who is speaking?

This post is a continuation of a post I wrote at Read Write Poem about persona poems. Go see!

In many poems, the narrative voice is in the first person singular. I’ve heard writers complain about how they’re tired of writing about themselves, how they don’t want to be self-obsessed, and I’ve also heard readers complain about how so and so is forever writing about herself, is a narcissist with no sense of the world outside.

But are we always writing about ourselves when we use the pronoun I ? As noted in the Poet.org article entitled “Poetic Technique: Dramatic Monologue”, TS Eliot created characters in his poems who spoke about certain ideas and situations the poet wanted to investigate or draw out. In “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock,” no one would mistake the narrator of Prufrock as the poet himself. In this poem, Eliot is taking on the persona of the modern man, breathing life into him through the character of J. Alfred Prufrock.

When discussing or commenting on the work of others, it’s important to ask, “who is the narrator?” Just because the author is female doesn’t mean the narrator is. One of the privileges of being a poet or an artist or an actor is that we use our imaginations. We explore what it might be like to live under certain conditions. We might be able to find a historic character to investigate, someone who actually lived who exemplifies an idea or an image we want to understand. Or we invent.

And it might be wise to remember that even when we think we’re being honest with ourselves about writing the brutal truth, we still might be harboring certain illusions about ourselves that transfer onto the page. I’ve caught myself holding back when I write for any number of reasons What ends up in the poem is my invented self, the woman I want to be, but maybe not the person I am. We continuously create the persona we admire. Narcissism is a deep, shiny pool, and we all love to gaze into it.

How many of you have had readers confuse the narrator in the poem with you? Have you ever had someone assume you were writing about, say, your own failed marriage, when in fact you were merely exploring what could be, or what might have been?

What about personas in your poems? Have you breathed life into a literary figure from the past, a historic personage, or even a character you made up?

To read more about the idea of persona poems, please visit my column at read write poem, “get the lead out, it’s noting really.”

21 thoughts on “who is speaking?

  1. Jo says:

    How interesting you should write this now. I touched on this in a conversation I was having with Dale yesterday……I do write autobiographically, but more often I am writing of the many people I know, standing in their shoes for a moment. I was accused last year by a reader of always writing self-portrait poems. This is a nonsense. Though there will be shes and narrators in my poems, they are rarely me (though yesterday’s was, ha). Imagination, projection….this is normal for a writer/poet. It is insulting when people assume they know you and your work, that they are the ultimate decoder. I write poetry that attempts to illuminate life, I want people to recognise something in my work. For me this is just as viable as inventing characters to speak for myself….So many assumptions. Thanks for writing this.


  2. paisley says:

    love the new diggs,, thrilled to be here from the inception… have marked my reader…

    i loved this line “When discussing or commenting on the work of others, it’s important to ask, “who is the narrator?” especially because i do a lot of self involved introspective writing,,, so it happens every time i step out of myself,, and just write,, many readers don’t seem to notice that i am no longer speaking about me… i will have to ask myself this question,, and whether or not i have made the answer to it available to my reader….


  3. Dave says:

    If writing is in general a form of temporary escape from the ego, to me, writing a poem in the voice of another is the purest form of immersion in otherness… and sometimes leads to genuine insights into one’s own nature. Funny how that works.


  4. suburbanlife says:

    re: ‘who is the narrator” – when reading a poem written in the first person, it is just as easy to enter into the poem and be the narrator as well as the reader, and not automatically assume the poet is necessarily divulging personal information or attitude. Successful narrative poems seep under the skin and blend with one’s sensibility – I can tell this when my skin and soul start to become permeable as I read. G


  5. christine says:

    Dave, I love that photo! Seeing “you” up there has made my day.

    Jo, I was specifically thinking of a collaborative poem you wrote when I was writing this post.

    Dave, I think you’re right about the otherness and exploration beyond the confines of the ego. But it’s subtle, and tricky, at least for me.

    G, I love what you say about placing your own self within a poem. I do that too. That’s what makes reading such an amazing adventure. And writing too, in the same way, as you dream the dream while you write it. Thanks for stopping by my new blog. 🙂


  6. Dana says:

    I completely agree with you about the I. I use I all the time, and I am rarely if ever the I in the poem. I am also often not female in my poems. I am whoever and whatever I want to be.


  7. ybonesy says:

    balanced on the edge is great, Christine—great look and feel.

