Getting Your Poems on the Page: Choosing Your Speaker’s Vantage Point

By Sage CohenSage Cohen

In every poem, there is a speaker-a person or narrator delivering the poem-and a listener-the person receiving the poem. The choice a poet makes about who’s delivering the message or story, and to whom, can significantly impact the reader’s experience of the poem.
 
For example, a poem may tell the tale of the consequences a man’s addiction has had on his life. Depending on whether he’s telling his AA group from whom he’d like support, his boss from whom he’d like forgiveness, his son whom he’s trying to teach not to repeat his own mistakes, or a general audience, the experience of the poem could go in a number of different directions.
 
These possibilities assume that the man who is the subject of the poem is also the speaker of the poem, telling the story in his own voice. Another possibility is that this is a poem about a father, told by a narrator who is someone else: maybe his son, his boss, or his AA sponsor.
 
All of this is to say that any given poem could be approached from a range of vantage points. As the writer of the poem, it may behoove you to experiment a bit with at least a few different ways into any given poem to learn how you want to tell it and how you’d like your reader to hear it.
 
For example, do you want the reader to know from an objective distance that the young lover is anguished with heartbreak? Or do you want to stand your reader in the wobbly shoes of the accused ex who has just emptied every drawer and bank account? Each engages readers differently and gives them a different vantage point from which they participate.
 
Your turn!
 
Take a poem you’ve already written and tell it differently. Let’s say it’s a poem about a particular experience you had, told in an omniscient voice to no one in particular. To create a new slant, you might revise this poem to tell a first-person (I) story to a specific listener-perhaps the person who carried you out of the schoolyard that afternoon-or the person who you wish had done so.  

  • Write a nature scene, perhaps about a snowstorm, in the voice of a child  from her point of view.
  • Write about that same scene from the point of view and in the voice of the snowman she’s built. 
  • Now let the cedar tree standing tall above the scene narrate from its lofty vantage point. 
  • Let us see this scene through the eyes of the guy who drives around plowing snow on his day off.  

Now reinvent the poems by writing about a child in a snowstorm, the snowman she’s built, the lofty cedar tree and the guy driving the plow

 

Writing the Life Poetic by Sage CohenSage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, The Oregonian, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University, co-hosts a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Soapstone residency. To learn more, visit www.writingthelifepoetic.com

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