It’s been a while since I talked on the blog about the narrator/writer dichotomy, but it’s still a subject that interests me.
Recently, I started writing a column for The Woman Writer (the magazine of the SWWJ – the Society of Women Writers and Journalists). In the article “I”: an invitation to poetry, published in the April issue, I talked about how first-person, present-tense poetry can encourage the reader to empathise and participate rather than simply observe.
Although it’s not a long article, it brings together a number of my thoughts on the subject, so I’ll include it in its entirety here:
Last autumn, I went to a reading from Jenny Joseph’s Persephone, presented by the author herself; introducing the performance, she spoke of choosing to call her narrator “I”, and how doing so includes the reader, who joins in and experiences the story. This chimed with my own tendency to write in the first person even when what I’m writing about isn’t autobiographical: I hope that it will encourage readers to “try on the character” for themselves and to consider views and perspectives they wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
I also like to write in the present tense in the hope that it will make the poem more immediate and atemporal, and in order to avoid limiting the idea to a single actual occurrence. Using the past tense can anchor the piece too firmly to a specific moment – a moment the reader didn’t share, and a third-person poem risks being read as referring to a specific someone – a someone who is not the reader. Both of these techniques can create distance between the writing and the reader.
Often the trigger for a poem is personal experience: it may be something read or overheard, something that crops up today that can be connected through to something half remembered from the past etc. But although our personal experiences may provide the jumping off point, we aren’t limited to reporting “what really happened”. A writer’s real life can be a stepping-stone to poetry and the original kernel is extrapolated and linked with other images and ideas – from experience, research or imagination – to create a finished poem that deals with something beyond simple personal reality.
When the result is a piece written in the first person, even if there are points of coincidence with the poet’s life, the “I” of the narrator may not be the “I” of autobiography at all. Instead the “I” stands for “inclusion”, for an “invitation” to the reader to step inside and to “inhabit” the role of the narrator for the duration of the poem.
Given the reference to Persephone, it seemed appropriate to use a picture of a pomegranate to illustrate this post. Although they grown all over Spain (where the fruit is called called granada), it is one of the few fruits we don’t have around here, so I spent ages looking for a picture taken on a trip to the Old Olive Press near Alicante a couple of years ago before I got the marvellous camera that’s helped me take the close ups I’ve been posting recently.
Then I discovered that over on the quadernodenotas blog – one of my favourites and recommended to any of you who read Spanish – today’s post starts with a much lighter and brighter picture of a pomegranate flower starting to open. So, even if you don’t read Spanish, maybe you’ll like the picture over there.