Writing the Self in Poems

I read an article by poet Lynn Melnick in the LA Review of Books that questions the poetic “self” in poems. Is the “I” in the poem the same  “I” as the author?  We’ve been taught, through close readings of poems, that the “I” is not the authorial “I” but the narrator’s “I”…a fictional third speaker who voices the opinions, concerns, and feelings of the poem. However, clearly Assata Shakur’s poems from her autobiography work to question this assumption.  If, as we agreed at the end of last class, that Assata’s memoir is not a straightforwardly resolved identity crisis, but a fractured multi-vocal and multi-storied text, then her poems also not only express her voice(s) but also the voices of other underrepresented and oppressed people.

Melnick writes:

  1. Is it ever safe to assume autobiography from a poem? Elegies, for example, almost insist upon it. Are there certain populations that experience the assumption of autobiography more than others?
  2. Is there something inherently wrong with the assumption of autobiography? What are the effects of that assumption?
  3. Who gets to write what stories? Surely white men, most of them straight, have been writing the stories of others for centuries, and much of this we call “classic literature.” Should we be able to write about whatever subject haunts us, regardless of who or what we are?
  4. What makes the voice of the speaker authentic, what makes it phony, and is it ever okay to use certain subjects as easy emotional route markers?

I think point #3 speaks to exactly what we’ve been discussing in class these past few weeks. What stories are told? What histories have we been taught? What makes a writer’s voice authentic? What makes our own voice authentic? How does the poetic voice express the self and also the other?




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