    The topic you bring up, about the assumption that is often made about narrative and whether it’s a story that belongs to the author’s life or not—well, it wasn’t really until I started reading your work and jo’s and a few other fellow bloggers that I realized, I shouldn’t make that assumption at all. In creative non-fiction, it’s a given that the narrative belongs to the author’s life because, well, if not it would be fiction. But not so with poetry. And I wonder when and if it matters that the reader know in the case of a poem whether the narrator is the author. Can you ever think of a time that it does?


  8. Nathan says:

    This is such an important point to make. Unless it’s explicitly intended by the work, I never assume the voice in the work is the author. Writers work through the imagination, the imagination works on everything including elements of the author’s experience. Even when I write something about my experience the I in the poem is not fully “me.” It’s a commonplace that memory has the nature of a fiction so how can my story about myself, my poem about my experience not have a fictional element as well, no matter how “confessional”? Poems get at truth but they do so whether the material comes from the author’s experience or from the imagined experience of another source.


  9. carolee says:

    yes — this is an important point to make. the author isn’t necessarily the same as the narrator.

    to carry it a step further, “the people and events portrayed in this episode are purely fictional despite any similarities you may notice between actual people and events.” don’t you love those disclaimers on our favorite TV shows? well, in poetry, of course, it’s true!

    not only are we, as poets, not always the narrator, we (gasp!) sometimes elaborate upon, exaggerate or omit the truth.


  10. durable pigments says:

    Ah, I love this post and this conversation (shiny pool of narcissism, oh yes). A constant source of frustration for me, being confused for the narrator of my work. I almost always write character poems, even when I’m writing about an “I.” Sometimes the I is someone resembling myself, but often there’s no relationship at all. And I so agree about the invented self that appears on the page. Persona poems have always been a favorite, to read and to write. I’ve written about a lot of characters over the years–from history, from myth, from fairy tale, and invented many others, including that ubiquitous imagined “I” (and sometimes “you”).

    Anyone familiar with Nicole Cooley’s Resurrection? And here is a long-time favorite of mine, Lewis Buzbee’s marvelous Sunday, Tarzan in His Hammock.


  11. Paul says:

    This is an endlessly fascinating topic and one on which I have often pontificated. It makes me very happy to see it taken up as a legitimate topic of discussion among a larger circle. Perhaps I could point out that the writer’s voice is always an artificial construct. One does not write as one talks nor as one thinks. The ‘writer’ even in the most personal first person narrative is still a fiction, in my most humble opinion.


  12. Julie says:

    YES!!! What a relief it is to read this. Can you hear me applauding? I am! So many people (including many poets and writers) do not understand what a narrator is!! I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve had to explain the use of “I” to people who should know better.

    I can be patient when someone who is not a poet or a writer doesn’t understand. But when someone in a writer’s workshop accuses me of being “vulgar,” because the narrator uses certain words or phrases…arrrgh…it drives me crazy. I’ve had a “poet” call me up in the middle of the night to discuss my suicidal tendencies. No kidding! Sure, there are elements of my life and other peoples’ lives, but there’s a lot of imagination involved, too. Thank you…thank you…thank you for this post. I can’t wait to hop over and read more.


  13. Dick says:

    My protagonists are always, in the final analysis, me. I’ve always thought of the process of the creation of a persona within a poem as being akin to Stanislavski’s recommendations to his actors concerning the devising of character – the famous, and much misunderstood, System (or, in the States, Method.) Contrary to common assumption, Stanislavski never spoke in terms of complete absorption in the scenic character to the extent of the immolation of the actor’s self. In fact, he ridiculed the notion of a departure from own self as psychologically preposterous. Instead, he provided a set of exercises that, if properly implemented, would enable the actor to accommodate the created character within the emotional context of the actor’s self. What would emerge would be a melding of the two in a kind of creative symbiosis. Which is pretty much how I view the relationship between poet and character personae within a poem. Whatever excursions my protagonist might take throughout the narrative, the creative force driving him or her comes from my own set of emotional experiences – from my self.

    Sorry – long-winded, but that was a stimulating question to ask!


  14. christine says:

    Dick, your answer thrills me! It rings true. I relate what you say to dreams. How can we create monsters in our dreams unless we have a place within ourselves that “accommodates” or recognizes monsters? How can we recognize what we fear or love in others unless we’ve experienced it ourselves? Yes, from everything I’ve read here, your comments make the most sense. Thanks!


  15. art predator says:

    anything we write is always some version of ourself since we generated it.

    it’s a continuum however, from vaguely true to preposterous.

    no matter how “true” it is, what we write is a construction which we manipulate in order to be better storytellers.

    in my “true” ghost story, while the events are “true” as “i” claim, and “i” had that experience, it is still a constructed narrative in order to have a stronger result.


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