In a Poem, Just Who Is ‘the Speaker,’ Anyway?

The pages of “A Little White Shadow,” by Mary Ruefle, house a lyric “I” — the ghost voice that emerges so often from what we call a poem. Yet the I belonged first to another book, a Christian text of the same name published in 1890, by Emily Malbone Morgan.

Ruefle “erased” most words of Morgan’s text with white paint, leaving what look like lines of verse on the yellowed pages: “my brain/grows weary/just thinking how to make/thought.” (My virgules are approximate — should I read all white gaps as line breaks, even if the words are in the same line of prose? Are larger gaps meant to form stanzas?)

On another page, we read (can I say Ruefle writes?): “I was brought in contact/with the phenomenon/peculiar to/’A/shadow.’” It would be difficult to read Ruefle’s book without attributing that I to the author, to Ruefle, one way or another, although the book’s I existed long before she did.

This method of finding an I out there, already typed, to identify with, seems to me not much different from typing an I. An I on the page is abstract, symbolic, and not the same I as in speech, which in itself is not the same I as the I in the mind.

When an old friend asked me recently if I didn’t find the idea of “the speaker” to be somewhat underexamined, I was surprised by the force of the YES that rose up in me. I too had been following the critical convention of referring to whatever point of view a poem seems to generate as “the speaker” — a useful convention in that it (supposedly) prevents us from ascribing the views of the poem to its author. But in that moment I realized I feel a little fraudulent doing so. Why is that?

Perhaps because I never think of a “speaker” when writing a poem. I don’t posit some paper-doll self that I can make say things. It’s more true to say that the poem always gives my own I, my mind’s I, the magic ability to say things I wouldn’t in speech or in prose.

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