Over the years, all of us have struggled with the vexed question of ‘who is speaking’ in a poem or in a first person narrative, or in an autobiographical essay. And of course it troubles our students as they read literature, often especially with poetry. You all have your own ways of negotiating this issue. One of the most effective anecdotes I have found is one I have had around for some years, since Robert Pack wrote it and the New York Times published it.
I have found it to be quite effective as one way of helping students come to terms with uncertainties about voice in literature. The anecdote is below. I hope you will find it as useful as I have.
Having just given a reading of one of my own poems, I was delighted when a woman from the audience came to the podium and took my hand in both of hers, in what I assumed was a warm gesture of appreciation and approval. “I feel so sorry for you,” she said; “believe me, I understand.” At first I thought she was commiserating with me for an unsuccessful performance, and then I realized that she must be referring to a poem I had read about the death of “my brother” in a hunting accident. The poem contains the lines: “But at his funeral I would not cry, / Certain that I was not to blame for it.” I apologized to her, explaining that I never had a brother, that I invented the brother for the sake of my poem. If my hand could have been detached at the wrist, she would have thrown it on the floor, so violent was her disgust with me. “You mean you lied,” she said; “you took advantage of my sympathy.”
I didn’t have the wit then to say that is exactly what poems ought to do. Poems tell personal lies in order to express impersonal truths. And even if I had so replied, I doubt she would have been convinced and not felt cheated. The intimacy of lyric poetry seems to invite a response that assumes an autobiographical revelation has been made, that the poet has offered a confession to his reader