Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant: First-Person Usage in Poetry
...the lyric poet’s images are nothing but the poet himself, and only different objectifications of himself, which is why, as the moving centre of that world, he is able to say "I": this self is not that of the waking, empirically real man, however, but rather the sole, truly existing and eternal self that dwells at the base of being, through whose depictions the lyric genius sees right through to the very basis of being.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Birth of Tragedy"
"I hate writing; I hate art—there’s always something else there. I won’t have you choosing words about me. If you ever start that, your diary will become a horrible trap, and I shan’t feel safe with you any more. I like you to think, in a sort of way; I like to think of you going like a watch. But between you and me there must never be any thoughts." (Eddie to Portia)
—Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
Despite the fact that the terms for the genres of poetry and fiction delineate both as separate from nonfiction, writers are all too frequently visited with the reader’s speculation that the work arose from personal experience and is, to a large extent, autobiographical. This method of interpretation, often verging on Victorian in its application, has been employed with greater frequency since American poetry steered away from the model of the closed form as perpetuated by the New Criticism movement, when the Beat and Confessional poets emerged in the 1950s. And it is natural for one to be curious as to how a literary work corresponds with the life of the artist, but only so because the process of creation is unique to each artist and always a mystery, indeed, probably most of all for its author. But when I consider just such a curious reader, I imagine someone trying to pull a hot-air balloon to the ground only to peer into its basket to find out what makes it float.
In fact, my dog could interpret a poem better than these readers who insist on the literal. My dog doesn’t care if what happens in my poems actually happened to me in "real life." I write poetry because it allows me to step outside the "real world" in which I, the person, must maintain cordial relations with my neighbors, change the litter box, drag fifty pounds of accumulated laundry to the virtual hellhole that is the laundromat, and show up to work. When I regard a completed poem, I relish the fact that I am thoroughly divorced from it. That said, I am also somewhat pleased to discover I’ve tricked someone into believing the world of my poems is "true"; the sensation is akin, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, to feeling as if I’ve picked the reader’s pocket.
However, I find it obvious that the "I" of my poems, when I employ first-person, could never be me. The speaker of my poems couldn’t live in my world: she wouldn’t wake for work, she’d tell the neighbors to shut up, she’d be arrested for public indecency, she’d no doubt be locked up eventually. My life would be far too boring for her to stand for more than fifteen minutes. That’s not to say that her concerns aren’t my own, or that don’t see the inflection of my genes, the language of my dreams, imprinted in her every statement and action. But I can’t write poems without being assured that they will not be understood as autobiography. Inherent in the act of writing for me is a complete lack of censorship where content is concerned. There’s more than a bit of paradox at the heart of this approach. When composing, I feel free to tap into any literal and emotional experience I’ve had; I don’t let myself worry about whether people in my life might recognize themselves in poems I have written. I trust the language of poetry, its rhetoric and its figures, to distort the literal and remove it from the realm of lived experience.
Sylvia Plath, a poet whose extraordinary talent is so often neglected in favor of scrutinizing the facts of her life, articulated these boundaries in an interview:
I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind.
Readers also scrutinize the relationship between the "I" of a poem and its author because it’s a scary thing to contemplate that a seemingly normal person is capable of rearranging, through language, an experience to the extent that one is moved to feel it as his or her own. And there is another fear: readers who have a relationship to an author may be afraid of his or her powers of depiction. In Elizabeth Bowen's 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart, when Eddie admonishes Portia for keeping a diary (which, unbeknownst to her, has been scoured by the very people she’s been writing about), he reveals his fear that he might recognize something unsavory about himself in her vision. And this is why I extract the promise from my writing students that they refrain from showing their creative efforts to their friends, family, or lovers. It’s important for young writers to recognize that they have access to enormous freedoms when they write for an audience outside their social and familial sphere. One cannot learn how to transform visceral experience into art if one writes with the anxious awareness that his or her grandmother may be a potential reader of the poem.
A good poem is like the space shuttle. It enters the reader’s mind and heart like a rocket. On leaving the atmosphere, it drops the launching gear of experience that served as impetus for its creation. Who wrote the poem, the life the person lived or is living, will not matter once the poem takes on a life of its own. We are familiar with the poem that has failed to rid itself of the person who wrote it. Sentiment, cloying love of the self, and damages done to the self cling to the poem like the lingering smell of body odor one sometimes encounters when entering an elevator. The doors close, and while we are inside the poem, reading it to the end (if one does not get off and take the stairs instead) is a claustrophobic experience, a forced cohabitance with a stench that is mortal. Good poems live long after their authors died. Good poems by the living make the lives of their authors cease to matter.