a mesmerizing rock star. And one need have no quarrel with Sexton’s posing; nor that its more contemporary form, the poetry slam, continues that mode. But it is not for everyone.

And here is an interesting feature: When a rock star, an actual rock star, sings about this love or that fight or this child, his audience usually allows for that same mix of real-and-unreal that the lyric poem traditionally has been granted. Do we think Bruce Springsteen has just fallen in love with his “Jersey Girl?” (He didn’t even write the song; Tom Waits did.) Think how many defenders of Eminen explained that he was singing from a “persona,” and so we mustn’t take his sexist, racist, homophobic ranting at face value.

Well and good, say I, but what about poetry? When I read a poem, what am I to make of a well-meaning member of the audience who comes up to me afterward, wanting reassurance that I am “all right,” because the speaker in one of my poems was evidently not “all right”? In my newest book, Romanticism, I thought I had taken every possible precaution to alert the reader that I am writing about a particular period and mode, that I am writing about a particular period and mode, that there are many voices at work here, and that many of the poems are, as the notes make explicit, fictional. And yet one reviewer presumes that these are all personal, moreover, about my personal life, and that my tone can be discerned as “embittered.”

Because I can, I am herewith going to quote in its entirety one of the poems in my new book. It’s an aria from an invented opera, The Cossack’s Bride, and while indeed sad, it is not, I hope, embittered. It’s called “Sonya to the Messenger.” Have I drawn upon my own experiences and feelings? Yes, of course, though I have never loved a blacksmith or sent anonymous valentines, and have spent only a minimal time on the Russian steppe. Do I hope the poem will break your heart? Yes, of course. Do you need to pat my hand and find out if I am “ok”? No, dear reader; I am fine, and I hope you are too.

Sonya to the Messenger
                          aria from Claude DuFarge’s The Cossack’s Bride

I have written a message of love,
suitable for Saint Valentine’s Day,
but I have disguised my handwriting
and it is unsigned—
Alas, he despises my name.

Please take this sealed to the village in the south,
ask for the blacksmith,
see that he receives this note,
but swear you do not know who sent it—
Alas, he will never forgive me.

May the light love words make him smile,
may he think of a pretty girl in the market
or some milkmaid he likes to watch
as she swings down the lane with her bucket yoke—
Alas, he despises my name.

Will you make sure the ruffians
at the tavern do not rob him
when he gets so drunk he can’t walk?
Will you see him safe home to his wife?
Alas, he will never forgive me.

Please, with these extra coins,
buy him a sheepskin hat.
See for me if his eyes are still soft,
his cheeks smudged with soot from his forge.
Never, never, say my name.

topics: Columnists


Maureen Tobin said on 8.26.09 at 6:50am:

Wonderful article. Though I know all this to be true I often forget, sometimes with embarrassing results. Just this Sunday, in my writing group, I had to be reminded that the cannibal witch speaker was not, not at all, the poet. I always claim to be swept up in the art of it all.

I am linking.

April Bernard's avatar

April Bernard said on 8.26.09 at 5:27pm:

You should be relieved to learn that one reason I wrote this is because I’ve made the same reflexive mistake myself. I thought a colleague was going through a divorce because of some poems she read—and even asked her, some months later and very gently, how it was going, living alone. She looked at me like I had lost my mind—we cleared thing up.

Maureen Tobin said on 8.26.09 at 8:36pm:

Actually, I am relieved. Always feel silly about this forgetting. It may be also that my own fictional 1st person voices are always me, one way or another, but I shouldn’t attribute this to more psychologically well-integrated writers, too;)