ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

Posted by on Jun 4, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

The lyric poem, according to Edward Hirsch, has been in practice “for at least forty-five hundred years . . . and is as ancient as recorded literature” (356). In those forty-five hundred years, the lyric poem has expressed personal emotions, experiences, thoughts, and epiphanies through the speaker, who presents herself/himself through the lyric “I.” This makes perfect sense, since when you talk, write, or sing about yourself, you share the experience through “I.” For instance, “I taste a liquor never brewed” from Emily Dickinson’s poem 214; “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day” from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”; and “I took my lyre and said” from Sappho’s fragment 8. These are personal tellings, so the “I” is used, and if a “you” appears in a poem, the “you” is usually some other person the poet/speaker is speaking to (such as in an apostrophe) and a person who is not the reader. But today, the “you” has taken on a new function in lyric poetry.

Over the last few years, I have noticed an increased use of “you” to convey personal experience, as opposed to using the traditional “I” to convey personal experience. Further, this new lyric “you” now inhabits not only the space of the “you the reader” and the plural “you” of a general audience, but it also inhabits the first-person “I.” Often when a poet uses “I,” it is meant to be a universal “I,” where the “I” can anybody who reads the poem. The reader enters the speaker’s emotional being, and the speaker and reader unite. If the poet were to use “you” instead of “I,” it should feel presumptuous of the poet/speaker to tell the reader what the reader is doing, thinking, or feeling. For instance, if Dickinson wrote, “You taste a liquor never brewed,” the reader might step back and say, “No, I haven’t.” And then the reader is kicked out of the poem. The new lyric “you” avoids this aggressively presumptuous behavior and is as inviting as the traditional lyric “I.” For example, Kirby Knowlton’s “How We Live Now”:

They say you can tell if a dog is stupid or not
by if it recognizes itself in the mirror.
In the checkout line where I work, a man
reads the tabloids the week of Kim Kardashian’s
robbery and asks me, what did she think
would happen
. This is how we live now.
I tell my therapist how they bound her hands
with zip ties, the same things Zach E.
and Zack B. looped through a girl’s belt
loop to attach her to her desk in seventh grade,
how often, it’s only your attempt to leave
that informs you of your inability to.
Driving to work that week,
I marked time’s passing by the deer
rotting outside my neighborhood.
By Friday, its body soft and caved in
like a log seconds before it ashes.
Tell me you’ve never abandoned
something just because you could.

For this poem, I am concerned with the bolded “you” forms [that were bolded by me]. The second-person, epiphanic phrase “it’s only your attempt to leave / that informs you or your inability to” ends the sentence that begins in first person, “I tell my therapist.” It’s possible the poet wasn’t paying close enough attention to her pronoun use, but the title of the poem, “How We Live Now,” indicates otherwise. The poem right away establishes a relationship with the reader through “we.” Still the epiphanic pronoun shift is abrupt. However, the poem is attempting to bring the reader into the experience in a new way. The poem assumes the reader has had a similar experience and can easily relate to not being able to leave. The poem then ends in the imperative mood and assumes the reader of having done something, because the poem assumes everyone has abandoned something because they were able to do so. The empathetic tone of the poem, especially in the previous lines of the decaying deer, enables the poem to not be accusative, but embracing. The poet is projecting overwhelming emotions on to the reader, as they are too much for the poet to handle on her own, as evidenced by her visiting a therapist. Whereas in earlier lyric modes that used the lyric “I,” as noted by T. S. Eliot, the poet “is oppressed by a burden which he [or she] must bring to birth in order to obtain relief” (98). This is what the new lyric “you” does, except the poet is not alone in obtaining relief. The poet shares the overwhelming emotion, the burden, with the reader because the poet knows he or she is not alone in a certain type of experience. The lyric poet is no longer writing a poem that will be “overheard” by someone (if anyone), as many critics (as far back as John Stuart Mill’s “What Is Poetry” from 1833) have pointed out. The lyric poem using the lyric “you” directly addresses the reader. It creates a conversation with the reader, but not in a meta way, but in an emotional and therapeutic way. Additionally, the “you” becomes the subject (or shared subject) of the poem, and sometimes is also the object.

According to German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser one of the “three major lyric possibilities of lyric” is addressing (Culler 286), such as addressing a person, animal, god, or thing. The new lyric “you” continues that possibility but with a twist. Instead of addressing a person in a biographical or praiseworthy manner, the new lyric “you” directly addresses the reader with shared sympathy and understanding – it’s assumptive without a bold, assertive presumptuousness. In the end, it’s similar to TFW memes – “The Feeling When you,” and whatever follows the “you” is an action that most know well. The new lyric “you” resides in the second-person singular, second-person plural, and in the first-person. So, if you are writing a poem about a painful experience or an experience you think others can relate to, and/or if you want to speak in the mannerisms of the times (as poets often do), then you might want to consider using “you” as a new way to address your content and readers, as it is the new way for you to connect.

Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics and the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Cave (winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013), as well as four chapbooks. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: Twitter: @TheLineBreak