Ginny Wray


"Listen! do you not hear/them? the singing?

William Carlos Williams, "A Unison"

In its urgent need to communicate, poetry must have a listener, a sounding board, a witness. The poet may never know how or even if his work has moved us, but by using the pronoun "you," he draws us in, knowing how easy it is to seduce us, as if with our own cherished names. The poetic "you" may be intimately addressed to another - the poet's lover, parent, or God - and in modern poetry, even to the "other" of the poet himself, his mirror image or shadow. No matter whom it refers to, the hypnotic "you" entices us to join the poet's imaginative experience, perhaps because he might not survive it without us.

I have always been beguiled by poets who say Listen, or Let us go then, or Let me tell you. When William Carlos Williams cries out to his friend, "Listen! do you not hear/them? the singing?" he seduces me into thinking he wants me to hear the undying voices singing in "A Unison." In "Holy the Firm," Annie Dillard writes, "You spill your breath… Breathe fast: we're backing off the rim… We have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild." Yes, yes, I think. I will breathe fast. My time is cloven too, and missile, and wild. I say yes to her, to T.S. Eliot's "Let us go then, you and I,/ when the evening is spreading out against the sky"; I say yes to Walt Whitman's "Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems." Yes, I'll stop with you, I think. And I know he means me when he whispers, "This hour I tell things in confidence./ I might not tell everybody,/ but I will tell you." Oh yes, tell me, I say to Walt, even though he is also speaking to his soul, to the multitudes, to God himself.

The "you" may be unspoken, as in Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light," and yet I know he wants me, he wants you to rage. But the poet doesn't always have me in mind. Nin Andrews says, "I want to tell you one thing:/ you are wrong./ About everything." This "you" is her lover, someone other, quite apart from me, from us, a very particular you, perhaps the same one to whom she writes, "I never made love to you when we made love. Not even once" ("How I Grew Wings"), and again, in "My Aphrodisiac": "Oh yes, men are in heat. Everywhere. Now that you are gone." Nor do I ever confuse myself with the you Emily Dickinson writes to, a you whom she can't live with, saying they must meet apart, "You there - I - here - / With just the Door ajar / That Oceans are - and Prayer - / And that White Sustenance - Despair."

The you whom poets write to may never receive the poems written to them. Mary Karr, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke have all written to the undying you of their dead fathers; most famously, Sylvia Plath would kill the bastard, the Panzer man, Ach du. e.e. cummings' "you," the rider of stallions, the breaker of pigeons, the handsome man, is "Mister Death" himself. And When E.A. Robinson speaks of the dark time ending the dark, "when God slays himself," the poet's need to tell his tale to the other is so urgent that he rises from the grave, from the dead part of himself, to say, "I come to tell you this."

Dead fathers, living but departed lovers, and the reader are separate from the poet, but when he stands at the mirror, he has only himself in mind. In "Amnesia," Charlie Smith says, "look at that:…/
  the patches of rainwet
streaking the backs of thoroughbreds
gathered near the fence can remind you of snow
drying on blankets outside a house in New Mexico,
that spring you climbed into the mountains,
arguing the whole way with your first wife, who, dumbly,
in the last spasm of her tolerance, hung her head
and pretended to listen.
In remembering this episode from his past, Smith addresses himself in the second person as if he were the other, in the way we speak to ourselves in the super-ego voice of our parents, saying, Now look at what you've done, you fool! He splits himself in two; he cuts himself off from his feelings, which may be the only way he can shake off his amnesia and face the man he once was. In his poem, "The Fiddler," he is so separate that even in his present remembering, he is coolly unaffected.
  you ride around the country in an old car,
stopping at beat-up motels…
and you remember your mother, the fiddler,
the summer night thirty years ago after your father
almost killed her…

Why does he say, "your mother," "your father"? If he were writing this poem to his mother, the fiddler, the "you" he speaks to would be his mother, not himself. Smith writes the poem to the boy he once was. He draws closed the curtain and becomes his own father confessor. But while Smith may seem to be confiding intimate secrets, he is still a witness rather than a participant in this drama of his childhood. Now he watches himself as he once watched his parents, but instead of drawing closer to his feelings, he is one step further removed from them. With this uneasy use of the second person pronoun, Smith creates a distance between himself and the reader, just as he creates a distance between the child he was and the poet he's become.

Instead of denying her pain and sorrow, Lorrie Moore looks back and laughs with a cunning vengeance at her past self in her story, "How to be the Other Woman." Written in the style of a instructional manual for the broken-hearted, her comic collection of stories is called "Self- Help," but the self in the title is surely Moore's and not ours. "Meet in expensive raincoats," she says, "on a pea-soupy night… After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him… He tells you his wife's name. It is Patricia… Say: 'Hey. I am a very cool person. I am tough.' Show him your bicep."

The fine details and dialogue make it clear that this is a memory of her own experience, that she has already become the "other woman" of the story's title. Learn from my mistakes, she seems to be saying, so I won't ever make them again.

The second person pronoun has many personas. "You" includes us and sings to us when it means you the reader, the other, the one whom the poet wants to murder or make love to. The uneasy "you" in post-modern literature may seem to exclude us, but we are still intended to bear witness to it. Poetry is, after all, something given, not hidden away in a box under a bed. The self-conscious contemporary writer may set himself apart from his own experience, but even if his writing is addressed to his younger, most vulnerable self - the one who made all the mistakes or suffered all the pain, tough biceps notwithstanding - we listen all the more keenly, like eavesdropping children or jealous lovers, as if to secret whisperings, as if to the singing of God.

Ginny Wray has been published in Hope Magazine (Spring and Fall, 2000), and online at,, She has work forthcoming (monologue and prose poem) at,,, and Wray works as a freelance editor, and is on the editorial board of



Poetrybay seeks fine poetry, reviews, commentary and essays without restriction in form or content, and reserves first electronic copyright to all work published. All rights to published work revert to the author following publication. All Email submissions should be in body of email text.

To submit poems write to:

PO Box 114 
Northport NY 11768
or email us at

send comments to

first electronic copyright 2004 poetrybay. 
all rights revert to authors

website comments to