Sunday 21 August 2022

Nerd Church - The Writer Diaries: Thinking Way Too Much About Poetic POVs


I've been writing a lot of poetry lately -

(mainly over on Medium, but don't worry - it all gets cross-posted here on Dora Reads eventually, I promise!)

- And it led to me thinking (as I do,) about the Point of View (POV) in poetry.

'Thinking Way Too Much About Poetic POVs' with a stereotypical artsy writer's desk in the background

See, the 'I' in poetry is called the 'speaker' - because that's the person who's speaking.

But the speaker is not always the same as the poet. 

The poet may be saying 'I' but not talking about themselves at all.

Instead they're using the 'voice' of a hypothetical person, maybe even a full-on character. Just as an author would in a novel.

...Or they might be using a voice that is 100% the poet, talking about their own lives.

...Or some sort of weird hybrid of themselves and a character.

It's similar in songs, right?

Songs are the space where music and poetry meld and blur, and the speaker isn't always the singer, or even the songwriter.

The Killers song 'Jenny Was A Friend of Mine' is a clear example - 

(or at least... I really hope it is.)

In Jenny Was A Friend of Mine, the speaker is a suspect in Jenny's death, who is being interrogated by the police.

When Brandon Flowers (lead singer of The Killers,) sings:

'She couldn't scream while I held her close
I swore I'd never let her go...'


...He doesn't mean that there was a literal girl, named Jenny, with whom he took a walk that night, (but it sadly wasn't the same as their usual easy relationship,) and with whom he had a fight on the promenade (out in the rain, may I add,) and who he swore he'd never let go. 

(Again, at least I really hope not.)

He's using the voice of a character.

And non-musical poets do that a lot, too. 

Edgar Allen Poe, for example, was never interrupted from his nap by a raven who tormented him over the death of a woman named Lenore; the speaker of The Raven is a character. 

(Sorry if I burst anyone's bubble there! 😅)

But sometimes it's a lot more difficult to tell who is 'speaking' in a poem than it is in a piece like The Raven or Jenny Was A Friend of Mine.

Poetry twists and turns, and blurs the boundaries between art and life.

Take the oh-so famous Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare - better known as 'Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer's Day?'

Who's the 'I'? Is it Shakespeare? Or a character?

And the 'thee?' Are they a real person*?

Are the couple in this poem based on reality? Or are they just a romantic couple Shakespeare imagined? Or a compilation of several people - some experiences Shakespeare has had, some he's heard about, some he's just made up?

We can't know.

*yes, person - there's no indication that the speaker's lover in Sonnet 18 is a woman.

There are no female pronouns in this poem, and some interestingly positioned male pronouns, so we're gonna throw that heteronormativity the hell out - it doesn't belong here. 😎

Beverly Goldberg from The Goldbergs: Shakespeare would love the way I talk
Via Giphy

The same is true of a myriad of songs - I would argue most songs, actually.

Who on earth is the 'I' in most generic pop music, for example? Especially the stuff that's been through several songwriters, editors, producers, and performers, before it reaches its final form.

(That's not shade on generic pop btw - as with any other genre there's a whole range of quality and styles. 

It's just when you add more hands to the creation of the piece, the identity of the speaker becomes harder and harder to discern.)

Which makes me wonder, when I'm reading poetry or listening to songs written by people I know, at least in the Internet-sense... do I always know when the speaker is the poet, and when they aren't?

Some poetry is so personal that you can't fathom the possibility that it's not about the poet themselves. But are our instincts on that always right?

...If they're not the poet's words, but that of a 'speaker,' that's a little awkward, no?

If you think that a poem is based on life-experience, and it's not... it can feel a little weird. Even if you've only considered it in your own head.

Or worse - if you think it's a character, and it's actually super-personal...

...But, then again, is that worse? I don't know.

Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends is famously about the death of Billie Joe Armstrong's father - the 'me' in this song is Billie Joe.

Billie Joe Armstrong, in profile, singing: Wake me up when September ends
Via Giphy

...But the video is entirely different.

The video gives the 'me,' the 'I,' to a young American soldier, who signed up to the army against the wishes of his childhood sweetheart.

A young man and woman kissing in a field. It's all very cinematic. Caption: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Via Giphy

The video changes the speaker.

...And the rock-opera that it features in - the American Idiot album and musical - has its own set of characters. 

Which changes the speaker again.

...So does all that make Wake Me Up When September Ends any less about Billie Joe Armstrong's father?

And... what does *makes all-encompassing swirly hand motions* all of THAT mean for MY poetry?

There's poetry I've written that is based 100% on my life, my experiences. There's poetry I've written that's entirely fantasy. 

And there's a whole lot of stuff that I've written that mixes reality and fantasy together to some degree.

There's poems I've written where there is no 'me,' but I'm the 'she.' (Third person - just to throw a spanner in the works!)

There's poems I've written and been hesitant to post anywhere (or haven't posted any where,) because the 'I' is not me, but it sounds like it is, to such an extent that I feel fraudulent asking other people to read it - as if I'm somehow claiming experiences and thoughts and a version of myself that I have no right to.

There's a lot of stuff where I honestly don't know which 'I' I am, or whether 'I'm' there at all.

Which 'me' is me? Which 'you' is you? Who can really tell?

(...Makes separating art from artist even harder, no?)

Is this something you ever give much thought to?

Do you find it easy to tell who the 'speaker' is in poetry and/or songs?

Talk to me! 😊💬

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  1. When I was a teaching assistant in a first-year university English course, the students really struggled with finding or identifying the speaker in poetry. I did notice having to correct them multiple times if they said that Shakespeare was the speaker experiencing the events in a poem, and our professor told us that if the students did suggest that the poet was the speaker, they would have to provide evidence to back up this claim. But, identifying the speaker is hard, and is something that I still struggle with!

    1., your professor sounds overly-harsh; there's nothing to suggest Shakespeare *wasn't* the speaker - it's a very real possibility unless and until there's something in the poem to contradict that. We don't have time machines to ask him, after all. ID'ing the speaker can be nigh on impossible with some poetry - and that's OK.

    2. I definitely sympathized with their frustrations because like you said, we don't have time machines and whose really to say who the speaker is. I don't think the prof was necessarily harsh, perhaps just going off of what she was taught which was that we can't assume the poet is the speaker. Poetry is complicated stuff, and I think there should be more wiggle room and fluidity within English university classes to offer differing opinions to who the speaker is. Perhaps that would have made the students enjoy the poetry unit a lot more lol.

    3. We can't assume the poet is the speaker... but we can't assume the poet is not the speaker either!

      Poetry is both complicated and simple at the same time - and you gotta love a good paradox ;)


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