I’m a firm believer that poetry isn’t all about sunny situations and pleasant people, which is one reason why it’s particularly important to separate what’s said in the poem from the person who wrote it.
It is, however, often difficult to show a narrator’s inadequacies without the writer coming across as inadequate as a poet or as a person: if you create a convincingly weak character in your writing, it isn’t always clear that the weakness is intentional.
In my poem Packing, I have a narrator who is so stressed out and exasperated with her cats that she threatens to leave them behind when she moves house. Most readers will realise that I really wasn’t advocating that as a desirable course of action, but, as I said when I posted it, some people have had a problem with it.
I’m convinced that it has to be ok for the poet to write about what people really say and do, whether or not their actions and speech are reasonable, desirable, or high-class literature. If we can’t write about real people – who can be nasty, cruel and semi-literate – what are we supposed to write about?
As poets, we are warned to avoid clichés, but people use them all the time when they talk. I’ve written a number of poems where the narrator or principle character – not me, of course! – is a love-sick female whose ideas are really quite trite. I know the clichés are there, but they belong to the voice of the character I’ve created and are, I think, necessary to define that character. The narrator of yesterday’s love poem is one of those lovelorn women, and some of her thoughts are, to say the least, unoriginal.
However, if a poem works technically, and the characters are drawn well, I don’t think it matters if a reader finds them unreasonable/weak/unlikeable etc. If readers find the people in my poems realistically human I’ll be content that I’ve done what I set out to do.