Poking Your “I” Out in Poems

Stephen King reports the most common audience question is, “Where do you get your ideas?” At least, that was probably King, or maybe Margaret Atwood or Lee Child or Ursula LeGuin or Kurt Vonnegut. Mostly, this question is asked of fiction writers.

The question poets face is this one: “Did that really happen?”

Poetry and fiction are equally fabricated, each created from a writer’s aims, ideas, and experiences, and poets use the techniques and elements of poetry, too, to deliver a tale, a moment, a point.

People read poems because the possibility of encountering authentic voices speaking what must be truth seems greater. We assume the narrator, the speaker’s voice, must be the author’s voice. We want to believe, and we believe authenticity is based on actual revealed experience.

Confusing authors and narrators in poetry is a bad idea because the “I” in the poem is rarely the author. The narrator is a vehicle, a voice with which the author speaks, and the words are essentially a script, lines prepared in advance for maximum literary impact.

Poets, to avoid answering this pesky question, just poke your “I” out. How? Write poems in the third-person (I chose the first man to see a rainbow). Assume the identity of a famous, unknown, or imaginary person (I chose the priest at Galileo’s deathbed). Present a narrator who is so flawed that audiences will be afraid to ask (I chose a misguided visitor to Oh-Triple-See).

Authenticity arises from excellence in depicting a moment--setting, scene, and situation--on which the poem focuses, not on whether the facts are verifiable. Poking the “I” out increases the acuity of vision, allowing writers to see and say more of the truth than otherwise might be visible. So, no, that didn’t really happen, but the poem did.

Eric Shaffer