"Listen! do you not hear/them? the singing?
William Carlos Williams, "A Unison"
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.
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
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
"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
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."
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
tells you his wife's name. It is Patricia
Say: 'Hey. I am
a very cool person. I am tough.' Show him your bicep."
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.
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.
Wray has been published in Hope Magazine (Spring and Fall, 2000),
and online at Carvezine.com, Eclectica.org, Eyeshot.net. She has
work forthcoming (monologue and prose poem) at nycBigCityLit.com,
CreativeNonfiction.org(Brevity), LinnaeanStreet.com, Pindeldyboz.com
and BigBridge.org. Wray works as a freelance editor, and is on the
editorial board of Fictionline.com.