on the dangers of writing in “I”

from Carol Frost’s essay “Self-Pity” in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

There are two reasons I have avoided the first-person pronoun. First, readers encountering the “I” may substitute an interest in the affairs and concerns of a presumably real person for the experience of the poem. Second, I may be unable to finesse the language, the image, and the line to clarify the emotion and experience with sufficient variety and force to move the poem toward the universal and memorable.

The first-person pronoun seems the trickiest of all, because of the tendency, in present tense, for a persona to be created whose utterances and behaviors seem too tenderly self-regarding. [In poems with too much self-regard, when we are told the speaker feels deeply but shown no other implicit or explicit motivation] the uses of the first person—look at me, listen to what I want—provide one: this is the way I feel. And think. It’s as if the subject of the poem is the poet’s consciousness and sensitivity.

The verbal contraption Auden said a poem is can tell us as much about the writer as a chair; every turn of the lathe and every peg tells us about the woodworker, even if our main purpose is to rest there comfortably, considering our own affairs. We may ask: Is it made of burlwood or tiger maple? What rough or fine brushstrokes applied the patina of lacquer or oil? What economy, what sense of design is present? The handiwork reveals and teaches us what is essential to about the artist—the state of awareness or remembrance, feeling, intent, proclivity, reason, care, regard, trifle, judgment, and imagination; it doesn’t reveal what is non-essential—whether the trees grew in woodworker’s backyard.

And thinking about the poet as woodworker makes me think of this, from Antonio Machado’s “Portrait,” a plea to remember the vital spirit behind the craft of the poems:

Call me romantic or classic—I only hope
that the verse I leave behind, like the captain’s sword,
may be remembered, not for its maker’s art,
but for the virile hand that gripped it once.

Which I love, in spite of the overwhelming masculinity of that sword and virile hand (egads).

So two different poets, one arguing that poetry does and should reveal the maker’s art, both arguing that poetry does and should reveal the intention and character of the maker.

If you’re a writer too—no pressure or anything. Really.


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