Appearance and Reality: Who is the “I” in a Poem?

by Clark Cook

NOTE: This thumbnail is designed for non-poets and, possibly, for those very new to the art.

I wrote a poem once about dreams. The poem was presented through the eyes of a first-person narrator–the “I” of the poem. I read the poem at a poetry event; afterwards, a woman came up to me and expressed sympathy for all the suffering I had endured, as ‘recorded’ in the poem. I explained that I had never experienced any of the suffering depicted in the poem, which was entirely a work of the imagination. She said that the first-person imagery was so intense it could only come from direct experience. Besides, I had put myself in the poem as narrator, so the content must spring from ‘real’ experience.

While it is true that serious poets project their values, beliefs, mores, and hopes–and a great deal more–into their work, it is beyond ludicrous to insist that the speaker of a poem is the author of the poem, literally. The poet as a person-in-the-world eats, sleeps, discharges waste, picks his nose, thinks, yawns, farts, drives a car, hits his thumb with a hammer, goes to the bar to play crib. This functioning creature cannot be the speaker of the poem. As I say . . . ludicrous.

Even in an intensely personal poem that springs directly from a poet’s deepest beliefs–say, Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality–the speaker is a persona, created by the poet as an avenue through whom the poet speaks. The life that persona lives is confined to the language of the poem, which may or may not support speculations that this or that about the person “must” reflect directly back to the poet’s beliefs. Pursuing such speculations is as often the passion of the speculator, as it is helpful exploration of the poem.

Decades ago, LC Knights wrote a critical essay called “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” In Act 1 she says “I have sucked [sic] a child”. In Act 4, Macduff says of Macbeth, “He hath not child”. That’s it. That’s all the play offers about her and her children. The essay has become a classic spoof of the absurd lengths to which some readers and critics go to assign a literal ‘life’ to a persona or fictional character. Insisting that the “I” in a poem is the poet him/herself is part of this fallacious way of looking at literary work.

A poet creates a world which is the poem. He may choose to present that poem through the eyes of a speaker called “I” and that “I” may espouse values deeply held by the poet personally (Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree, or that “I” may espouse the insane ‘values’ of a perverted murderer (Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover).

As readers and critics–assuming we want to honour the parameters of the poem and the intent of the poet who lies behind it–we will enjoy a richer and deeper experience by staying within the world of the poem than by indulging in idle speculation about how the poor poet must have had an agonizing childhood to write such a painful piece, or . . .? Or . . . ?

Ultimately, such commentary is what I simply call gossip. We all know how we feel about the people in our lives who say “well he must be cheating on her, because I’ve seen the way he looks at women and Becky’s cousin’s sister says he made a pass at her at the company picnic.” Ultimately, bringing such innuendo to a poem merely takes us away from the meat and substance of the poem and into an airy world of “maybe” that usually shows off our manipulative cleverness more than it illuminates the poem.

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