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Two Essays on Poetry: “Who Speaks the Poem?” and “Toward a Definition of Poetry”

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Speaker in Poetry

Speaker in Poetry

Essay 1: “Who Speaks (or Narrates) the Poem?”

When referring to the speaker of the poem, it is virtually always more accurate and safer to say, "the speaker" instead of "the poet" because the speaker of a poem is not always the poet.

A poem is a crafted performance, a portrayal, or a dramatization similar to a play. The speaker is quite often a created character, just as the characters who are on display in a play are created characters.

Most poets possess a sincere fondness for their poems. They have no compunction about claiming the importance of their life experience, their personal goals, dreams, and heartfelt struggles that inform their poems.

But they still quite often create characters through which to expresses that experience and those struggles.

Thus, the safer answer to the question—“Who speaks the poem?”—is “the speaker speaks the poem.”

Even if the speaker is obviously delving into her/his own feelings and situation, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, it remains more accurate to refer to the speaker of the poem as “the speaker” rather than “the poet,” “Elizabeth,” or “Barrett Browning.”

Speaking through Characters

Some poets may claim that their poems are like their children; thus, it is important to keep in mind that children and their parents are not the same.

Children may, and often do, hold very different beliefs and attitudes from their parents. And a poem's speaker may profess very different attitudes from the poet who wrote that speaker into existence, many times for that exact purpose.

Even though poets are close to their poems, they may not always place biographical information in their poems. Poets may not always reveal their exact beliefs in their poems.

Like playwrights, poets usually create characters through which they speak in their poems.

Readers are not likely to confuse the characters in a play with the playwright. Thus, no one would make the mistake of thinking that Willie Loman, the character in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, is Miller himself.

Miller has explained that the Loman character is, in fact, based on the experiences of one of Miller's uncles.

Yet because Langston Hughes has written in his poem titled "Cross," "My old man is a white old man / And my old mothers black," readers often surmise that Langston Hughes himself had a white father.

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Both of Hughes' parents, however, were black. Hughes has created a character in his poem, just as Arthur Miller created Willie Loman in his play.

The Speaker Is Not Necessarily the Poet

When discussing a poem, the reader is always on more solid ground by refering to the person vocalizing the words as "the speaker," instead of "the poet." A poet can give his character any ideas or beliefs that are necessary for the execution of the poem's purpose.

According to Anna Story, discussing this issue in "How to Tell Who the Speaker Is in a Poem,"

The speaker is the voice or "persona" of a poem. One should not assume that the poet is the speaker, because the poet may be writing from a perspective entirely different from his own, even with the voice of another gender, race or species, or even of a material object.

In his poem, "Cross" Langston Hughes explores the idea of how an individual of mixed race might feel. So he created a mixed race character and let him speak.

Hughes, himself, cannot be testifying as to how that person feels, because he does not actually have the experience himself. But he is perfectly capable of exploring the idea, the "what if" situation that poets engage in quite often.

A Caveat: Observation vs Inner Sturm und Drang

Langston Hughes' "Cross" would likely have been a better poem, had he not chosen to engage the first person. Some issues simply cry out for authenticity that speculation of this kind cannot provide.

Hughes’ message could have remained somewhat similar, but he would have avoided the twofold issue that he would be mistaken for a mixed race individual and that the plight of the speaker remains under a cloud of doubt.

That fact does not detract from what other poets have achieved in their character creation. For example, Emily Dickinson assumes the persona of adult male to express the experience of "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House," and her portrayal remains genuine.

Unlike Hughes’ “Cross,” Dickinson’s speaker is reporting on an observation, not a deeply felt inner turmoil.

Whether the speaker in Dickinson’s poem were a boy or a girl at the time of the observation matters very little, but if the poem had delved into deep seated feelings that the observation caused, it would have been less authentic to speak through the opposite sex.

Inner turmoil can be very differently experienced depending on the sex of the individual. As Paramahansa Yogananda has explained, females are guided more by feeling and males by reason. While both sexes possess the capacity for feeling and reason, in postlapsarian humanity, those qualities need to regain their balance and unity.

Exploration and Creativity

Poets, as well as novelists and playwrights, often explore feelings and thoughts and situations that they have not personally experienced.

They often explore and dramatize beliefs that they do not necessarily hold. For this reason, it is always safer to assume that the poet is creating a character rather than merely testifying, and that s/he is exploring ideas rather than merely elaborating his/her own beliefs, thoughts, or feelings.

Even though the poet may, in fact, be testifying and issuing her/his own beliefs, thoughts, or feelings, it is still more accurate and safer to assume that the poem is being spoken by a created character, rather than by the poet.

Noted Playwright Arthur Miller

Noted Playwright Arthur Miller

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Identifying the Speaker in a Poem

Essay 2: “Toward a Definition of Poetry”

While poetry is more than its form, it is that form that alerts readers that they are encountering a poem. The function of the poem is, of course, more important than the form.


The main function of a poem is to present a dramatization of the life of human emotion; therefore, readers may intuit a poem even when it is camouflaged among a nest of prose.

One can assert logically that such a drama may also be found in novels, short stories, and plays because poetic language may exist in service of even newspaper articles. The piece's form or how it sits on the page then becomes central in importance for determining whether to call the piece a poem or something else.

While a poem may be confused with a song lyric, it is never confused with a novel, play, or short story. A book-length poem is also easily recognized as a poem; no one would confuse John Milton's Paradise Lost with a Shakespeare play, despite the similarity in tone and purpose.

