The Pronoun “I” and Poetry


Two cheers for the pronoun “I” in poetry! OK. One cheer, maybe? The upstanding pronoun has been under attack in some quarters because it seems to make poetry less universal to the reader… more of a diary delight exercise. But is it, really?

First off, let’s clear the air about “I” and all its cousins. Why the harsh reception? It’s easy to understand if you try this simple exercise. Pick a person any person (but especially a PUBLISHED person) online and follow his/her social media posts. Track how many times he/she says “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Buy extra paper for the hash marks. Chances are, you’re going to need it.

People (especially PUBLISHED people peddling their wares, which might be construed as an extension of themselves) self-promote both consciously and unconsciously. They studiously pretend not to market themselves as they do just that. I should know. I’ve taken the class (and failed, dropping out of the University of Facebook, but that’s another story).

But what’s terribly wrong when the “I’s” have it in poetry? Is it that difficult to identify with the author if it’s all about her? In prose, the opposite is true. First-person point of view, a standard from way back, is considered the most intimate, hail-fellow-well-met of all the POV’s and the surest ticket to winning readers over. In fact, after a while, the readers adopt the “I” as themselves. Writer becomes reader seamlessly!

So why should poetry be any different than prose? Is it because first-person poem are so overwhelmingly popular? Is it the hipster syndrome, wherein you rebel against anything the masses take to?

It should be pointed out, too, that “I” isn’t always as simple as it looks. Readers tend to assume the pronoun refers to the poet, but not necessarily. It of course can be a persona poem, wherein the “I” is actually a character of the poet’s imagination, the same kind readers are more used to seeing in novels and short stories. Thus, you would not refer to “the poet” in the poem, but “the speaker” in the poem.

That’s how beguiling the “I” is. It charms, it confuses, it leads you down unexpected turns once your assumptions are challenged.

Hey. My philosophy on poetry is big tent. Want the first-person point of view early and often? Be my guest. How about the present tense? If it works and makes your words more immediate, you have my blessing. A form poem? Very mathematical of you in a poetic way, but it’s a free country. I’ll be cheering from the free verse sidelines! “I” as yourself? It’s legal. As another “I”? Also within the parameters.

Maybe I’m laissez-faire about “I” because of this blog, an exercise in solipsism if ever there was one. Each of these posts is riddled with the pronoun “I.” Were I to count them in this entry, for instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens.

That said, nothing surprises me anymore, including criticism of poor, innocent pronouns with simply complex backgrounds. In poetry, a prodigal “I” is cool.

In self-promotion, even studiously undercover, though? Less so. Your poetic license doesn’t cover marketing, but we all have to make a living—or, as they say in poetry circles, NOT make one.

4 thoughts on “The Pronoun “I” and Poetry

  1. atenni

    I, I, I! A lot of my I poems aren’t about me. People just assume they are unless I announce I’m a pencil, a goddess, or Picasso’s sister. I do like to try on other mes. I’ve occasionally switched to “she” or “he” for variety, only to be told by my critique group that it doesn’t work as well.


  2. carter7878

    If the I is in disfavor now, it’s prolly due to the MFA taste for collaboration and distaste for the “heroic” I. It might also be a general reaction against the abuse of the Romantic pronouncement of poetry as the spontaneous overflow of ,,,etc., which turns verse into the unmediated yowling of the unique, individual soul.

    I love using I. It allows me to play with the distance between author and speaker, from none, meaning I am the poem’s speaker to a lot, someone unlike me and not even liked by me.


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