There's No "I" in Poetry

I was listening to a recent podcast at the Poetry Foundation’s Web site on the “I” in poetry. The critic asserted that since the Confessional Poets (Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, for example) of the 1960s, “I” is the most overused word in poetry. This has lead to an abundance of “me” poetry: me to a lover, me to my parents, me to my children, something bad has happened to me. And it all wraps up in a nice little bow—my relationship to the rest of the world.

So I wonder: is the “I” overused? Have poets lost the ability to write detached, objective poetry? Have we lost our ability to write about the universal? Can we write a poem about things and situations but not have it relate to ourselves directly?

As one who writes in the confessional vein, I welcome the thoughts of writers but especially readers. What kinds of poetry to you gravitate to, more personal poetry (first person) or that which talks about the broader spectrum of the human condition (third person)?


polka dot witch said…
i think there must be a balance between confessional poetry and "other" works in a poets repertoire. he/she must attempt a variety of styles, i think. still, all poetry is personal. none of it is detached. none of it is objective. and the personal is the universal. and every situation relates to us -- if we hear it or see it, and especially if we write it and it comes through us -- it affects us and is part of our world.

that sounds like a rant, but it's not because i know it's in your heart, too. as you said, you write in the confessional vein. it's good, of course, to consider everything that's out there. it's wonderful how sticky language and experience are. a poem is how "I" see things, even things outside my piece of the universe, and because of that alone i think all work is confessional.

(but i like poems best when they come right out and embrace/announce their confessional qualities.)
January said…
Hi Carolee. The question comes out of hearing this podcast and then thinking about my own work. I mean, am I missing another layer to my work by just focusing on the personal. Maybe I should attempt some more topical subjects, or political poetry, or persona poems. Not putting in the “I” is a challenge, but I think leaving it out will stretch me as a poet.

I tend to get self reflective from time to time about my subject matter. Yet being confessional is at my core. It’s what I enjoy reading and writing. But I think you’re right, a poet should have a range in their work.

(I’ve also posted this question at NaBloWriMo just to see if I garnered a different set of responses.)
ka said…
Hi January,

Good topic!

Critics annoy me. Even their name is negative (critic instead of poet’s helper.) ;-)

But I've never been found of grand-sweeping statements like this. "The I is overused." "There's too much nature poetry." Etc. etc.

No, the I isn't overused, just as the he/she/they/we/you isn't overused. Each poem is a choice of perspective, of point of view.

I definitely don't think that poets have lost the ability to write detached, objective poetry, but is that what we are seeking in the poems we read? I'm looking for connection, for insight, for showing me the world in a way I haven't noticed before. I'm not so interested in the POV.

Also, I have always had a huge issue with the term "confessional,"--what were they "confessing?" Especially as many of the "confessional poets" were women. I have always felt the term is another way to quiet the voices of people (many women in this case) from speaking what matters most to them.

Yes, childbirth is bloody and sticky. Yes, we sometimes have terrible relationships with others. We think about death. We have traumas in our life, depression. To me, there is no taboo subject in poetry and any of these can be written about in any POV. It comes down to the craft for me--is it a well-crafted poem?

A lot of my poems come from personal experience, sometimes they don't. Sometimes I write in first person about something I've never experienced, somemtimes I don't. Sometimes I write in *third person* about an autobiographical event, sometimes I don't.

But is the "I" overused? How can it be? It's just a letter, another way to tell a story. Just as there can't be too many kinds of beetles, birds, or leaves, their can't be too many poems with I in them. Some will be wonderful. Others will be terrible. But to make anyone question their use of the "I" is like taking a certain ingredient out of your cupboard and asking you to make every meal it without it. You can do it, but why would any poet want to limit herself?

I gravitate to any poetry that surprises me through language or thought (not poetry that's meant to shock though- we have cable, there's not much that could shock these days) or poetry that shows me the world in a new way. I tend to go allow with whatever POV is used, the overall poem is what I feel connection with.

Thanks for bringing these up. I'm going to continue the conversation on my blog as well.

Hey J! This is one of my favorite arguments. And of course I believe the I is in no way overused. I think poems that don't expand beyond the boundaries of their own conceits are the problem - not the word I per say.

For instance: I saw a poet last night whose work avoids the I at all costs. Every poem is in 3rd person, all the poems ostensibly objective. Some were good, and some were not.

Because in the end, no matter what "person" you use in your poem, if it is only a story of itself and not multi layered enough to meet a reader halfway (with what they bring to the table when they sit down to read) then it is ultimately a failure.

The goal of a poem, I think, is to resonate with a reader. Whether it resonates because of an I, a You, a Me, a She, He or It, or "one" doesn't matter at all.
BLUE said…
hey Jan:

this is a fabulous topic; thanks for posting about it!

i am not one who believes that "I" is OVERused in poetry ... but i may perhaps be a poet who is, as Ange Mlinko said in the Poetry Foundation podcast you reference here, tired of the "I" being used relentlessly in the same way. even if your schtick is to be a confessional poet and unblinkingly tell the raw truths of your particular experience, there are a myriad of ways to pursue that purpose. it does not always have to be done using the confessional "I" as the leading character in the poem.

for the record, i don't necessarily define *confessional* as the blatant use of the "I." if, as a reader, i still get the same information that a confessional poem tends to give me without using the historic signature pronoun, i still get a *confessional* poem.

