Who Says? Who Sees?

March 14, 2017

I’ve been fascinated by voice and point of view in poems since I started to write seriously.  When I first began to read contemporary poetry, I was disappointed by how much if it was spoken by an I that stood between me and everything going on in the poem.  Disappointed because the older poetry I’d read drew on a much wider range of point of view, including third person.  I felt as if I should be using that I since everyone around me was, but I couldn’t do it then–every poem I started that way got stuck until I changed it to she.  Eventually I found an I I could live with, but once I did I got bored and went back to trying other pronouns.  Now I don’t think about it–the poem speaks, and I listen.  But I notice as much as ever when I read, and I especially love voices that seem to come out of nowhere.  Here are a couple of my favorites.  Please add your own favorite poems that don’t use a first person singular speaker.

Spring Pools

Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods —
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.



Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

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  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 14, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    from Kathleen Flenniken:

    Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg
    Related Poem Content Details
    By Richard Hugo
    You might come here Sunday on a whim.
    Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
    you had was years ago. You walk these streets
    laid out by the insane, past hotels
    that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
    of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
    Only churches are kept up. The jail
    turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
    is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

    The principal supporting business now
    is rage. Hatred of the various grays
    the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
    The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
    who leave each year for Butte. One good
    restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
    The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
    a dance floor built on springs—
    all memory resolves itself in gaze,
    in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
    or two stacks high above the town,
    two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
    for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

    Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
    still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
    so accurate, the church bell simply seems
    a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
    Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
    and scorn sufficient to support a town,
    not just Philipsburg, but towns
    of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
    the world will never let you have
    until the town you came from dies inside?

    Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
    when the jail was built, still laughs
    although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
    he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
    You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
    The car that brought you here still runs.
    The money you buy lunch with,
    no matter where it’s mined, is silver
    and the girl who serves your food
    is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 14, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    There are four stanzas, but the breaks don’t come through here.

  • Reply Corey March 15, 2017 at 3:35 pm


    What if a sleek, grey-feathered nuthatch
    flew from a tree and offered to perch
    on your left shoulder, accompany you

    on all your journeys? Nowhere fancy,
    just the brief everyday walks, from garage
    to house, from house to mailbox, from
    the store to your car in the parking lot.

    The slight pressure of small claws
    clasping your skin, a flutter of wings
    every so often at the edge of vision.

    And what if he never asked you to be
    anything? Wouldn’t that be so much
    nicer than being alone? So much easier
    than trying to think of something to say?

    “Nuthatch” by Kirsten Dierking, from Tether. © Spout Press, 2013.


    Winter Gold

    The same gold of summer was on the winter hills,
    the oat straw gold, the gold of slow sun change.

    The stubble was chilly and lonesome,
    the stub feet clomb up the hills and stood.

    The flat cry of one wheeling crow faded and came,
    ran on the stub gold flats and faded and came.

    Fade-me, find-me, slow lights rang their changes
    on the flats of oat straw gold on winter hills.

    Carl Sandburg

  • Reply Joan Sidney March 16, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    I’m surprised how much trouble I’m having finding a poem without “I.” Here’s one by Joan Joffe Hall which has a few”we [s].”

    Joy of Uncreating

    This is a vision of the joy
    of uncreating:
    a black hole
    sucking in the light,
    light coining aspen leaves,
    daisies, and the tips of grasses
    as it falls
    back in concentric circles
    into a tunnel or a barn door
    or the velvet space
    between trees.
    is clear
    because the light is passing.
    This is the music:
    silence between the notes.
    We are the instruments.
    We know ourselves
    by the silences
    and because the light is passing.
    As the light pulses by
    fence posts sing.
    Some grave formality
    is at hand, some joy
    moving us toward the end.

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