The conventions of essays being what they are, when I write “I” here, you’ll probably assume that I’m referring to myself. If I want you to think otherwise, it’s up to me to give you some kind of sign.
Maybe you object. Maybe, for example, the whole idea of a self seems like a dangerous and unstable fiction to you. Or maybe you think that the very act of writing distorts the self by forcing it into and through generic and linguistic conventions incompatible with the experience of selfhood as you know it. Fair enough. But I don’t think that would prevent you, in objecting, from writing “Farmer argues….” I’m on the hook for these words and these ideas, and it would be absurd for me to reply that “No, it was the speaker of this essay who said that.” And within the larger conventions of our lives among each other, the ones that entail accountability and obligation, the ones that allow us to meet, to agree or disagree, to act in concert or opposition to each other, to write, to speak, that matters quite a bit. It matters quite a bit to me.
But if, instead, I write
I am referring
there’s a much greater chance you’ll assume that both “I” and “myself” refer to someone else, someone fictional. Even if you don’t assume that, if you’re sufficiently familiar with the conventions of talking about poems, you’ll probably speak as if you do, referring to me as “the speaker.” In fact, given how we’ve been taught to talk and think about poems, those lines have an irony I can’t write out of them, no matter what I add or how I revise them—unless, that is, I put them back in prose.
This seems like a problem. Or: This seems like a problem to me.
I think we’ve done what we often do: we’ve taken a true statement—“in some poems, the person speaking is not the author”—and turned it into a shortcut, without even realizing that we’re doing so. And by now we’ve taken the shortcut so many times we don’t even notice that it sometimes leads us astray.
Here’s a true story: A man wrote and published a book-length sequence of poems in which the speaker describes the death of someone dear to him. He—the author—gave a reading from the book, and afterwards, during a Q&A, someone in the audience offered condolences for his loss, and so the author had to explain, awkwardly, that he had experienced no such loss. Afterwards, someone wrote an essay about this, explaining, based on this moment and others, how important it was that we not confuse author and speaker. Look, the essayist said, where that can lead.
Fair enough. But I imagine another reading, this one by someone who had, in fact, lost their beloved and published a sequence of poems about it. And I think about how strange it would be to preclude such awareness, to offer no fellow feeling there. I imagine referring to the author, standing in front of us, maybe still lit up with grief, as “the speaker.” And I can’t help thinking how strange it is to pretend, while we ask questions about the poems, that we are unaware of the actual grief, the actual person who died.
Here’s another true story: A small child was kidnapped. The white parents of his white mother took him from his black father when he was old enough to retain some ghostly memories of his father, but nothing precise. His white grandfather, a white supremacist, raised him to believe he was white and often abused him, presumably outraged at least in part by the blackness he (the grandfather) could not acknowledge and no one, including the child, could altogether avoid noticing. That child grew up to be an extraordinary poet, writing lines like these about his experience:
Growing up black white trash you grow up wondering you
Wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to
Deserve your skin / You grow up wondering you / You
grow up standing Lord outside yourself and sometimes it’s not bad / You ride
your in your body bike
but no matter how hard you pedal how
Steep Lord the hill you dive down head first almost falling like you’re falling down
Outside yourself stand still
Like how it seemed when you were younger Lord like the world moved beneath
The wheels of the car and car didn’t move
Growing up raised by white
supremacists / You grow up skinned / You make
a puppet of your skin
These lines, by and (I believe) about the poet Shane McCrae, seem masterful to me, but one potential meaning of their mastery depends on the admission that this is a real person talking about what happened to him. These lines, like many in McCrae’s poems, not only embody pain and confusion, they enact the human ability to use language, convention, shared experience, and imagination to channel the currents that can elsewhere cut us off from others. They involve the worst of life in meaning, and in that way they hold open a hope for continuance, if not for healing. They are at once an image of breathtaking human cruelty and a proof of human beauty. If this were only imagination, it would still be masterful, but it wouldn’t mean that—not exactly, not quite.
It matters, similarly, to know that Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is about Robert Lowell—the same real person I have also encountered in many other Lowell poems—even as I know that the scene described here is partly fictionalized (partly borrowed, in fact from a story about Walt Whitman) and that the lines also borrow from and allude to John of the Cross, John Milton, the blues song “Careless Love,” and, more broadly, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” whose form they follow:
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
In one valence, these lines are an inverse of McCrae’s. Instead of gathering speed, they drift away, apparently unmoored. In the span of just eight lines, Lowell trails off four times. You can hear an awareness of his own excesses and register the work that his mind must do to avoid his mind’s accelerations and distortions (alongside, perhaps, the gaps written into his mind by the medication that allowed him to recover from the breakdown the poem describes). It’s worth noting that Lowell did not, in fact, write this in the present tense of the poem. But as with his slightly falsified version of events, that does not undo the importance of the person speaking here being the person writing here, being the person who lived through, more or less, these things.
