THE POET’S “I”: DISTANCE THROUGH FIRST-PERSON
by Katie Rensch
In a recent conversation with a group of mixed-genre writers, it came to my attention that we were all writing in the first-person, well, more or less. In fiction, we call the first-person the “main character”, in poetry we say the “speaker” of the poem, and in nonfiction it’s the writer’s name because the “I” must, by definition, be the person writing. We might just call these labels for the first-person simply labels. Character, speaker, writer –is there really any difference? I would like to think the “I,” that one small, vertical line, one letter, was so simple.
Because voice is a basic element of craft we are encouraged to think no true distinction exists between genres. As writers we enjoy the simple rules of voice because it gives us boundaries. We have three choices: first-, second-, or third-person. In my own reading and writing of poetry, though, I have noticed a great capacity for the use of the first-person voice, and I’ve come to understand it as a gesture, one that is possible in all three modes of voice.
Lately I’m drawn to Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971) and the way the first-person voice draws distance between the speaker’s voice and the body, the natural world, and place. In her often matter-of-fact voice, Bishop navigates the geography of our human landscape. In these poems, I find a skilled craftsman who uses the first-person in nearly all her poems –even ones that on the surface seem to be in second- or third-person. These poems expose the ability of the “I” to create both intimacy and distance.
It is no surprise that the two most well-known poems of the collection, “In the Waiting Room” and “One Art,” both employ the most intimate version of the first-person voice. “In the Waiting Room” moves between the “I-then” and the “I-now”. However, these two modes of the first-person are confused between other characters in the poem such as the aunt, the waiting adults, and the women she sees in the National Geographic whose “horrifying” breasts bring her to the pivotal transition of self-awareness.
In the second long stanza, Bishop first confuses her own identity (the child voice of “I-then”) with her aunt’s voice:
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I—we—were falling, falling
A stanza later, Bishop arrives at her moment of self-awareness:
But I felt: you are an I
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Bishop here has taken claim of the first-person voice. She is both the “I” and the “Elizabeth,” a responsible and participating member in the doctor’s office, in society. The first-person voice in this poem is doing more work than simply representing a character. The “I” as identity is a construction of fragmented parts. Elizabeth is Elizabeth, but she’s both her younger and older self, her aunt, a witness and participant. She is the first-, second-, and third-voice simultaneously.
The first-person, then, comes with layers. In a collection of poetry, the writer has an opportunity that I’m inclined to believe other genres do not enjoy. Because of the short nature of the poem, the writer can change the distance of voice, creating an overall, more complex use of voice throughout a collection.
Bishop fluctuates the intimacy of the first-person between poems, but also within. Her use of the parenthetical navigates us to a deeper connection between the speaker and poet, and even reader. For example, the less narrative, more argumentative first-person voice in “One Art” considers how easy it is to lose something we love than to hold on to what we value. In her pithy asides, Bishop writes:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
These asides distinguish the poet from the speaker. The aside is not only the speaker of the poem, it’s also Bishop, the poet, offering herself “(Write it!)” and her own urgencies on the page. Bishop the poet and speaker is multi-dimensional, and through the “I” she can contradict herself, creating a varied voice and textured poem.
If the first-person voice is the most intimate, then the third-person is easily the most distant. Perhaps this is why the persona poem is so popular. The form allows the writer to work through a character while also engaging an intimate voice –the best of both worlds.
“Crusoe in England,” the second poem in the collection, is written through the persona of Crusoe, a character from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. With such an exact and prescriptive title, Bishop does not obscure her intentions, and we immediately understand the “I” in this poem as a more distant version than the one employed in “In the Waiting Room” or “One Art.”
Bishop initiates this distance with phrases such as “The papers say” and “probably,” which indicate a translated experience. However, the “I” does surprisingly assert itself in moments that seem closer to the poet speaking than to Crusoe. Bishop writes:
…………………….. …The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems—well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
The speaker, more concerned with understanding the “bliss” in a poem seems to be an “I” closer to the actual poet than to the experience of Crusoe, but it is this slight step out of the character of Crusoe that allows Bishop to reclaim his experience, to reclaim the “I”.
In lyric poetry, I find it near impossible to negate the individual. The poem inherently celebrates the “I” even if this celebration is through observation. Bishop at times avoids the first-person, but she appears behind her close attention to detail. In these poem, the “I” becomes an implied presence.
As an absent observer in “The Moose”, Bishop takes us on a bus tour that travels from loss to joy, through landscape, and overheard conversation. Bishop withholds the “I”, leading us to initially mistake the poem as third-person. However, Bishop is present as she takes us…
…on red gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,
through late afternoon
a bus journeys west…
It is nearly impossible to stop reading, the beauty of Bishop’s language and tenderness toward sound pulling us through the landscape and down the poem. The presence of the observer is immediate. Without Bishop, there would be no poem. We would not arrive at the moment when the moose impedes the bus’ travel down the road and the poet describes a shared experience of joy:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
Bishop cleverly allows the reader to become a participant of this joy. Her implied presence, that distant first-person, creates space for the reader in the poem. The “We” here is a collective identity that includes the characters in the poem, the poet (even though the “I” never presents itself), and us, the readers.
We might come to think of the third-person in poetry as a false first-person. In Geography III, more poems celebrate the collectiveness of the “we” than the individuality of the self. However, the most striking poems in the collection, “In the Waiting Room” and “One Art”, stealthily use the first-person, and we feel as though Bishop is letting us in on a deeply biographical, intimate moment.
Now when I think of the first-person voice, I do not simply type “I” and understand what it means. This one stroke of the keyboard contains so much possibility, identity, closeness, distance, and variation. Nor had I considered that the “I” was hovering in all of my poems, second- and third-person. It is ultimately the mysteriousness of the “I”, the drive to constantly redefine and fragment our identities, and the terror of lyric poetry, that returns me to the page, to the poem.
Katie Rensch is a poet and essayist living in Minneapolis. She will graduate from the University of Minnesota with her MFA in poetry in the Spring of 2015. She is the founder and CEO of SnailBooks Literary Library, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving readers access to small press books. Her video essay, “A Mind of Winter,” under collaboration with Jes Reyes, was featured in the Altered Aesthetics film festival and will also air on Minnesota public television, winter 2015. Her work is also featured in Luna Luna Magazine, The University of Iowa Daily Palette, and the Des Moines Art Center 2010 catalogue.
Image credit: Ali T on Flickr