Why First Person is Not (Usually) the Best Viewpoint

Fundamentals of Poetry Writing on Writer’s Online Workshops

Because truth is often based on personal experience-highs, lows, turning points-most poets write verse in the first person, that is, using the personal pronoun "I." But editors dislike poems in the first-person singular for the following reasons:

1. Egocentricity. Poems can succeed in the first-person singular when topics are universally significant: birth, death, divorce. But personal experience is often just that: personal. Poets should speak to the ages, not to their egos, as in this stereotypical example: "I am remembering my first blue ribbon,/ the apple pie I baked and did not eat./ I was boyfriendless and pimply. Then/ I was on stage in the Grange Building,/ being pinned…." Better to write an impersonal lyric about the symbolism of blue ribbons or a third-person narrative about teenage loneliness or even a first-person dramatic monologue in the voice of the fair judge pinning a girl. (More about these and other approaches later.)

2. Passivity. Many poems about significant and universal topics employ a narrator who merely observes a moment or an incident, as in "I watch the farmer struck by lightning in his field./ I see him rise above the rows of corn and yield/ to megajoules of nature. …" Eliminate the "I" here and readers can witness the accident first-hand rather than through a passive filter.

3. Sentimentality.
Ironically, poems about sensitive topics—sex, race, religion, politics, death of children, etc.—often lapse into melodrama or dogma via the first-person singular. Using another pronoun often corrects the problem because it bestows "distance," as if the poet is analyzing actions from an objective viewpoint…

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