I recently sent a very early draft of a poem to a friend for comments. The piece began:
Catless for too many years, I have forgotten
the building of trust. She spends an hour
pacing, investigating every wall and angle,
exploring draughts from window frames
and under each door, establishing
her points of exit.
Leaving aside criticisms of the participles and the prosaic nature of the verbs – it was a draft, after all – I am interested in the comment that was made after the break on ‘spends’:
Not bad so far, but why present tense?
You wouldn’t write “thee” and “thou”, but the artificial present tense is just as remote from ordinary speech. Why do all modern poets tolerate and perpetrate it?
Thinking about this, I’ve been wondering if there is a ‘present poetic’ tense, that we use – and perhaps over-use – for writing poetry. And the more I think about it, the more I think that for me it may be associated with the first person narrator.
I write a lot in the first person even when what I’m writing about isn’t based on personal experience. This is something I’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog in numerous posts about narrators. I think one of the reasons I write in the first person is because it seems in some ways to make the writing more universal. I like to think it might encourage readers to ‘try on the character’ for themselves and consider views they wouldn’t have otherwise.
A third person poem immediately becomes about a specific character, and that character is not the reader. This automatically creates a distance between the writing and the reader.
I also write most of my poetry in the present tense. I have a vague idea that I decided years ago that this makes it more immediate and avoids limiting the idea to a specific occurrence. The comment made me re-consider. It’s true that I would seldom use the ‘historical present’ in normal speech. So I started to wonder what would happen if I rewrote the piece in the past tense.
I tried re-writing it as if my first-person narrator were recounting something that had happened to her – I believe most of my narrators are female – on a specific occasion:
Catless for too many years, I had forgotten
the building of trust. She spent an hour […]
Somehow, it felt all wrong. Putting it in the past tense, made it sound as if I really was talking about me; the dividing line between my first person narrator and the writer seemed to be breached, and I felt uncomfortable.
So I then tried it as a third person anecdote. Originally, I started with a female character, but immediately got into trouble with the pronouns:
Catless for too many years, she had forgotten
the building of trust. She spent an hour […]
So, as I want the cat to be female, I had no option but to make the human a male character. I also addressed some of the other issues, and the current version reads as follows:
Catless for so many years, he had forgotten
the building of trust. Her visit began
with a meticulous inspection of walls
and angles as she explored the draughts
from window frames and under each door,
establishing her points of exit; she ventured
onto table tops, crept under chairs and bookcases,
hunkering at last, just out of sight, beyond
the offside corner of the couch. When finally
the warmth of fire and cushion-comfort lured her,
she came to him with cobwebs in her fur.
This is better than the earlier draft, but I don’t know how much better or worse it is than the same piece would be written in the present tense.
This has been an experiment for me, and I think I’ve learned several things: firstly, I have been reminded that the first person narrator makes pronoun use simpler; it also occurs to me that by having a first person narrator in most of my poems, I am making it easier for me to later gather them together into sets that can be seen to tell a consistent story, even if that wasn’t the way they were written. This piece with a male protagonist introduces a new character, and I’m not sure where he belongs in the bigger scheme of things.
Finally, I have started to wonder whether my use of the present tense is as much for me as a writer as it is for the reader’s benefit: am I using it as a defensive mechanism that allows me to distance myself from the narrator when I write in the first person?
4 thoughts on “the present poetic”
I happen to like, as a reader, present tense first person narration. In the snippet of the first version, it was like I was there, watching, experiencing. It was unfolding in front of me…Is there a place on this blog to see the full poems? I like your writing very much. :)
I’m not saying I’ll give up first person present tense, but this was an interesting exeriment as it prompted me to reconsider one of the things I’d maybe got too comfortable about.
I think the word I forgot to use about the present tense is that it can help achieve an ‘atemporal’ effect: not a specific ‘this is an anecdote I am recounting that happened to me’, but more a ‘this is potentially a universal truth that could happen to anyone’. Which is why I found past tense, first person uncomfortable.
I’m pretty certain I’ll come back to the topic and discuss it again.
As for the complete poems, well, the blog is more a ‘work in progress’. I mostly include draft, notes and thoughts, though there are a few pieces that go up here when they’ve been published somewhere else, – or when I don’t think any editor would be interested in them so this is the best home they’re likely to get!!
Thanks for your comments.