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.
Posted by Chris Banks at 12:23 PM