[i am thinking here of a group of poets from the recent past ... maybe spearheaded by comments made by Jorie Graham -- can't remember where i read them at present -- that in essence indicated she believed black/ethnic poets were too confessional in their works because they told too much about their families and their personal lives.

what would have been more accurate for her to say, i think, is that there was a detectable higher occurrence of the pronoun "I" in some of those works she cited. does that mean, then, that her own works or those of other poets she could stomach were any less confessional? i don't think so. but she seemed to be annoyed by the presence of "I." that somehow made the poetry a little less legitimate than other *confessions* that didn't use "I."]

translation: almost every poem is a confession.

i am also thinking of a ten-year mentorship i had with poet Michael S. Harper, during which time we argued about whether the *stories* i was telling in my work were important. "twenty million people have a story like yours ... it doesn't matter what your story is or that you're the one telling it; it matters *how* you tell the story." it took me a long minute to see his point. i do believe the story you tell matters, but he's right, people will connect to it (and it becomes universal) because of *how* you tell it. otherwise, those twenty million other stories could be told to yawning audiences forever, and the only thing people would remember is that it is that d*mned story again. they would never recall that there was an art in the telling and remember it as THE story.

perhaps what Ange Mlinko is calling on us to do is be more creative about *how* we confess rather than making our poems just about the facts that are revealed in the confession. as a restless mind, i, too, crave that in the current poetry landscape. there simply must be ways to use "I" and be detached, as you say, or objective ... just as there are ways to be confessional without using "I."

so the challenge for me here is how to write poems keeping my "I" but using conceits that don't weigh the poem down with the usual artifacts ... like a singular first-person narrative that can't possibly *see* the story from any other point of view.

i guess i want my "I" to have more eyes when it begins to tell.

kimberley said…
Don't think there is much I can add here - but wanted to speak up because the idea that 'confessional' poetry is somehow inferior makes me crazy.
I like what PWADJ said: "I think poems that don't expand beyond the boundaries of their own conceits are the problem - not the word I per say."

I have some trouble with the words detached and objective. While I don't want my experience to completely color all my perceptions to the point that I'm blinded to other perspectives - I think complete detachment and objectivity are not only impossible, but also not all that desirable. I'll leave the reporting of facts to the journalists.
January said…
This is a GREAT topic! I’m really enjoying everyone’s comments.

Kelly: I agree with you 100 percent regarding the word confessional. It does seem like a label for women poets. I must stop over to your blog to jump into the conversation.

Melissa: Bottom line, I agree that the poem has to be good no matter who the speaker is.

Cherryl: I’ve heard Jorie Graham comments—they still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If I can link to the article, I will.

“Almost every poem is a confession.” That is a powerful statement, which I think gets lost in the discussion. But I think it’s the personal facts that critics like Mlinko want to keep out of poetry, at least to make them less about the poet and more into the realm of the universal. That’s just my take. But I agree that how you tell the story is as important as the subjects themselves. Thanks for dropping by, Cherryl!

Kimberly: Thanks for your comments. There are poets who make their careers from writing detached poetry. And I think a lot of the poetry that gets published in the upper echelons. I’m not saying it’s right or good for poetry. I’m just saying that’s how it is.
January said…
And now a question for the group. Do you think the question of the confessional divides along gender lines? Do women write more confessional poetry while men take advantage of the third person, writing detached poetry?

Also, I'm interested from hearing specifically from males who read and write poetry
Catherine said…
Actually I don't think use of "I" is necessarily a sign of confessional poetry. You can write about someone who is clearly not yourself, and have them be the narrator of the poem - eg it could be about an eighteenth century runaway slave, and because the poem is full of "I" makes it more immediate, but it is not confessional. There is a New Zealand poet who detests confessional poetry, but he wrote a poem about his father which reads like a confessional poem, except that it is entirely made up.
I think it is natural for beginning poets to write about what they know best. We start by drawing on our own lives. And then, because I've studied so much genealogy, I draw on the imagined lives of my ancestors (usually in the third person). Or, I started to draw on my life and those close to me, but fictionalise it a little (which protects the identity of certain people), and then I started to use "you" quite a bit.
I also write about the natural world. And if I examined my poems, I'd probably find a few other themes I return to. Like letters of the alphabet.
I tend to avoid the more extreme forms of confessional poetry, there are things in my life I want to keep private, if I was having relationship issues with someone I wouldn't want to write obvious poetry about it - I've read very good poetry about relationships from those who are divorced, but they have nothing more to lose.
paris parfait said…
I write both kinds of poetry and actually prefer the political or universal poems. Because I think (hope) these types of poems make people sit up and pay attention to conditions they normally would skim over in the newspaper. Maybe they think about things in a new light. Sometimes the news is so terrible and in-your-face, that presenting situations in an abstract way, through poetry, can seem less daunting to some readers.
Christine said…
Hi! I found your site through Polka Dot Witch.

