Thursday Thoughts: The Poet is Never the Speaker

06 Jan

12:01 pm, Thursday, 6 January, 2011 – Atlanta

I’m not sure why I feel I need to gird myself for this entry. I have been part of all sides: unknowing, unaware child reader, teenage student, adult reader, adult student, teacher, writer.

As a child who loved to read poems, it never occurred to me that the writer of the poem was the speaker. Never, as a child, as I read Stevenson, Frost, Dickinson and others, did I think this is the poet undergoing whatever is happening in the poem. In High School and college I still made the distinction. Eighteen years on I became a teacher and, as much as I loved poetry, I did not understand how it worked, in the same way I have always understood the structures of fiction.

To help me teach both the analysis and the writing of poetry, I asked a colleague, who became my mentor, if I could attend his creative writing  class as a student, for the poetry semester. I came out of that feeling confident about teaching poetry, but the bonus was I came out of there writing poetry. Jack [James Penha] also gave me chapbooks of his and I remember the look of horror on his face when I made the assumption he was the speaker of one of the poems. That was the first time I had muddled my thinking and the first time I heard: The poet is never the speaker, a mantra I told my students for the next eighteen years.

We had many discussions on the subject, Jack and I, while I clarified my thinking. I thought it odd that I had never before had any doubts, but now felt a little confused.  I realize, now, that the confusion arose from the fact I knew when writing a poem that I was part of the poem. But so are all poets because we write what our speakers say. We make the decisions to do with how they will say what we want to share, describe, explain.

Jack tells the story of a poem he wrote about his father who worked in a shipyard during WWII. To make the poem work his father had to die. Weeks later a friend commiserated with him over his father’s death. I imagine Jack’s face was much as when I confused him with his speaker. Jack’s father was alive and well, but for the integrity of the poem, for the poem to work, his father died. Think about it: when working on a poem, when crafting it for submission, or just for the pleasure of the craft, how many times have you had to change a fact, or include something that didn’t happen, for the poem to work.

Does that mean we are never the speakers? That no poem we write is completely what happened, or what we believe? Of course not, but we are the only ones who know. John Keats wrote “When I Have Fears” shortly after his brother died. Are the thoughts expressed his? Probably, but we don’t know if his thoughts are the first two quatrains and he added the third so the poem could be structured as a sonnet. Our audience doesn’t know either; students don’t know. Not 100%. And so, the speaker. We all know, when we read poems, what the speaker thinks, or believes, but unless we talk with the writer, we don’t necessarily know what they tweaked for the poem to work, or, when a writer presents a view not hers because she is interested in writing from the opposing viewpoint.

The speaker also gives us a buffer, stands between us and our readers, can make us feel less vulnerable, can take on a persona or voice that we ourselves may not have, can present a viewpoint we may or may not own. We write to convey a particular truth about people, the world, life. Ultimately the poem is more important than the absolute truth.

Whew! Do, please, add your viewpoint to comments. This is the first time I have not had a roomful of people to discuss this with and I think that’s what feels strange to me. Also not having pictures and asking you for the patience to read a piece this long.

Tomorrow, is the weekly roundup of possibilities.


Posted by on 06/01/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


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19 responses to “Thursday Thoughts: The Poet is Never the Speaker

  1. jessiecarty

    06/01/2011 at 1:24 pm

    Oh this is terrific! Especially “I realize, now, that the confusion arose from the fact I knew when writing a poem that I was part of the poem. But so are all poets because we write what our speakers say. We make the decisions to do with how they will say what we want to share, describe, explain.” I may need to share this with my literary analysis students! We had a lot of discussion of how you can never assume autobiography in poetry. Great work!

    • mroby

      06/01/2011 at 1:41 pm

      Thank you! If I were any nearer you, I’d beg to visit the class, lol! My friend, Jack, used to say we can’t even assume autobiography in autobiographies. No one wants to look bad, so tweaking probably happens there too!

  2. E Stelling

    06/01/2011 at 4:25 pm

    I enjoyed reading this and it helps relay a message Jessie has said at times in her posts, thanks mroby!

    • mroby

      06/01/2011 at 4:27 pm

      Thank you, Elizabeth!

  3. Debbie

    06/01/2011 at 9:17 pm

    I do the same thing, often thinking the poet is the speaker. oops. It’s hard for me to write and not be the speaker. It would be good for me to write as someone else, or a fiction poem, just to stretch me. Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

    • mroby

      06/01/2011 at 9:24 pm

      It’s okay for you to know you are the speaker and equally okay to change something so that the speaker is only partly you, or not you at all. A poem that is complete fiction, I think, is hard to do. I need some sort of connection. I suspect most writers do. Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you visited and that I got to read the poem you left on Jessie’s site. 🙂

  4. ldsrr91

    07/01/2011 at 5:53 am

    Interesting, I had never considered this until now. That is what it is all about … stirring the pot … making the reader think about it. Don’t you think it is virtually impossible as a writer to separate yourself from the work itself? In other words, there has to be a piece of you in everything that you write or share.


    • mroby

      07/01/2011 at 7:52 am

      Absolutely, DS. We are, after all, the creators. To one degree or another we are the speaker, or part of the speaker. The tricky bit is that readers don’t usually know what part or to what degree. We can also decide how much of a buffer we need. Speakers can be useful when we want to present something that we find interesting but don’t necessarily have as part of our belief systems, but we still want to explore. I think of my mother who tells stories so well that I can listen to them over and over. Each time she tells a story something gets tweaked or embroidered. Depends on the audience. She isn’t aware she is doing it and the people listening have no idea of the absolute truth of what happened, but I have heard the stories so I know that while she is the narrator, not all of the story is fact.Make sense?

