Greetings fellow poets. I began thinking of the poem spark today after reading Alison Pelegrin’s poem “Three Prayers from the Broken-Hearted,” in the Summer 2006 issue of Rattle. In this poem there are three parts, all of which use the confessional “I”, and each of which is written from a different person’s perspective. The first part’s speaker, Earl, is the father of two (now grown) daughters. The introductory line of “I. Earl” reads: “In many failures have my daughters cried.” In the second part, “II. Cheryl”, one of the daughters speaks:
“The day he left my mother cut my hair—
. . .
She said I had to try
to be her little man because my daddy
went and had another little girl.”
In the last section, “III. Eunice”, the other daughter speaks:
“Mostly I’m in silence when the sadness comes,
imagining the woman I’d be if I were whole.
How can it be he kept us both apart?“
In each of these sections the author writes writes convincingly and with authority from the point of view of three very different people. The only thing that unites the poem is the characters’ common sense of “broken-hearted”-ness. “How is this possible?” you may ask. If you were educated in the 20th century you are no doubt familiar with the work of Whitman, Ginsberg, and Plath, all of whom wrote many poems with the “I” firmly entrenched as the dominant point of view.
So, is every “I” point of view in a poem the poet speaking? Or is it a persona? Is the poem’s speaker a real person, or is it a character created by the poet? These are valid questions and can be used to further one’s understanding of a poem. Indeed, it is much easier to understand Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” if one understands that he suffered from alcoholism and a tendency toward flamboyance.
Yet, assuming that the narrator in the poem is the poet speaking is a dangerous misconception. After all, mystery novelists don’t need to be serial killers to portray one in their books. Does every poet need to be suicidal to convincingly write about angst? Here is a Poets.org essay written by Rachel Zucker which gives us a somewhat amusing take on the “I” in poetry: Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) on “I” in Poetry
Here are some examples of poems that use “I” as the point of view, but which are definitely characters, not the poet him/herself speaking:
John Berryman Dream Song 4
Claudia Emerson Bone
This week, write a poem that uses the “I” as the dominant point of view in the poem. The catch: “I” must be a character. If you are a woman, make your character male. If you are male, make your character female. If you are young, write from the point of view of an old person. You get the drift. Good luck and have fun!