Your question is a good one, because it requires the writer to look at her motives, and what she's trying to express or communicate.

All I would add to the discussion is that whatever we write about, it needs to come from a place of curiosity. AS PDW say, the personal is the universal.

A universe exists inside of us. Some writers look inside, others look out. Either way, a sense of discovery, of a writer exploring new terrain, is what I like to read and write. Pronouns make no difference.
PaulS said…
i'm not sure it's possible to write truely objective poetry. You are always watching the world through your own eyes. i agree though it is important for a poet to write about something other then themselves. Looking always at oneself makes for insular and self indulgent poetry. But the poet is revealed when speaking about other things, can be seen as a distortion in the space between the poem and its subject. Usually in my work the 'I' only occurs if it is a fictional poem written in a fictional characters voice but then again i (again) am polymorpheus perverse.
Ananda said…
hi january. this was a good question for me. lately, i am dipping into more personal poetry. i gravitate towards both confessional and universal. i read poem by mary oliver today at lunch. it was included in the december issue of oprah. it was universal in tone, but contained personal reminders for self. i felt like it was just what my soul needed. anywhoooo.. those are some of my thoughts. i will be back next thursday for more ... maybe in the middle of the week too. peace and poetry, ananda - your i promise poetry buddy
kimberley said…
January - I want to apologize if my comment sounded like I was ranting at you. I know you were just presenting a question about objective and detached poetry. Sometimes I don't realize how tricky this kind of communication can be, I should have been more explicit about where my frustration was being directed.
January said…
Kimberly, not to worry. I'm enjoying everyone's feedback. And I certainly didn't take your comments that way.
January said…
It seems as if the majority of the responses are in favor of the "I," which is nice to see. Yet if we represent a small portion of the poetry population, then why is there such a disconnect between us an the critics?

Any thoughts?
Just because there's an I in there doesn't mean its confessional about the poet's own life. It can be a way of making someone elses life more immediate to the reader. Which is good. I think though any poet needs to have a balance between personal and broader subject matter and between I and the third person.
polka dot witch said…
catherine--i love your reminder about the "i", as in narrator, isn't always the poet. that's an important thing to remember.

and i tried to say this initially, but not very clearly, that even if the "i" isn't in the poem, it's confessional. because the poet is a filter. the colors, smells and textures are presented through her eyes.

this is a great discussion, and your question, january, is interesting. why do many editors scoff at the confessional if so many readers/poets embrace it? does it have anything to do with academia vs. everyone else?

similar arguments exist/ed about free verse vs. formal verse, about prose poetry, etc.

there's a difference between being discerning and pre-judging. i hope most editors know the difference. i wonder if they're worried about what other people think they should like vs. what they actually like/connect with ...
Leila said…
Great topic.
Another question then: where is the political poetry?

If we ask that then, yes, perhaps there is a little too much confessional poetry going around.
January said…
Leila, great comment. People make the argument all the time that all poetry is political, but where is the poetry that talks about social responsibility?

One group/event/site that's trying to do something about it is Split This Rock: There's a festival in March calling poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national community of activist poets. Check it out.
Art Durkee said…
I'll cheerfully be the voice of dissent here.

The problem with "I" poetry is that it doesn't often enough include "you" or even "we." It tends to run over and drown other traditional functions, such as the bardic (news-telling or truth-telling), vatic (prophetic), and transpersonal. It is self-absorbed in the extreme. At its worst it becomes solipsistic, as if nothing outside the poet's own domain was even real. Take that a little further, and it becomes the definition of sociopath.

This is not to say that all "I" poetry is de facto confessional poetry. But even when it's not, it tends to be more about the poet telling the world his or her state of mind, rather than being an experience OF that state of mind, depicted in a poem. As Adrienne Rich once said, more or less, A poem should BE an experience, rather than ABOUT an experience.

I far prefer poetry that is an experience, that pulls one in, and invites one into an experience, rather than a report about it.
Anonymous said…
In all reality, with inherent nature of any artistic expression it is exactly that: An attempt to relay the abstract into concrete symbols in which we hope to gain the empathy and understandings of others.

Even in poems about, for example, nature or the setting of a city - in all its well lauded attempts at being "objective" - is still restricted within our subjective realm intrinsic to our perceptions.

In many ways, to write "objectively" is to seek that which is outside of one's own perception, so to do such would require a certain detachment with reality. This is the closest we, as singular beings, can come to gathering from the collective conscious as a whole.

Feedback? Do please reply.
January said…
Anon, sorry for the late response.

I think all good poetry strives to be objective, but perception is subjective. The reader usually puts into the poem things the author never intended (emotions, background, experience).

I see the “I” as a conduit to get to a higher meaning. For me, doesn’t matter if it’s a retelling or a third-person narrative. If a poem is well written, then it becomes universal, no matter who or what the subject is.
January said…
Art, it is nice when a poem makes that leap to experience. I don’t think poems do that all the time. Nor do I think they have to. I can admire a poem for what it is, even if I don’t feel transported, for lack of a better word. But when I can jump into a poem and become part of the experience, those are the ones that stay with me.

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