  5. James

    07/01/2011 at 6:12 pm

    This is something I’m constantly trying to remind my students. (No, Poe was not really visited by a talking bird and he wasn’t married to anyone named Lenore). I came to poetry through fiction writing and I still think of poetry as a fictional form even if every word of one poem or another might be literal truth. It’s good to keep in mind also because it provides some respectful distance between poet and reader.

    • mroby

      07/01/2011 at 7:09 pm

      Yay! Thank you. So nice to meet another writer/teacher. I have found that generally the writers who write and teach agree with your stance; the writers who write don’t always. I was getting ready to hunt you down after reading your comment on Donna’s poem. You sounded like someone whose blog I would enjoy. And, here you are. I have just been over to visit and I enjoyed your feet poem. I shall now return to read a little more.

    • mroby

      07/01/2011 at 7:12 pm

      Ah! That James. Also of Gnarled Oak. Sometimes I’m slow to add or too quick to speak.

  6. Viv

    08/01/2011 at 12:14 pm

    Nearly all of my poems are written with my own voice, my own experience. But that’s because they are my outlet for feelings, thoughts, and experiences that I cannot express anywhere else so clearly. There is even time for admitting, sometimes I know when I write them(even more so if I post them) that I will get empathy. Tomorrow’s small stone poem I wrote today, following a rare but explosive row with my husband: I know there will be friends who will read with concern.
    But the point is also that once written, and shared, the poem ceases to be the property(by which I mean, more than intellectual property) of the poet, and is open to interpretation, exploration and discovery.
    In my fiction, I do take things that have happened to me, and take them further, into the realms of imagination, and since my life has been fairly dramatic and eventful, some of them make friends ask, “Was that you?” to which the answer is somewhere between No and Yes.

    • mroby

      08/01/2011 at 12:30 pm

      Many of my poems are too, more when I was younger and had more rows with my own husband, but even then, when I wrote, I found myself standing back from the poem and looking at it objectively to ask myself what it needed to work. I think most poets write from their experience. They have to if they want to write with any authenticity. But, I do think whether we are writing for posting or publication makes a difference. If I am posting it’s not that I care any less but noone is going to tell me it won’t be accepted. If I want publication, I will look at the poem differently. And I might remove, or add, or tweak. i will be more ruthless. Do you know what I mean?
      The important thing here though is that we are the only ones who know what we have or haven’t done. The speaker may be something we consciously set up, but from the point of view of a reader or student it is better to talk of a speaker because they don’t know, unless, as in the case of your friends, they have talked with us about our poems.
      And, as you say, the poem does become open to all those things, in which case, again, I’d rather not have it taken for granted I am the speaker, even if I am.
      Thank you for writing. I did hope this entry would garner responses. I miss talking about writing with colleagues. I hope to hear from you again and I shall look for tomorrow’s stone.

      • Viv

        08/01/2011 at 1:27 pm

        I’m not convinced that I would write any differently if I were writing for publication(or posting) than otherwise. I write, the moment goes on. I think my motivations for poetry are entirely different to those for fiction. In addition, I’ve never really thought of myself in terms of being a poet(of any note, at least) and so the idea of tweaking or altering has never occurred. Once something had crystalised, and been given form, I don’t rewrite it. I may write something new that sprang from the other earlier ancestor, but for me creation is organic and complete, even if imperfect( as suggested in Hopkins’ Pied Beauty)
        But that’s just me. I never set out to make any mark or achieve anything with poetry, least of all acclaim.
        Thank you.

  7. Pearl

    09/01/2011 at 4:13 pm

    I’ve taught poetry. Even if a person writes raw straight “true” autobiographical records, it is more useful as part of the editing process and the understanding process to step back and assume the pov is made up and not lining up with that the of the writer. learning to write or tell stories is a process of learning to sell words that work. what’s relevant, what dovetails in, what distracts and what accentuates?

    when I write for myself I need to tell myself different things, unpack stories differently, than if for an audience. if for publication I need to tighten up the quality of dumb it down depending on what the audience of the publication needs.

    I’d say the most interesting writing isn’t autobiographical because in part starting with yourself if where everyone starts. once you have experience and skill you tend to run out of that material so writing about outside yourself tends to be the domain of greater craft. writers observe and tinker. to limit arbitrarily to one life would be like eating only boiled potatoes for life.

    • mroby

      09/01/2011 at 4:44 pm

      Welcome. I am so glad to have people joining in this discussion. I have always been absolute with my students: the poet is never the speaker…ever.

      I’m interested in what you say in your last paragraph. I tend now to write outside myself and the difference I am finding is that there seems to be less self invested, therefore less emotion. I think that’s the attribute I find missing in my poetry. That maybe it is too objective. It could, of course, be my subject matter. I have a tendency to work on descriptive pieces, at the moment, as imagery is also something that does not come easily to me. And I chose to be a writer! But that is what the crafting is about.

      I have just hopped over to your site and plan to return after I finish this. Thank you for your comments.


  8. markwindham

    30/01/2012 at 9:45 pm

    I would not say that I “knew” this, but I think that I incorporate the concept. So much of what I do (story/person(ality) pieces especially) are complete fiction. I do think there is the element of ‘what is most personal is the most universal’. If the reader can put themselves into that ultra personal piece you have done the job of not being the speaker. Yes?

  9. margo roby

    31/01/2012 at 7:43 am

    Interesting rereading the comments. If I revisit the subject in a blog, I will have to use some of the material in the comments. The problem with the first six months, or so, of my blog is that I had only a couple of people commenting. I feel like my posts are languishing, lol.

    And, yes. Gold star, Mr. Windham [humour my humour — it’s early; I had a wretched night]. As you say, the universal, that which all poets strive to convey: universal truths.


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