Updates on a Free-Verse Life

3 posts

The Pronoun “I” and Poetry


Two cheers for the pronoun “I” in poetry! OK. One cheer, maybe? The upstanding pronoun has been under attack in some quarters because it seems to make poetry less universal to the reader and more of a diary delight exercise for the poet. But is it, really?

What’s terribly wrong when the “I’s” have it in poetry, anyway? Is it that difficult to identify with the author if it’s all about him or her? In prose, the opposite is true. First-person point of view, a standard from way back, is considered the most intimate, hail-fellow-well-met of all the POV’s and the surest ticket to winning readers over. In fact, after a while, the readers adopt the “I” as themselves. Writer becomes reader seamlessly!

So why should poetry be any different than prose? Is it because first-person poems are so overwhelmingly popular? Is it the hipster syndrome, wherein you rebel against anything the masses take to?

It should be pointed out, too, that “I” isn’t always as simple as it looks. Readers tend to assume the pronoun refers to the poet, but not necessarily. It of course can be a persona poem, wherein the “I” is actually a character of the poet’s imagination, the same kind readers are more used to seeing in novels and short stories. Thus, you would not refer to “the poet” in the poem, but “the speaker” in the poem.

That’s how beguiling the “I” is. It charms, it confuses, it leads you down unexpected turns once your assumptions are challenged.

Hey. My philosophy on poetry is big tent. Want the first-person point of view early and often? Be my guest. How about the present tense? If it works and makes your words more immediate, you have my blessing. A form poem? Very mathematical of you in a poetic way, but it’s a free country. I’ll be cheering from the free verse sidelines! “I” as yourself? It’s legal. As another “I”? Also within the parameters.

Maybe I’m laissez-faire about “I” because of this blog, an exercise in solipsism if ever there was one. Each of these posts is riddled with the pronoun “I.” Were I to count them in this entry, for instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens.

That said, nothing surprises me anymore, including criticism of poor, innocent pronouns with backgrounds that are simply complex. In poetry, a prodigal “I” is cool.

As self-promotion, even studiously undercover, though? Less so. Your poetic license doesn’t cover marketing, but we all have to make a living—or, as they say in poetry circles, NOT make one. Thousands of people read my blog posts. Only the few and the proud have purchased my books.

Over and out, collective I-sorts!



Note: Enjoy writing/poetry/teaching-related posts like this? I don’t ask for donations or that you “buy me a coffee,” but rather that you help me maintain the site while getting something for yourself. This can be done by purchasing one of my poetry collections available on the BOOKS page of this website. When it arrives, read it then give it a home on your bookshelf at home or — if you teach — in the classroom library. Thank you! — Ken C.

The Importance of a Poem’s Title


When unlocking a poem’s meaning, titles are one of the first “must considers” of your process. The wonderful trouble is, a poem’s title is often more than meets the eye. That’s OK, though. Even desirable. Poetry titles that hold multiple meanings are always satisfying to a reader. Even two will do. I’ve been poking around the 700-plus pages of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965 – 2010 and came across a good example:


Lucille Clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.         i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.


There’s climbing (literal) and then there’s climbing (theoretical). Certainly it works on a literal level, but poet and reader easily agree that “climbing” has something to do with desires, wishes, cravings.

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths would warn the speaker off these desires because it only leads to suffering. That and the minor fact that every desire achieved is a temporary state, thus becoming yet another desire leading to yet another state of dissatisfaction. Thus we get the line “maybe i should have wanted less” twice, signifying its importance to the poem’s theme.

Heck with maybes. Certainly we should all desire less. And certainly we’re better off when not comparing ourselves to others (braids, clothes, or whatever), because the ever-changing game is one that never ends.

Our speaker, then, is gaining wisdom of a sort. The kind that comes with age. Speaking of, the capitalized “Sixty” could well be the age ahead. Clifton published this poem in 1992, putting her at around 56 years young, so you can connect the dots and see the speaker’s personal struggle. What struggle specifically? Against “the bowl in me / burning to be filled.”

You might think the last line, “hand over hungry hand,” with its lovely alliteration, signifies that the struggle goes on to become the woman climbing ahead, but it depends which woman ahead you mean.

If that woman is a wiser version of the narrator herself, then yes. The struggle is not for material goods or a physical look or a return to the desire or the dreams of youth. Instead, it is for the ability and discipline to understand the foolhardy nature of these desires, or what some might call a more enlightened state.

As for the reader? Good to know, we think, as we scale our own challenging mountains.

“Navel-Gazing” and Other Writing Hazards: Interview with a Poetry Editor


Today, in our last entry before Christmas, we share the partial transcript of an interview conducted with the editor of a small poetry journal. This excerpt focuses on the controversial concept of “navel-gazing.” 

