The "I" in a Poem

January over at the POET MOM blog started a good conversation on the use of "I" in a poem.

She writes:

There's No "I" in Poetry
I was listening to a recent podcast at the Poetry Foundation’s Web site on the “I” in poetry. The critic asserted that since the Confessional Poets (Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, for example) of the 1960s, “I” is the most overused word in poetry. This has lead to an abundance of “me” poetry: me to a lover, me to my parents, me to my children, something bad has happened to me. And it all wraps up in a nice little bow—my relationship to the rest of the world.

Then asks:

So I wonder: is the “I” overused? Have poets lost the ability to write detached, objective poetry? Have we lost our ability to write about the universal? Can we write a poem about things and situations but not have it relate to ourselves directly?

As one who writes in the confessional vein, I welcome the thoughts of writers but especially readers. What kinds of poetry to you gravitate to, more personal poetry (first person) or that which talks about the broader spectrum of the human condition (third person)?

Here's my response--

Critics can annoy me. Even their name is negative (critic instead of writer’s helper.)

But I've never been fond of grand-sweeping statements like this. "The I is overused." "There's too much nature poetry." Etc. etc.

No, the I isn't overused, just as the he/she/they/we/you isn't overused. Each poem is a choice of perspective, of point of view.

I definitely don't think that poets have lost the ability to write detached, objective poetry, but is that what we are seeking in the poems we read? I'm looking for connection, for insight, for showing me the world in a way I haven't noticed before. I'm not so interested in the POV.

Also, I have always had a huge issue with the term "confessional,"--what were they "confessing?" Especially as many of the "confessional poets" were women. I have always felt the term is another way to quiet the voices of people (many women in this case) from speaking what matters most to them.

Yes, childbirth is bloody and sticky. Yes, we sometimes have terrible relationships with others. We think about death. We have traumas in our life, depression. To me, there is no taboo subject in poetry and any of these can be written about in any POV. It comes down to the craft for me--is it a well-crafted poem?

A lot of my poems come from personal experience, sometimes they don't. Sometimes I write in first person about something I've never experienced, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I write in *third person* about an autobiographical event, sometimes I don't.

But is the "I" overused? How can it be? It's just a letter, another way to tell a story. Just as there can't be too many kinds of beetles, birds, or leaves, their can't be too many poems with I in them. Some will be wonderful. Others will be terrible. But to make anyone question their use of the "I" is like taking a certain ingredient out of your cupboard and asking you to make every meal it without it. You can do it, but why would any poet want to limit herself?

I gravitate to any poetry that surprises me through language or thought (not poetry that's meant to shock though- we have cable, there's not much that could shock these days) or poetry that shows me the world in a new way. I tend to go allow with whatever POV is used, the overall poem is what I feel connection with.

* * *

Also, on a side note, it's rather amusing and ironic to me how Elizabeth Bishop is being considered a "confessional" poet now given how much grief she gave Lowell about his poems.


  1. someone will always find something to fight about or rage against in poetry. I think it is what keeps poetry thriving, to be honest. nice post.

  2. I loved your response. I mean, where would poetry be without the "I?"

    Poets have to develop a range, so as long as the poets experiment with other voices and forms, thtat's what keeps poetry interesting for me.

  3. Great post!

    You know, I've never understood the "I" problem--when I'm reading a great poem, the point of view just blends into the poem.

  4. Hooray for the I with sticky fingers, hooray for the I that won't shut up. :)

  5. I am suspicious of generalized declarations like this, too.

    Here are excerpts from two of my favorite poems that use the word in question: “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.” (from Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye) and “This is not an elegy because the world is full of elegies and I am tired of consoling and being consoled” (from The Bait by Jon Davis).


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