Here, too, the poem feels masterful. And here, too, the mastery becomes an emblem of our ability to live meaningfully in spite of circumstances that threaten meaning—so much so that those threats become a fundamental element of their meaning, like the high bar that proves the pole vaulter’s achievement. If the person writing here has not survived the breakdown of his mind, it matters less that his mind can orchestrate these lines so artfully.
I wonder sometimes, thinking about that book of poems describing the death of someone loved, why, if the author didn’t want anyone to think that the speaker was him—that the beloved was his—he didn’t do anything to keep that from happening. He could, for instance, have given it a subtitle like “A Novel in Verse” or “A Poetic Fiction,” or he could have made the speaker female or in some other way signaled the separation between the two. He could even have done what John Berryman did when he got tired of people equating him with the speaker of The Dream Songs, and included a note at the front saying, in essence, this isn’t me. One plausible answer is that the separation of speaker and poet is so doctrinal that he saw no need. Another is that he valued the heightened immediacy of the lost beloved, the way a lingering suspicion of her reality shortened the distance his poems must travel to make her real (which is one of the challenges most fictions have to overcome).
If so, that’s fine. Writers have been playing with these lines (and drawing an added charge from their live currents) for a long time. Philip Roth, as just one example, has written fiction about a character named “Philip Roth.” Purity is not the point, which is probably good, since I doubt purity is possible. Even in our greatest intimacies, we are always mediated, multiple, compromised. Even when reading a memoir, most of us recognize a distance between the artistic representation and the original events. And yet many of us choose to read memoirs, biographies, and histories, not to mention newspapers and nonfiction articles in magazines, in spite of the artistic potentials all of those genres and media can impede. We do so, I believe, because we believe in reality (a reality that, of course, includes fiction, that is full of novels and movies and poems and plays with a nearly infinite variety of relationships to reality; and that is only partly knowable, always mediated by the limitations and beauty of our minds and bodies). And because we believe in the importance of not only real events but real people. And we would like to meet them. And we would like to be heard, and understood, by them as well.
There’s a risk in assuming that the speaker is the poet. When I first reviewed Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I hadn’t read anything about it, and I assumed that the stories she told about “you” all referred to her. I was wrong—factually, demonstrably, wrong. Rankine gathered those stories from others and stitched them together through stylistic consistency and a standardized mode of address. It bothers me to have gotten it wrong, and to have done so so publicly, at that. Looking back at the book, I think I should have been able to figure it out just by paying closer attention, and I feel a lingering queasiness that my visible foolishness also means that I misrepresented the experiences of real people—including Rankine—in print. But that matters for the same reason that I think it matters when we fail to see the reality, however mediated or complicated, of an actual person speaking to us through a poem.
As in the other places where we sometimes encounter real people—parks, offices, bedrooms, streets—we will sometimes misunderstand them in poems. Humility matters. We should be wary of too much presumption. We should listen carefully, judge slowly, take care. We should not, however, make the unknowability of others into the sole or primary thing we know about them. And we should not let the risk of making a mistake narrow our sense of possibility or starve us in our hunger for people who are real. We should listen carefully enough to hear a poem when it tries to tell us that the person speaking to us exists.
 And maybe this one, too: “In some poems, poets present fictionalized versions of themselves and their experience.”
 Working in the other direction, poets seem to be adopting a fashion for including the phrase “self-portrait” in the title of a poem, but more often than not, those poems tend to play with the idea of selfhood, displacing self-conception into other objects or beings.
 McCrae, who frequently writes poems about both historical figures and fictional characters has no shortage of means for signaling those differences, even as he filters their imagined (and sometimes actual) speech through his distinctive rhythms and patterning.
 Berryman’s note—which begins “It is idle to reply to critics, but some of the people who addressed themselves to the 77 Dream Songs went so desperately astray (one apologized about it in print, but who ever sees apologies?) that I permit myself one word”—always amuses me, because even if the speaker isn’t him, it’s clearly not not him, either. He’s mythologizing himself there, and so his protestations never quite ring true. He’s putting on a John Berryman mask and then complaining that people call him John. The differences between the face and the mask matter, but they don’t do away with the similarities, as he undoubtedly knew.
Image credit: PickPik