“Who is ‘You?’ – Identification and Importance of the Addressee in Poetry,” by Jillian M. Phillips

The poet’s choice of point of view is just as important as the imagery, diction, or meter. By choosing a speaking direction for their poem, they choose the way the poem will be read. Choosing first person often means that the reader will read the speaker, “I”, as the poet; this can limit their interpretation, and sometimes characterization or intent can be lost because of this assumption. Third person may seem more attractive, but can sometimes disinvite the reader. A sense of disengagement from the observed moment or image is one risk taken by this method because, unless an opinion is stated or a persuasive argument is presented, the reader can easily put the poem away and forget it. Using this point of view, while freeing the poet from having to take ownership of the role of speaker, can feel impersonal. The poet almost needs to work harder to show their intent and invite the reader into the poem because s/he is not “there” to hold the reader’s hand and welcome them.

The use of second person—“you”—is rare in fiction, but is fairly common in poetry. Usually combined with the first person (“you” and “I”), it serves to provide a personal stake in the poem for the reader because they are the physical embodiment of the addressee. Reading the poem, they become a character in it, at least upon a superficial reading. Some argue that using “you” is risky because there is potential to alienate the reader, a sort of “I don’t like being attacked” reaction. However, when used to great effect, the reader gets the feeling of at once being in the poem and observing it.

The use of you, in its many incarnations, begs the question, who is You? Depending on the addressee, a poem can take on various tones and meanings. While the you is sometimes an address directly to the reader from the poet, often the speaker is addressing a third party. When this is the case, the reader must look deeper into the poem, and even the poet, to figure out who You is and what it is about their presence in the poem that makes them important. In fact, it is sometimes easier to understand the intention of a poem once You is identified. By figuring this out, the reader can begin to deduce the mood, tone, even the reason behind the poem. Identification of You opens the door to deeper meaning and stronger emotion, both from the poet/speaker and from the reader.

You can take on many forms. In Susan Yuzna’s “The Radio” You is a lover, in this case a former lover. It opens:

I still have it,
the radio you bought
that time a heroin deal
fell through, and you didn’t know what
to do with the money.

The use of You, combined with a memory, immediately sets up a characterization and a situation: the speaker is remembering someone who bought this radio in a moment of utter confusion. In lieu of the heroin they wanted, they got a radio. This is even somewhat humorous because it is such an unexpected substitution.

By using You instead of “he” or “she,” Yuzna also creates a unique sense of time for the reader; as a reader, they are in the present moment of the speaker looking at the radio and remembering You, and as You, the reader is having the experience of being the one remembered. The utilization of You allows Yuzna to create a simultaneous experience of being in the past and the present. Because You is a former lover, there an intimacy to the memory, and that intimacy can only be achieved for the reader by standing in as the addressee. If the speaker were to refer to her former lover as “he” or “she,” the reader would merely be an observer of one person’s experience, only getting to see how the speaker feels. By becoming You, the reader can identify with both characters. Interestingly, Yuzna’s poem “The Cheerleader” accomplishes a similar duality, but with different perspectives.

“The Cheerleader” is immediately set up as You, but the dual role in this poem is not played by time but by the reader and the speaker; the speaker is addressing herself while addressing the reader. The context of the poem is very dark, the speaker is narrating the experience of being in a sanatorium-like setting:

…And the shrink, his white sheet
of a coat, explaining your self-esteem is low, that’s why

you can’t accept love from a man, he’ll help you learn how—
he’s gone too. Don’t your arms feel like their floating?

As for the roses, there, in the white vase, lift those out
and eat them, one by one, the red, red roses, while you wait.

It is because the voice here is disembodied from its owner that Yuzna is able to create a persona contained within the poem as well as make the reader feel as if they are the mental patient being spoken to. You is being commanded, but because of the presence of the shrink, the suggestion of a sterile environment with “white sheets” and “white vase,” it is intimated that the speaker is talking to herself about life on the inside. It is only the use of You that grounds the reader to the speaker, again because the reader is drawn into the experience instead of remaining an observer.

Another poet that uses You to create duality in an interesting way is Jane Springer. In “Hindsight Ballad: I’d Go Back & Fix Me, If I Were My Own Daughter,” You is not the reader at all, but various incarnations of the speaker. In this poem, the suggestion is that the speaker is addressing her former self, a mature woman recalling her youth, but the use of present tense also creates the sense of a mother shadowing her daughter in the moment.

One body—yours.

Is the hot new jackoff topic in every men’s bathroom. Which makes things multiply.
I see you in black jeans with two holes torn out the knees & a three-stringed
halter that shows what a scant
mile you believe you could walk on your smarts. What you don’t know: No one wants
drunk to hear you recite the high school mercy speech from Merchant of Venice &
dirt road…

…will not lead you to the Julliard your aunt & mother put
money in your savings for—but to a shack small as a four walled dock
& about as stable.

