Getting Your Poems on the Page: The Power of Pronouns

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen
Point of view orchestrates the reader’s distance from (or proximity to) the speaker. When writing a poem, your first instinct may be to recount your own personal experiences using the first-person, singular point of view-the I. This is a fine approach that can serve a poem well. However, because this is often the most obvious and natural way to go, I recommend experimenting with other point-of-view options to get a feel for how they might benefit a poem.

When you replace I with you in a poem (known as second person), you invite the reader to participate in a new way. You can be read different ways; it can mean “one”-a general, universal point of view-or it can literally mean “you,” thus including the reader in the action of the poem. You can also be a direct address to someone specific: “You left me; how could you?” In this case, the reader may be positioned as an eavesdropper overhearing words directed at someone else-or they may find themselves standing in for that person.

What happens when a first-person experience is transferred to the third person (he/she)? The advantage of the third person is that it gives both the poet and the reader some personal space from the action of the poem. They observe rather than participate. This can create breathing room to write things you might not otherwise feel comfortable expressing.

For example, consider “He wanted to die,” versus “I want to die.” The first person feels immediate and urgent. The third person feels less immediate; we read it less personally.

Your turn!

Write a poem that speaks directly to someone important to you about an experience that you have shared. Imagine there is no reader beyond this person. Then rewrite the poem as if you are describing the same experience for a general audience. Notice which pronouns you choose, and why. How do they serve each version of the poem?

Next, revisit a poem or two that you have already written, considering whether they might have a greater impact by experimenting with a different point of view.

Moving forward, continue to experiment with pronouns to help you find the point of view that best expresses what you want to say while making the depth of connection you want.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

1 Response to “Getting Your Poems on the Page: The Power of Pronouns”

  1. 1 zookbooknook March 18, 2009 at 10:24 am

    This is a great exercise, thank you! It will be my writing experiment of the day. Too often my poems are in the “I” form and I need to work on the “you” and third party form more. My poems feel so personal to me that I naturally go towards first person, but I think the can still be personal in the second or third person, too. P.S. I’m excited to read your book that I pre-ordered on Amazon! Yay! Congratulations!

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