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.