As the recalling self, the speaker tsk-tsk’s over her former actions. She did not know how arrogant she was, even enjoyed being a sexual object to men around her because she thought she would soon be far above them in social rank as a talented student at the best performing arts school in the country. The harsh reality—the small, unstable shack—can only be seen by the speaker who knows what the future really is for You. By using You, the speaker is able to take on a motherly role to herself, indicated in the title of the poem, as if the benefit of hindsight could not exactly rewrite history, but cushion the blow of the present.

In Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy,” the speaker is a daughter addressing her father. While it is generally appropriate to refer to the “I” in a poem as the speaker, Trethewey has widely acknowledged that she is the speaker this poem, written for her father, poet Eric Trethewey. In fact, the poem is dedicated to him. Because of this, the reader will know who You is, so the question becomes: how does that knowledge affect the reading of and relation to the poem for the reader? Just as first and third person separate the reader from the speaker, knowing who You is puts the reader in a position of distance from the poem. Rather than being addressed, the reader is now on the outside of the poem, as listening to a conversation. Trethewey is speaking to her father and the reader is simply there, walking in awkwardly, then away as the poem ends.

However, this sensation is one of the beauties of the use of You. Rather than being told about a moment, the reader, while not in the poem, gets the experience of being there as the conversation happens. While “Elegy” is written in the past tense, as a memory, it is You that makes it a present moment of conversation. The imagery here paints the picture for the reader serves as the impetus for the feeling of being in the moment:

I think by now the river must be thick
with salmon. Late August, I imagine it

as it was that morning: drizzle needling
the surface, mists at the bank like a net

settling around us—everything damp
and shining…

By creating the scene so specifically, Trethewey is using imagery more for the benefit of the reader than her father. He is a part of the memory, and therefore will surely recall it (as he is not dead, as most elegized subjects are). The sensory details—drizzle, mist, a river thick with salmon—envelop the reader just as the characters in the poem are enveloped by them, and it is these details that invite the reader to be privy to the conversation. While the feeling of overhearing a conversation between You and I that one is not a part of can be uncomfortable, Trethewey uses these images and details to ease that discomfort while still continuing the conversation.

It is Tony Hoagland’s use of conversation in What Narcissism Means to Me that creates You. Often, in this collection, You is not directly discussed, but implied. The two poems that best demonstrate this are “Commercial for a Summer Night” and “What Narcissism Means to Me.” Both of these poems invoke you through their use of others as Hoagland recounts his conversations with them:

Greg said, That woman has a Ph.D. in Face.
Then we saw a preview for a movie

about a movie star who is
having a movie made about her,
and Boz said, This country is getting stupider every year.

—“Commercial for a Summer Night”

and Sylvia said that in Neal’s case
narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking.

And Ann,
who calls everybody sweetie pie
whether she cares for them or not

Ann lit a cigarette and said, Only miserable people will tell you
that love has to be deserved,

                                                           —“What Narcissism Means to Me”

By naming the characters in the poem, Hoagland implies a familiarity with his reader, as if they are all friends and the speaker is simply recounting a gathering of friends that the reader happened to miss. While these poems are written in a first person voice (that almost appears third person if particular attention is not paid to the seldom use of “we” and “us”), the overheard conversation is still opened for the reader, just as in Trethewey’s “Elegy”. The difference between them is that Trethewey invites the reader to overhear her conversation with You through imagery while Hoagland provides the transcript in great detail, in a conversational tone. Both poets provide an equally warm invitation, but the reader of Hoagland’s poems is not an invited observer, but part of the poem itself. As stated earlier, third and first person can disinvite the reader from being in the poem, but by making the reader You, even if not referred to directly, they become the most important part. Hoagland is not just writing down his reflections of an experience but telling the reader, You weren’t there, but this is what happened, just as any host would tell a friend who missed the party.

If the reader was always the intended You, then the earlier stated worry about “attacking the reader” would have the potential drastically altering its usage. Using You as a character makes a poem more personal and often lends clarity to the poet’s intention. If Yuzna’s Cheerleader were “she” instead of “You”, the tension would dissipate; the reader would be more likely to feel sorry for her than join her in her delusion, essentially eliminating the carefully crafted disembodied mood of the poem. Similarly, if the You in elegy was the reader Trethewey referred to her intended You as “my father”, the central father-daughter connection would become secondary to her relationship with the reader. By invoking various incarnations of You, the poet creates a new meaning for each reader. You incorporates not just the intended addressee, but the reader as well, and this incorporation is paramount to the poem’s interpretation.


Jillian M. Phillips’s reviews and essays have appeared on the Cellar Door blog, NecessaryFiction.com, and are forthcoming in others. Some of her poetry has appeared in Cellar Door, Jerry Jazz Musician, and NOTA. She is studying poetry at the University of Nebraska’s MFA-in-Writing program.


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