FVL stands for this website (“Free-Verse Life“), as in some writer looking suspiciously like me conducting an interview. PE stands for physical education. (No, wait! Poetry Editor, I mean!)

FVL: So how much reading do poetry editors and readers get done this time of year?

PE: That depends, but for the most part, very little. Poetry editors are people, too. We’re not Bob Cratchit at a desk wearing fingerless gloves as we pore over bad poetry, feeding it to some cold fire turned roaring. We have families, too. And the Ghost of Shopping Future to attend to.

FVL: Good one. Why, then, does it “depend”?

PE: Because some journals are in such deep holes with their to-be-read piles that they use so-called “free time” to catch up. Thus is a misnomer born.

FVL: I’m not sure I’d want my work to be read during “free time” like that. I suspect Mr. Poetry Cratchit might be a tad grouchy like his boss.

PE: (Laughs) Well, maybe so, maybe so. Kind of like the way we used to insist certain teachers didn’t “like us” and therefore looked at all our work through a red pen darkly.

FVL: Nice allusion. But I’ve been meaning to ask you about something of great interest to poets. Navel-gazing.

PE: Oh, no. Anything but that!

FVL: Yes. Lint and all. Poets are constantly warned off self-obsession and treating on topics of little interest to the masses and much interest to themselves. But I’m unclear about the border between such outlying provinces. Is not the human condition universal?

PE: Of course it is and of course that’s true, but you have to go with your gut. Belly-button poetry, as I call it, announces itself quite well. Have you ever been at a party with people who never ask questions, never stop talking to listen, and just go on and on about themselves and their jobs and their health concerns and their children and — God save us — their pets? It’s a torture most exquisite. It should be banned by the Geneva Convention, but isn’t deemed worthy.

FVL: Wait a minute. Are you describing Facebook or poetry writing?

PE: (Wagging his finger) Such a wise one. Is your name Melchior, then?

FVL: So why can’t a poem about Fido appeal to that huge market out there known as poetry readers who own dogs?

PE: It’s not so much the what as the how. How do you go about it? Belly-button poetry can be killed one if by specifics and two if by abstractions. Too much of your particular pooch and his particular idiosyncrasies and readers will be “hash-tag who cares?” And, on the other hand, too much canine cliché and the reader will be bored by line three. Overly warmed by dryer lint and sleepy with ennui.

FVL: Ah, I think I get it. The advantage seems to go, in this day and age, to political poetry and to subculture poetry. Can one navel-gaze on that front, too?

PE: Yes. Navel-gazing is an equal-opportunity art killer. The poem must speak to the universal human experience in a most particular way. The particular way, however, cannot be a boring way. True, it may be informed by experience and usually is, but it’s all about the vehicle.

FVL: “To a Buick Skylark,” you’re telling us?

PE: Ha! You’re showing your age there! Buick Skylarks went out of production just before the century flipped. I’m sure Percy Bysshe Shelley appreciates the allusion, though.

FVL: So what might be your advice on the navel-gazing front? Something useful for our readers on this site….

PE: Stop thinking about yourself so much. Turn the ego loose for a few hours, like a kid going outside to play in the 60s. Out of sight but not out of mind. Observe the world around you and write about it.  See the ordinary in extraordinary ways. Keep your sense of humor and creative play nearby. Experiment. Read other poets’ work religiously. Read a wide swath of poetry journals religiously. Write the equivalent of questions. Write the equivalent of listening and report it objectively and faithfully. And if you’re going to navel-gaze, for God’s sake do it without being obvious. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider the world and the people around you as belly buttons. Gaze there and reflect on that in your own signature way through your own voice. Does that help?

FVL: It’s a frightening image, actually.

PE: Narrative poetry, too. Humans are hardwired for stories, even yours if they are attached to meaning and universal truths that will have readers nodding their heads and connecting in their own ways. When the “I” in your first-person poems becomes the “I” for readers, you’ve pulled it off. Your “I” is their “I,” and no one’s the wiser—all while your poem “teaches” in its subtle ways. I know this is not exactly helpful, but it’s salutary to just consider the whole idea of self-obsession before writing. Some writers won’t even go that far. They are just writing for the self, for their own ego’s self-massaging. And finally, I would advise that you share drafts with people you trust. Not boiler-plate rejecting editors like me, but people who don’t pull punches, who traffic in “tough love,” which is something every new poem needs.

FVL: Tough love and gut punches. Right in the button de belly?

PE: You got it. Punches to the poem’s solar plexus. Punches that feel painfully good, once the soreness wears off.

FVL: Thanks for sharing your wisdom, sir. A merry and a happy to you and yours!

PE: Thank you!