“It is helpful to change one’s habits to address a root cause” — S. Brook Corman1
Over the last few years, I have been noticing an increasing use of the pronoun “you” in lyric poems, when grammatically the pronoun of use should be “I.” When I first presented on this observation at the 2018 Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Conference, I proposed that this new lyric “you” was being used for two main reasons: one, to project an overwhelming emotion on to the reader (the “you”) so as to disperse the emotional intensity of the speaker/poet; and two, to create a type of bonding experience similar to the social media meme “The feeling when you,” with whatever follows “you” being a common experience between poet and reader. In both cases, “I” would be the proper pronoun to use, instead of “you.” These are two types of lyric “you,” which I will expand on a bit more below, but since then I also notice other uses—“you” as direct address to reader, “you” as part of a poet’s internal dialogue, and a cinematic “you.” Oftentimes, the new lyric “you” simultaneously behaves as a second-person pronoun that addresses the reader or an other and as a first-person pronoun representing the speaker.
I choose to focus on the lyric poem, as this is mostly where I see it occurring, and also because in my above-noted presentation, I focused on the evolution of the new lyric poem. When I use the term “lyric” or “lyric poem” in this paper, I mean a poem that is not narrative, epic, or dramatic. Basically, the lyric poem is atemporal or experiences time differently than how the everyday conscious mind experiences time, and the lyric is often, but not always, the poet turning inward, either in reflection or in imagination, and when the lyric turns inward, it uses the lyric “I.”2 An example of what I mean occurs in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” where the poet turns inward with his anxiety about attending a social occasion and experiences the occasion in imagination’s time. Because of the turning inward, it is as if the poet is talking to him/herself in an “utterance that is overheard,”3 if it is heard at all, which follows in the traditional definitions of lyric by John Stuart Mill, T.S. Eliot, and Northrop Frye. With the new lyric “you,” the lyric poem’s address changes direction and volume.
In some lyric poems, the reader will encounter a “you,” and the person or thing to whom the “you” is referring to is obvious, such as the person or thing addressed in an apostrophe, ode, epistle, elegy, or a lyrical love poem. On other occasions, the poem’s speaker is directly addressing the reader, such as in Jessica Hudgins’ prose poem “Up Days,” which opens, “You won’t believe how I notice things now.” In this instance, the speaker’s poem is not an “utterance that is overheard,” but it is a poem with a speaker who asks, even demands, the reader to listen so the poet can be heard directly. However, there are other times when the “you” is not as obvious.
In Conor Bracken’s poem “The Meniscus that Convex Quivers,” the first 12 of 16 stanzas uses the lyric “you” instead of “I.” The poem opens:
Offshore a storm turns,
howling on its spit of air.
and you flock ravenous
towards order. You wait4 [my bold]
The reader is confronted with determining who the “you” is referring to. Surely, the speaker cannot be telling the reader what he/she is doing, as that would be presumptuous. This use of “you” could be an instance when the “you” is actually “I”—the speaker. The “you” behaves as a conversational substitute, such as when you talk to a friend about an experience you had, but you speak in the second person, as if to make the experience more familiar to your friend. Instead of a poem using the universal lyric “I” as the stand-in for all people, a pronoun the reader can inhabit, this new lyric “you” extends a hand to the reader to become a more active participant in the poem’s experience. The effect creates a type of kinship, between speaker and reader, or in the least it assumes the reader is familiar with the experience. The “you” is reader and speaker and the lines can be read something like, “and you, like I, flock ravenous / toward order. You, like I, wait.” As a result, the “you” is the voice of the poem’s speaker (a substitute for the lyric “I”) while also addressing the reader, and it forces the issue that poet’s poem be heard.
This kinship can be elevated with the new lyric “you” when the speaker conveys a personal and emotional experience that is so overwhelming, the speaker cannot believe it happened to him/her or the speaker needs to diffuse the overwhelming emotion by projecting it on another person or the reader. Here is Taylor Jonson’s prose poem “This is a review for Blue in Green by Miles Davis”:
It’s raining. Has to be raining. Someone in the corner is in love with you. Loves you enough to touch her body, wants you to watch; pull up a chair. The horn asks: How long has it been since? There are a number of feelings youare in need of. you are not sadness, but near. Down one road in your mind you are walking alone; down another everyone is your wife. The horn asks: temperance, obedience. In the corner room, the daybed pressed to spark against the wall, she came. When you leaned in to know about it, youyou wished she would’ve slapped your hand away; wished to unhear your name falling out of her.5 [my bold]
It could be this sexual experience is something the speaker did not want to experience and/or does not want to remember, as evidenced by the last two-thirds of the closing sentence. The use of the “you” could also be a way to avoid the cliched “I” of Confessional poems and/or a combination of both—to make the confessed experience appear as fiction, as something that did not happen. In either case, the speaker is unable to admit it was him/her in the experience, or has a difficult time accepting the experience. Again, the “you” behaves as a first-person account and as an address to the second-person reader, and because of the “you,” it asks the reader to listen intently to his/her utterances.
