Recently, I heard an engaging and sympathetic poem about a homeless old man. He was run down, shabby, wandering the streets. While listening: I am there, on an avenue in a busy part of the city. I am with the old man. I see his stained corduroy coat, his gray bristled shopworn face, his dirty jeans, and his jagged fingernails. I forget that I am sitting in a chair inside a carpeted room with the heat on. The gray streets, wet with drizzle and busy with colorful streaked cars stare back at me. The old man, as he makes his way through skateboarders, off duty waiters, and bus bench businessmen is a real person with needs, wants, his own brand of pride, a reason for being there – and a reason for living.
The poem then ended with: “Instead of helping him [the old man], I went home and wrote this poem.”
Here is an example of how the poet inserted his writing persona into the piece and ruined an otherwise good poem. A good poem is like a good story in that the reader or listener is transported to a place and situation that they might not have otherwise encountered. The reader may fill in some details from their imagination, but it is the author that puts us there in the first place and gives us a framework.
In this particular case, the ending of the poem has three flaws. We might forgive the first two, but the last one is fatal.
First, a judgment is being made. There is an implicit declaration that the author should have helped the old man, that to do nothing was somehow wrong. This is an entirely subjective attitude and by making this declaration, the author informs the reader of his or her viewpoint. Generally, this is unavoidable since an author’s writing reflects (to varying extents) their worldview, but it is possible to do so in a way that is more artful. For instance, the author could instead let us know how they feel by showing us what they do (perhaps turning their eyes away), and let the reader decide whether this action is right or wrong.
Secondly, the ending of this poem transports the reader into the past. For a few moments, we are in the urgent present with the old man, and suddenly we are thrust away, removing the urgency (I wrote… in the past). There is no more anticipation in the past. Its energy has been consumed. By thrusting the reader into the past, the author has effectively told us that we don’t need to be concerned any longer. It happened, it’s over, there’s nothing we can do about it even if we wanted to.
Most egregiously through, the ending ruins this poem because the poet has suddenly inserted their writing persona into it, reminding us that we are just reading or listening to a poem. We are not on the street with the cigarette butts in the gutter. We are not watching the old man as he walks unsteadily on a loose shoe sole down the sidewalk. We are in a book or on a page or sitting at a poetry reading.
This doesn’t mean that a poet cannot use the first person. Far from it. I can be the old man. I can be a punk rock musician with green hair leaning on a dirty marble wall watching the old man pass. I can be a storekeeper with nothing else to do but look past my vacant aisles out the window to the street.
But when the first person of a poem is the poet himself writing about another person or situation, the reader is now twice removed from the substance of the poem. Instead of finding ourselves in a place or situation where we anticipate both the reaction of others and our own reactions, perhaps suspending our belief as we vividly encounter strange people or places, we are forcibly reminded that none of this is real. It’s only words on a page.
When the poet intrudes in this manner, the reader is cheated or perhaps even affronted. Instead of keeping the reader immersed in the story and place, when the poet jumps in to remind us (whether consciously or not) that we are simply reading (or listening to) a poem/story, we are abruptly and rudely pulled away.
A poet can show us what they see / hear / taste / smell or offer judgments, conclusions, and assertions without reminding us that it is they – the writer – who senses or declares these things.
Whether the reminder is a narcissistic attempt to draw attention to the poet as writing persona, a means to protect the reader from some sort of perceived harm, a desire to assuage the poet’s own fears, or just an unconscious blunder, to insert the poet into the poetry in this manner distances the reader from the substance of the work, and dilutes any poetic urgency that might have been present.