Thursday, November 12, 2009

Behold! The Evil "I"!

Every so often, I come across friends of mine or poet acquaintances who take on certain aesthetic stances which appear, at least to me, to be self-limiting or antithetical to how poems are really composed. Some will no longer write poems about poetic composition, or about place, or childhood, or gardens, or for the purpose of this post, the use of the personal pronoun “I”. Everybody is free to use whatever means that works for them but I think this kind of talk can be dangerous when it takes on an all-or-nothing orthodoxy.

I am more apt to agree with Margaret Atwood when she writes, ”I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck…you may improve your so-called technique but only at the expense of your so-called soul.”

Thus at the expense of my so-called soul, I will simply state that for me writing in the first person point-of-view is a way to project my consciousness into a poem. It is a single grain of “the real”, what Richard Hugo might have called a known quantity in which all of the wonderful unknown quantities may collect around in a successful poem. If a poem is simply autobiography, then it is a kodak moment or a mere confession. However, if the “I” in the poem seeks to enlarge the self through thoughtful contemplation of a place or a person or a time period, something other than itself, then the “I” really acts as a “we”, and the poem suddenly takes on greater historical and cultural significance.

One of my favorite American poets Jack Gilbert talks briefly about the suspicion that has grown up around the usage of the first-person point-of-view in poetry in a fantastic interview in the January/February 2009 issue of the APR:

“And this whole absurdity about doubting the ‘I’ in poetry I don’t understand at all. The ‘I’ is the source of communication of things that matter. At least, that’s what I feel. I want to trust the speaker of the poem. It’s like biting into gold, to see if it’s true metal. Poets work by insight, not by cleverness. If not through inspiration, then through intuition.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with Jack Gilbert about the use of the "I" in poetry. There is still gold in them hills.


  1. That Atwood quote has always bothered me. In fact when a poet says things like that it makes me wonder how they can be a poet...a poet, it seems to me, is interested in thinking. That statement suggests there is no refelction...I doubt that is what she, or you mean.

  2. I'm glad you brought this up Sina because I do have a love-hate relationship with this quote. Some days I say, yes, I understand what you are saying Ms. Atwood, and other times it does seem at odds with my beliefs. Indeed, the whole point of this blog was to start talking about the kind of poetry I like because in critical circles I felt lyric and narrative poetry was being under-served in Canada. As such, I think I am qualified as both a teacher and as a poet to talk about this kind of poetry with some authority but I do admit there is a part of me that wants to resist this kind of explanation. I think this is why I did not jump into blogging years ago. However, I have come to believe not talking about one's thoughts and passions to do with poetry does more damage in the long run. My perfect reader for this blog is a kid about the age when you first met me Ms. Lemon. I look at my ex-students and young adults beginning MFA programs and I want to give them a resource. A trustworthy voice they can count on.

  3. I get the feeling Atwood isn't talking about the intellectual or technical facets of poetry making here. Those things can be laid out on a table and discussed like car parts. I think she is refering to the inimitable, ineffable, psychological qualities of a (good) poem, when the gestalt raises the hair on the neck, stirs the animus from its slumber, and gives the subconscious a case of the willies. The 'poetry' of poetry.

  4. I don't think one can even begin to know what one thinks about poetry until one discusses it publicly. Something Atwood has had the benefit of--very public attacks she has endured and defended herself against.

    More poets need to make that leap, to think out loud as you're doing here, to ask what is going on in our thinking about poetry as much as the writing of poetry and other literary forms.

    I look forward to having my thoughts tested, teased out, queried, pushed, expanded, complicated, and pressed to take a firmer shape.

    I don't enjoy being mocked, or dismissed. Who does?

    In any case, looking forward to more diverse voices, and to pushing those voices to think and write more concretely and with critical edge.