Another way for the poet to approach an experience is with the use of internalized dialogic “you,” where the “you” and “I” in the poem and are the same person and this person is talking to him/herself. This recalls Arthur Symons commenting on Paul Verlaine’s poetry, when he writes, “he [Verlaine] was occupied with the task of unceasing confession, in which one seems to overhear him talking to himself,”6 which builds on Mills idea of “poetry is overheard”7 and anticipates T.S. Eliot’s, “The first voice is the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody.”8 In these cases, however, what is being overheard is the voice of the lyric “I.” But with the new lyric “you,” what the reader often overhears is the poet talking to him/herself in the second person.
This realization came to me when reading one of Terrance Hayes’ poem in his “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” sequence. In the sonnet beginning, “Otherwise, home is the mess laid bare,” the sonnet begins in the first-person “I.” And then at the end of line 7, it switches to second-person “you” with “If you can / Give the world half of what Nina Simone gave it, / You will have an exceptional life.”9 This is followed by more advice for the “you.” At the end of line 12, the sonnet returns to the first person. But who is the “you” in between the first-person accounts? Perhaps it refers to his “Past and Future Assassin,” which must be one person as “Assassin” in the title is singular. It also might be the speaker himself, as he says in line 13, “So I talk to myself like a witness.” He cross-examines himself, but not like Fielding Mellish cross-examining himself in Woody Allen’s Bananas. Hayes’ cross-examination comes by way of “mutter”s,10 and because he mutters to himself, the poem can only be overheard. There is an internal dialogue with his past, future, and present self(s). It is a lyrical moment, as it transcends time or yokes together all of time in one moment. This might also give the reader a key for how to read the rest of these sonnets in this series and to understand “Like you don’t / Talk to yourself. Like you don’t think God can’t read minds”11 at the end of the “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” that opens with “You are like a pharaoh whose promise to get.” In this instance, the use of the lyric “you” is closer to the traditional lyric “I,” but it is still a “you” that is a standing in for “I.”
Overall, by using the new lyric “you,” the speaker can create a distant and objective point-of-view to view him/herself. It is as if the speaker films his/her experience with a narrator saying, “look at you doing that,” and the tone of the utterance will be based on the psychological and emotional perspective of the character being filmed. The direction of the utterance turns from inward to outward by way of perspective and by invoking “you,” which often asks the reader, the “you,” to witness, inhabit, and listen to the event. As a result, the volume changes from overhearing an internal mutter to a direct request to the reader to listen. I think Perry James in “Parable of the Golem” might have it right—the lyric poet “had to build [him/her]self an other,” a “you” in which to express “the specter of all one’s fears,”12 where “fears” can be a variety of emotions. In the end, it appears that the lyric “you” breaks the long habitual use of the lyrical “I” as the normative mode of internal expression, and it yokes together poet and reader in a new manner of address for a new millennium.
1 S. Brook Corfman, “Yearly,” Indiana Review, 40.1 (2018), 86.
2 This is a simple, working definition of “lyric poem.” In the presentation I gave at the 2018 Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Conference, I proposed that the new lyric poem blends narrative and lyric for different effects, but I will avoid that definition in this paper. However, you can read my presentation here: https://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/2018/04/06/notes-on-the-new-lyric-poem-and-the-lyric-you/
3 Northrop Frye, “Theory of Genres,” The Lyric Theory Reader, edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press), 2014, 32. In this context, “heard” assumes the poem has an audience, while “overheard” assumes the poet is talking to him/herself and maybe someone, almost by accident, hears the poet.
4 Conor Bracken, “The Meniscus that Convex Quivers,” Indiana Review, 40.1 (2018), 2. I will exclusively use poems from this edition of the Indiana Review, as it contains all the uses of the lyric “you” that I have encountered and because the Indiana Review is at the forefront of what is happening in contemporary American poetry.
5 Taylor Johnson, “This is a review for Blue in Green by Miles Davis,” Indiana Review, 40.1 (2018), 19.
6 Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature: Revised and Enlarged Edition (New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1919), 218.
7 John Stuart Mill “What Is Poetry,” Essays on Poetry, edited by F. Parvin Sharpless (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 36.
8 T.S. Eliot, “The Three Voices of Poetry,” The Lyric Theory Reader, edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press), 2014, 192.
9 Terrance Hayes, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Indiana Review, 40.1 (2018), 56.
11 Ibid, 54.
12 Perry Janes, “Parable of the Golem,” Indiana Review. 40.1 (2018), 151.
About Tom Holmes
Tom Holmes is the founding editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, and author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Cave, which won The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Business Relationships Award for 2013, as well as four chapbooks. He teaches at The University of Southern Mississippi. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break. Follow him on Twitter: @TheLineBreak.