“I’m so sorry,” she said. A classmate in the undergraduate poetry writing course in which we were both enrolled stopped me just after class.
“The poem you wrote. About what happened?”
“Oh,” I said. It hadn’t occurred to me that my classmates would think that the events in my workshopped poem, written in first person, had been pulled from my own experience. “Oh, no. That wasn’t me, that didn’t happen to me,” I stammered.
She looked relieved and a bit confused. “Well. Good. See you next time!”
In the many years since, I’ve seen the same happen again and again: readers conflating the narrators of first poems with their authors. It makes sense if you look at which poems and poets the average non-English major (a group including many beginning writers) is exposed to: Whitman’s references to himself in Leaves of Grass, Ginsburg’s in “Howl,” Plath’s poems about her relationship with her father, and so on. Each of these is autobiographical to one extent or another. Because of a strong confessional movement, poetry is often linked in readers’ minds more with memoir than fiction. Rightfully so, in some cases: think of the WWI soldiers who so lyrically and shockingly caught their experiences in poems, experiences too many times softened by other contemporary media.
But perhaps we should, as readers of poetry, insist on shelving first-person poems with fiction instead. (I appreciate the fact that Uncanny, for instance, lists “Poetry” under the “Fiction” menu item.) Conflating the author and the narrator distracts the reader from the experience of the poem: we can go to memoir for the personal, but we come to poetry for other things. In Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, Kenneth Koch touches on this, noting
“[ . . . ] it is also true that one can find out valuable information about past times from a poem, just as one may find out something of what a place is like, or a person. Before one can do this, however, one has to see the poem for what it is, for the combination of words it is, with the music it has, and for the experience it gives.” (p 111).
We have to read the poem as a poem above all else.
The Work of the First-Person POV in Poetry
First-person in poetry can do, essentially, what first-person POV does in fiction. As readers, we relish the feeling first-person lends to the experience of reading, as if we’re being brought into the narrator’s confidence, being told secrets by a stranger. Or we delight in being deceived by the narrator, either intentionally or not. Prose holds no monopoly on either.
Through the use of first-person point of view in poems, there is also an immediacy established right away that would be less easily achieved through third-person. By their nature, poems limit the time we can spend getting into them. Think of YA novels for a moment. Most YA is told from a first-person POV. The form is, of course, very different from poetry, but the aim can be the same: get the reader to connect with the narrator as soon as possible, since there’s limited time to do so.
Thus, the answer to the problem of conflating narrator and author is not to insist on third-person when the narrator is not some manifestation of the poet.
How SF Poetry Gets Around the Issue of Readers Assuming the Poet is the Narrator
So what does all this have to do with SF poetry? We would never assume that the first-person narrator of a SF story is a veiled version of its author; nor would we do the same for SF poetry. By setting poems in some possible-but-not-actual world, poets can get around the issue of readers’ assumptions about their work as being at all confessional. For some writers, having their poems read as autobiographical is a non-issue. Or it may be what they’re aiming for. But for writers who don’t want the waters muddied by the personal, SF offers a rich mode of writing which obviates the problem.
For the reader, and I’m going to say this is the more important part, first-person SF poetry clears the way for enjoying the poem foremost as a poem. We can focus on the language, the music, the imagery, the wit, and so on. We can, since this is SF poetry, appreciate the moves the poem makes within the genre. We can celebrate what it is that we come to poetry for.