There are poems that won’t let me in. Not enough room.

I don’t know what makes it happen. I only know how it feels. I get to the end of the poem and cast my eye back over it. The poem looks unusually full of words. Chockablock. It sealed over when I got to the end and there doesn’t seem to be a way back in.

Is it to do with the layout? Can’t be. The poem is in couplets with yards of space round them. Is it because it’s written in the first person? No – it uses ‘she’ all the way through. Is it because there’s no ‘story’? Nope. There was a story – something to do with a dog and some washing, I think.

So what shut me out?

Lord knows. Sometimes I think it’s too much ‘I’. At other times, I wish the poet would drop ‘she’ and face up to the first person. 

But if the poem opens with this construction (see below), my heart always sinks:

Walking through the woods on Saturday
I think

which could equally be

On the road from Ceres to Blebo Craigs, I notice


Having drunk three cups of cappuchino and eaten two bath buns
I feel

That construction is opening poems all over the place. It is not fresh. It is not delightful and new. And the ‘I’, it seems to me, is already a poetic ‘I’. It is not me, and I want/need it to be me.

How very different is the start of ‘In Search of Uplift’ by Nancy Mattson which begins like this (and not an ‘I’ in sight):

It was heaven to sit in that shop
at number 28, reading tomes
at a vast table, its buttersoft leather top
stained with ink and sweat

I’m in the shop. That poem is about me.  

When I was at school we were taught about poems with Personal Truth and poems with Universal Truth. Universal Truth was better. There was a lot of Universal Truth in Macbeth but more in Hamlet. Shedloads in Robert Frost. (We didn’t read Sylvia Plath.)

But with this business of inviting the reader in (or not), I think I’m talking about something different from personal v. universal. I like personal truth. But it has to be personal truth the reader can inhabit. The experience needn’t be one the reader has had in person, but somehow she is having it through the poem without too much literature getting in the way. (I mean ‘inhabit’ as in ‘live inside’, as in ‘put on like a garment’, as in ‘invest in’.)

Unless it’s a poem in which she is lumped with an experience she doesn’t like one bit. At the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival recently, Julian Stannard discussed a poem by Frederick Seidel and despite Julian’s persuasive charm, it wasn’t a poem I wanted to be inside. In fact, there are texts that deliberately invite the reader inside an experience that’s abhorrent.

Browning does it in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ when you find yourself identifying with a murderer. But there – because you sense the speaking voice is a mask – not the poet himself – you can be both inside and outside at the same time. You are and aren’t the narrator. Whereas, if you are the narrator (because you’ve stepped inside) and you don’t like being him, and there’s no place to go, you end up totally creeped out and off poetry for days.

So where am I going with this? People talk about ‘authenticity’ a lot. It may be that ‘authentic’ has lost its authenticity. But I’ll risk it. I think there’s an authentic ‘I’ which invites the reader in, and an inauthentic ‘I’ which shuts her out. I think there’s an authentic ‘she/he’ too, and an authentic ‘you’. And that when you read the poem, you know which it is.

The HappenStance reading window opens a week tomorrow on the first day of December (not before). It closes again on Wednesday 31st, but by the 30th I will be tired. If sending poems, do read the revised guidelines. Then push them gently in this direction, without worrying too much about authenticity. Or anything else. Let the poems do the talking.