Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The "I" persona

Is the "I" in a short story the author? If the story says
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door.
Did James Joyce do this? (taken from Araby, a story narrated in the first person)

I don't think many would think he did.

So why when a poem is written in the first person, do many readers assume it is always autobiographical?
No doubt Wordsworth did
wander lonely as a cloud

but did Philip Larkin really move into a room that was previously inhabited by Mr Bleaney? link here. I doubt it. But I'd guess he did take a train one Whitsunday, mildly hungover.

Did William Carlow Williams eat plums straight from the fridge? I don't know and it doesn't matter. The poem matters.

In fact, some poets find that the distance of the third person allows them the room to write most honestly about their own lives and experiences. And vice versa.

There's a discussion by the poet Sheena Pugh here
and an interesting discussion here in Slate magazine.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

makes me mad, this assumption that fiction doesn't exist, and everything is true.

In that case, this writer is or has been:

an undertaker's assistant
a man
a boy
a bag lady
nearly dead (oh maybe thats arguably true...)
a shop assistant (actually, I was, once)
a beggar,
a burglar,
inhabitant of a surreal world
a WWI soldier
aWWII sailor
a 16th century religious martyr


dear readers, please stop assuming that just because you have no imaginations, I have none as well.

Michael Farry said...

There is an assumption among many readers/listeners that poetry is in some way "straight from the heart" and so the "I" actually is the poet. The very word "story" in short story seems to suggest that these are "made up". It's a real problem for a poet when he/she wants to write about difficult topics. People can sometimes look at you in a funny way after reading an "I" poem. I often just change the "I" to "He".

Emerging Writer said...

Thanks for your comments. The problem's with the readers then.
Michael, have you written I as she?

Michael Farry said...

I have actually written a few "she" poems, not recently though. Thanks for the idea.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Great comments Vanessa and Michael. Funny, I never gave this much thought. I suppose I assumed readers would know I had never run naked on stage with Three Dog Night back in 1976. Might be why that goofy boyfriend left me.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Not sure it is only with the readers - I have read plenty of interviews with fic writers, in which otherwise intelligent and perceptive interviewers suddenly ask - so which character is 'you' then? As if one must be.

I suppose with poetry, it is slightly different. After all, there is 'narrative poetry' - and one assumes that is story-based in some measure. So perhaps then, the non-narrative sort does come over as the poet's own thoughts...even if it isnt intended to,