this is another guest post by sarah luczaj, a british therapist and writer, living in poland. she runs an online therapy practice at mytherapist.com and has a poetry chapbook, “an urgent request” coming soon from fortunate daughter press, an imprint of tebot bach. sarah is a freequent commenter on this blog, and a propos poetry month, she contributes these interesting thoughts:
who is the “i” in a contemporary lyric poem? since the romantic poets brought the self onto centre stage, whether self as discovered through opium or as expressed in nature, the sense of poets as those who speak in some whole, organic way, for themselves and maybe also for the rest of us, has remained, despite the best attempts of modernist and post-modernist writers, or language poets, to break up that narrative of “i am – i feel – i write”. sometimes the self who speaks, as is often the case with “confessional poets”, is a damaged one, sharing dark secrets, despair, its own fragmentation and brokenness, sometimes it is inconsequential, entertaining… maybe we no longer expect the truth from our poets, but maybe most of us expect some kind of individuality and authenticity?
having my poetry published has put me on the sharp end of this dry literary discussion more than once. sometimes the problem has been simple – i have written about real situations, and real people, who were not able to ‘get’ the context in which i was writing, and who would probably not have liked it even if they had (mea culpa for writing about village life in the actual village in which i still live!) and quite rightly took it as an insult. i know i am far from alone among poets in worrying about revealing self and others in poems, but maybe an even more prevalent issue for writers for whom the “i” of the poems is not always even connected to the “i” who does the laundry, is that readers take the poems to be the literal truth.
but while the “i” of the poems, the lyric “i”, cannot be identical with the “i” who makes toast, can the two ever be totally disconnected? what is the difference between writing a diary and a poem, and is it really the case that a diary is necessarily more authentic?
in my own work, i sometimes recount events from my own life, sometimes recount episodes from other people’s lives, in the first person, and sometimes i use personas to express a kind of composite story made up of the distilled essence of many stories. sometimes, i know from feedback, the personas seem to have more resonance with readers (more “authenticity”?) than when i speak personally from the heart. in fact readers probably automatically assume that i have experienced what is recounted in the poem first hand.
maybe i have? can i notice something which i don’t already know about? do the things which i hear, see, touch not fuse inside me in a kind of chemistry by which they become inseparable from myself? what is this self thing anyway – and is the act of taking experiences inside and then writing ‘as if’ they were yours not a pretty good way of intuitively understanding it?
this seems to be what we are doing all the time, taking people’s stories inside and being changed by them. it seems to me that there is nothing very pure in ourselves that can be extricated and stand alone, and that maybe this is exactly who we are, the individuality which comes out in the act of writing the ‘poem’ or of speaking as “i”, it is what we choose to use, and what cannot be left out, and what must be left out, and the range of tones which we can enter. the act of distilling the essence, and how we do it. the tones when i am writing as a young girl with an eating disorder and as a middle aged mother, for example, are utterly different. some might recognise that these two poems are by the same writer, probably not knowing how, but picking up something about sentence structure, or use of grammatical forms, or vocabulary, which is consistent and recognisable. others might not. but it is the poem that matters, and the poem is always “true”. the rest is speculation.
as a poet, am i happy when i am always recognisable, with my own distinctive voice, or am i happy when i can carry off another voice so successfully that people feel the realness and mistake it for biographical experience? am i putting on these voices artificially, in some way channelling them, or are they really a “part” of “me”? as i have never written a poem “on purpose” – with the clear intention to convey something in particular which i knew in advance, or fulfil any kind of function with my poem (“need one by an old lady about mortality for p 39”), i can say that for me, the use of personas is not an intentional act of putting on a character. i write poems to find out what can be said about something, and sometimes i find ‘voices’ other than my own, yet also mine. i do not wish to appropriate anyone else’s experiences as mine, or even hold on to the finished product as mine, but the writing of the poem is.
so to go back to the first of this series of questions – who is the “i” in the poem, when i am writing the poem?! the answer is, very often not who you think it is.