Defining Art

While offering definitive descriptions of any form of art may prove difficult because of the evolving nature of art forms, some indisputable parameters will always delineate a few basic qualities and features that will always follow each art form.

A painting will always be distinguishable from a photograph, and a piece of music will always be distinguishable from noise, despite the attempt by many post-modern charlatans to foist fraud upon their audience.

Painting the words "Yard Sale" alongside likenesses of chairs and sweaters will not fool anyone into calling one an artist, because no one would confuse that sign as a painting despite its use of paint.

Scribbling a few riming words on a birthday card will not garner anyone the label of poet, despite the words that rime.

A basic definition of poetry will have to include the main function of poetry whether it includes any mention of form, and that main function is to display the emotional life of the human heart.

While a poem may also feature the mental musings of the mind, it will nearly always also at least suggest the status of the heart on fire or at cold rest, or any emotional state in between.

A general definition might be, a poem in form and function dramatizes the nature of the experience of feeling as it moves out from the human heart; therefore, poems are artistic representations of how it feels to experience the emotional life of a human being.

Poetry's main reason for being is thus to dramatize human emotional experience. Even though that emotion may be accompanied by information along with feeling, the information remains secondary to poetry's purpose, unlike information in a news report, which exists solely for transferring the information.

"Good Poems" vs Poetry as an Art Form

Interviews with poets usually lead to an attempted definition of poetry. Also when a poet writes an essay about poetry, s/he often attempts to offer a personal definition of poetry.

However, those definitions usually result in a description of what the poet thinks is good poetry, instead of a general definition of the art itself. When Emily Dickinson said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," she was exemplifying what she thought good poetry was.

Quite likely what would take of the top of the head of an Emily Dickinson would leave that top of head in place on a Robert Frost.

Therefore, if one wants a definition of a poem qua poem, one needs to consider as many attempts at definitions as possible, from both those who define good poetry and those who simply attempt rudimentary definitions, such as T. S. Eliot's instructions:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

Eliot attempts to reveal the process of making a poem, but his instruction obviously does not guarantee the production of a "good" poem. Still his notion of an "objective correlative" remains a useful concept for all budding poets.

Most readers have come to expect a poem to look a certain way as it sits on the page with its wide margins. More space usually surrounds the poem as it does not an essay or a play. Also the line breaks alert the reader to a poem, and simply running line together to look like a piece of prose will result in at least a nuance of lost poetic meaning.

Still, it likely much easier to offer a description of what one thinks "good" poetry is than to offer any final definition of poetry. Scholars, critics, and most poetry lovers generally reply on their ability to recognize a poem simply by the old adage, "I know it when I see it."

Yet those same readers can become quite definite when explaining the nature of a "good" vs "bad" poem. And the same holds true to any other art form, whether it be painting, photography, sculpture, or music.

Is a Song Lyric a Poem?

The following excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson is easily recognized as a poem by the way it sits on the page:

The Martyr Poets - did not tell -
But wrought their Pang in syllable -
That when their mortal name be numb -
Their mortal fate - encourage Some -

Even before one considers the meaning of the lines, the fact that it is a poem becomes apparent.

However, is the following excerpt a poem?

Some day some old familiar rain
Will come along and know my name.
And then my shelter will be gone
And I'll have to move along.

That excerpt sits on the page in an almost identical manner as the Dickinson excerpt, but instead of a poem, the lines come from a song lyric by Rod McKuen.

Of course, Rod McKuen, like the serial plagiarist Bob Dylan, considered himself a poet, so it is likely that McKuen would argue that there is no appreciable difference between his poetry and his song lyrics, and critics, however, would argue against any of McKuen's pieces being called poetry.

However, the critics are, again, arguing about what is "good" poetry as opposed to "bad" poetry. And the consensus of criticism on McKuen's poetry is that it is, in deed, "bad poetry," if it is considered poetry at all.

But again, the "good" poetry argument aside, there are definite differences between a poem and song lyric. The difference is not content because songs usually do dramatize the emotional life of the human heart, especially love songs. But ballad lyrics do the same as they narrate a story.

The main difference between a poem and song lyric is the density through the crystallization of thought. The song lyric, because it is accompanied by a melody, usually serves as a vehicle for that melody, meaning that the melody is often far more important to the song than the words.

The song lyric may even employ the same poetic devices as the poem does, but it still must remain loose (perhaps even prosaic) enough to offer at least a modicum of meaning that can shine through the musical accompaniment. And it is true that audiences usually focus more on the melody than the words when listening to a song.

The poem, on the other hand, functions very differently. Only the words and the words alone must enliven the poem. The poem has no musical instrumentation to fill in its possible inadequacies. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge averred, poetry is "the best words in the best order."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 14, 2016:

Thank you, John. Good to hear corroboration from a practicing poet. In her poem, "There's been a Death, in the opposite House," Emily Dickinson's speaker says,

Somebody flings a Mattress out —

The Children hurry by —

They wonder if it died — on that —

I used to — when a Boy —

The speaker is thus an adult man looking back to when he was a boy. By allowing the notion that the speaker is always the poet, one would have assume that Emily Dickinson was transgendered--not so likely back in the 19th century.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 14, 2016:

This is an interesting point of view Linda. I often write poetry about things I have not experienced myself, but they almost always echo my personal view on the subject. Occasionally they will be spoken through a character as in a story but often I am happy to be seen as the poet and speaker.

I do admit though that I have had readers mistakenly think that some events in my poems are things I have gone through myself. Thank you for sharing this perspective.

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